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Who Will Be Able to Afford High-Speed Rail Tickets?

Samuel Staley
May 1, 2009, 5:01pm

My new column looks at the high-speed train proposals:

High-speed rail, unlike the Interstate system, isn’t transportation for the masses. Even with the federal government absorbing almost all the capital costs, prices will likely be too high for most Americans to use it regularly.

Today, a three-hour trip from New York City’s Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan to Union Station in Washington, D.C. on the Acela Express, the nation’s only operational high-speed train, will cost a passenger at least $155 each way. That’s cheaper than flying, but still well outside the budget of a typical commuter.

On the yet-to-be-built California system, a one-way trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost just $70 – not this year, in the year 2030 - according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.  Those projected costs are clearly unrealistic.

A detailed Reason Foundation examination of the California high-speed rail plan concluded that the system would need massive taxpayer subsidies to cover basic operating expenses. The due diligence report found "the San Francisco-Los Angeles line alone by 2030 would suffer annual financial losses of up to $4.17 billion." And that’s a $4 billion-a-year loss on what is expected to be one of the most popular parts of the train route.

It’s time for politicians to be realistic: very few people will commute to and from work via high-speed rail or use the trains regularly. These high-speed rail proposals are really catering to business travelers and tourists who already travel by car or use existing commercial airline shuttles between major cities. While this niche market might be robust enough to support a high-fare, rail alternative to flying or driving, all taxpayers shouldn’t be asked pay for it. Asking everyone to shoulder the financial burden of building train lines to benefit a narrow and wealthy segment of the traveling public is just wrong.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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