Out of Control Policy Blog

Is High-Speed Rail Worth It? Is It Really High-Speed Rail At All?

Lisa Caruso, at NationalJournal.com's transportation experts blog, asks:

What do you think of President Obama's decision to make high-speed passenger rail service a centerpiece of his transportation agenda? Is it a wise use of taxpayer dollars to spend $33 billion in the next five years (according to the stimulus and his FY10 budget outline) to make a down payment on constructing a rail network that could take decades to create? Or are there better ways to spend this money on transportation?

My response:

It’s unfortunate that President Obama has made inter-city high-speed rail his “signature issue” in transportation. The $8 billion inserted into the stimulus bill at the last minute has created expectations for Japanese-style bullet trains on 11 long-planned corridors, but those hopes are likely to go unrealized. Moreover, by promoting expanded passenger rail service in these corridors, this policy may hinder many people’s hope of shifting more long-haul freight from truck to rail, as an energy-saving and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction policy.

Let me explain the problem. True high speed rail (HSR) that goes 150-200 mph requires entirely separate rights of way with no grade crossings, shallow grades, very broad curves, and no 60 mph freight traffic. That’s what Japan, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy are doing, and the taxpayer cost is many billions per line. Former Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant, in 2007 House testimony, estimated that an exclusive HSR corridor between New York and Washington would cost $10 billion—exclusive of new right of way (in some of the most expensive urban areas in the country). So it’s laughable to think that $8 billion (even if supplemented by the $5 billion more the Administration proposes over the next five years) could provide more than a small down payment on 11 real HSR corridors, most of them far longer than the 200+ mile New York to Washington one. The proposed California HSR is estimated by its proponents to cost $50.2 billion, but a recent Reason Foundation “due diligence” report put the more likely cost at up to $81.4 billion (see here).

So in fact, what the new federal funding will mostly be used for is upgrades to the existing shared passenger/freight tracks, aiming to get Amtrak trains up to speeds of 90 to 100 mph rather than today’s 60 or 70 mph. But that raises the question of getting the best use out of America’s existing railroad infrastructure. While it’s possible, with lots of passing sidings and expensive signaling systems, to operate both fast passenger trains and slower (and much longer) freight trains on the same trackage, the performance of both is hindered. U.S. freight railroads still have serious difficulties attracting time-sensitive freight, because rail freight takes so long (an intermodal trip from Tacoma to Columbus or Cincinnati takes 7 to 12 days) and is so uncertain (i.e., from 7 to 12 days!). Today’s high-tech, just-in-time logistics system cannot operate with such long times or with large schedule uncertainty, which is why so much freight moves by truck instead of rail.

In contrast with the United States, European countries over the last 50 years have opted to use their railroad networks primarily for passenger service (except for the new, separate HSR lines). If you compare goods-movement in Europe (the 27 EU countries) and the United States, you find that as of 2005, rail carried only 10% of all freight ton-miles in Europe, compared with 41% in the USA. Trucks in Europe handled 45% of ton-miles, compared with 30% here. That different mix of goods transport (other categories include pipeline, inland waterway, air freight, and coastwise shipping) has consequences for GHG emissions. In response to my query, Wendell Cox pulled together preliminary estimates of goods-movement GHGs for Europe and the United States and posted them here. (These are preliminary estimates, and Cox welcomes feedback.) What they show is that the GHG intensity of goods movement in Europe averages 193 grams/ton-mile compared with 155 grams/ton-mile in the United States. In other words, the current U.S. policy of using its railroad network mostly for freight is “greener” than the European policy of using its network primarily for passenger service.

Thus, by putting more 100 mph passenger trains on existing railroads, we risk thwarting the hoped-for shift of more freight from truck to rail.

Update: Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's Response

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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Comments to "Is High-Speed Rail Worth It? Is It Really High-Speed Rail At All?":

Mike Skehan | March 24, 2009, 8:23am | #

Is building High-Speed Rail (HSR) really worth it?

Well, according to our new Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, he’s quoted as saying “Yes, I do, Profoundly.” He goes on to call it a transformational initiative, on par with building the great interstate highway and airline systems, we enjoy. (http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2009/03/is-highspeed-rail-worth-it.php)
The NE corridor gets it, VP Biden gets it, and so does the Pacific Northwest.

Washington and Oregon, through our own DOT’s have been deploying HSR along the Cascade Corridor between Eugene, OR and Canada since 1999. Tilt trains, capable of 125 mph, have been gradually defining a market share and offering an alternative to driving or flying. Results so far are impressive – trains carry many more travelers between Seattle and Portland than do airlines, using half the fuel and producing half the pollution per passenger mile at a lower cost. This is an amazing statistic, considering our fast trains are still limited to just 79 mph for lack of federally mandated safety, signal and track improvements.

Bottom line? We can have both freight and passengers that enjoy the benefits of rail transport.

We look forward to working with Sec. LaHood to offer America an additional option for travel, while reducing our needs for imported oil and polluting our atmosphere less.

Mike Skehan, All Aboard Washington

Nebulor | March 27, 2009, 12:47pm | #

The federal proposed "high speed rail" from LA to Vegas is a ploy for Reid (Nevada), in a right to work State, to bring in union jobs from California (union state). The problem with a State (Fed) union contract jobs is that they will always depend on the tax payers for their wages. This is why California is in debt their infastructure (union) is not self sufficient, even though there are tolls on most bridges and the BART (transit, union) does charge for tickets neither funds are used to pay their employees. In fact the union employee wage is not based on revenue coming in for ticket or toll prices. Nor will the ticket price for the High Speed Rail be a factor for the union wages! The tax payers, either or both State and Fed, will be expected to pay these union wages.

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