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

Robert Poole
March 23, 2009, 5:41pm

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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