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Reason Foundation

High-Speed Rail in Europe and Asia: Lessons for the United States

The evidence suggests that high-speed railís limited success in Europe and Asia is not transferrable to the U.S.

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 30, 2013

This report studies the prospects for high-speed rail in the U.S., examining how well high-speed rail works in countries like France, Germany and Japan, and how this country differs from Europe and Asia in travel patterns, spatial structure, car ownership and other factors.

From a financial standpoint, things don’t look good. The majority of high-speed rail lines require large government subsidies from both general taxpayers and drivers. Even with generous subsidies, traveling by high-speed rail is still more expensive than flying for 12 of the 23 most popular high-speed rail routes in the world. The evidence suggests that high-speed rail can only be competitive on routes that are between 200 and 500 miles in length.

High-speed rail is also very expensive to build. Most new routes cost at least $10 million per mile to construct. And while operating costs vary, the cheapest European rail line costs more than $50,000 per seat to operate annually. This means that a U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of between 6 million and 9 million people per year to break even. Compare that to the high-speed Acela service, which despite operating in the busy Northeast Corridor averages only 3.4 million passengers per year.

Advocates cite other advantages in support of high-speed rail, but most of these fall apart under close examination:

Finally, there are several factors that suggest high-speed rail’s limited success in Europe and Asia may not be transferrable to the U.S.:

As a result, high-speed rail is best regarded as a luxury this country cannot afford. For far less money, the U.S. could create a world-class highway and aviation system with first-rate bus and airplane service. Now is not the time to experiment with more expensive modes of transportation.

Note: In the initial version of this report, Tables 4 and 6 contained both metric and standard units. Some readers found the presentation confusing, so we have issued an updated version using standard units throughout.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst

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