Out of Control Policy Blog

Will High-Speed Rail End Air Travel of Less Than 500 Miles?

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said, "Let’s end air travel of less than 500 miles."

This isn't the first time we've heard this. It is one of those ideas that sounds nice but unravels once you start looking into the details.

High-speed train proponents in California, the Obama administration, and others have talked blissfully about the time savings that could be provided by taking a high-speed train from city center to city center. That may well be where many people want to go in the Northeast Corridor, but in the South and West, people mostly want to go from suburb to suburb, so the door-to-door trip time is likely to be the same or greater than for taking such trips by plane.

More important, the aviation and highway systems pay for themselves—the user taxes and fees people pay cover the capital and operating costs of airports, air traffic control, and inter-city highways. By contrast, a national system of high-speed rail for trips up to 500 miles would take something like $500 billion of taxpayers’ money. And after that massive subsidy, maybe the operating costs would be recovered from passenger fares (though even that is doubtful, based on overseas experience). Reason's analysis of the California high-speed rail proposal found "the San Francisco-Los Angeles line alone by 2030 would suffer annual financial losses of up to $4.17 billion."

As for carbon footprints, by the time (say 30 years from now) that such a high-speed rail network could be completed and in operation, both cars and planes will be dramatically less carbon-intensive, while trains (as long-lived investments) will likely have the same carbon footprint as they have today. So the next greenhouse gas reductions from the rail network would be very modest—and achieved at a massive cost per ton of CO2 reduced.

Reason Foundation's Due Diligence Report on the California High-Speed Rail Plan

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

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Comments to "Will High-Speed Rail End Air Travel of Less Than 500 Miles?":

Justen | April 24, 2009, 4:54pm | #

Just one point: a high-speed electric rail would gain whatever carbon emission savings the power source gained. So if it is built today on a coal-based grid but completed in 30 years on a nuclear grid its carbon emissions will be virtually nothing. Even in a fuel-burning train the engines could be upgraded or traded out in the future with more efficient systems, and would as older engines were phased out for newer ones. I don't get where you're even coming from with that assumption actually, maybe you could clarify?

The rest of the article I have no argument with.

Sheldon | August 9, 2009, 12:21am | #

The statement about carbon emissions of HSR is puzzling given that they use electricity which will gradually get less carbon intensive over time as renewable energy deployment progresses. I cannot envision aircraft being significantly less carbon intensive as they will always need liquid fuel. It is a struggle to even get 20 percent efficiency gains. Look at what is happening to the 787 as they tried to push the envelope for efficiency.

The other statement about door to door times is also puzzling. HSR will have more stations, which will be more accessible as they are more likely to be served by transit and should offer much shorter access times compared to the single airport or second airport in the region.

The other comment about other modes paying for themselves is utter fallacy. Remember last year; the highway trust fund actually ran out as gas tax revenue was insufficient to cover costs. Money from non-transportation general taxes had to be brought in. By the way, local roads are not covered by gas taxes but sales, property and other taxes.

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