High-Speed Rail on Existing Tracks Won’t Be That Fast

My latest column in Public Works Financing:

I am a life-long rail fan who’s gone out of his way to ride the rails on four continents (as well as being a life-long model railroader). But the task of a transportation researcher is to report what’s true, not what he wishes were true.

Let’s begin by getting clear on what is meant by “high-speed rail.” In the United States, this term means anything in excess of 110 mph. The only U.S. train that goes (briefly) faster than that is Amtrak’s Acela service on the Northeast Corridor route; all other current Amtrak lines have a top speed of 79 mph. Nearly all of the 10 corridor proposals in contention for a piece of the federal $13 billion are planning upgrades of existing passenger service to get to 110 mph.

As unambitious as those projects may sound, they are more than capable of absorbing most or all of the $13 billion. These corridors serve a mix of freight and passenger trains, with the former tending to be very long and operating at speeds that seldom exceed 60 mph. To enable 110 mph passenger trains to operate on these tracks will require major upgrades to signaling systems and the addition of passing sidings. And if priority is given to an expanded number of passenger trains, that means the freight trains will spend even more time than they do now stopped on mile-long (or longer) sidings.

And that conflict between freight and passenger service is one of the little-noticed problems with what really should be called “moderate-speed rail.” You can optimize a rail network for freight or for passenger service, but not for both. The current US rail network is optimized for freight, and as a result, rail’s share of US freight ton-miles is about 40 percent. By contrast, Europe’s network is optimized for passenger trains, and as a result, rail’s share of freight ton-miles is only 10-15 percent. Wendell Cox has crunched the numbers and estimated that the carbon-intensity of goods movement is about 25 percent higher in Europe than in the USA.

True high-speed rail (HSR) is represented by the bullet trains in Japan, France, Spain, and Germany, with speeds of 150-200 mph. Those relatively few routes are built, out of necessity, on exclusive rights of way—with wider curves, shallower grades, and full grade separation. That makes their cost much higher than the moderate-speed rail featured in (most of) the Obama plan. A table in a recent Government Accountability Office report on the subject (GAO-09-317) shows the construction cost of recent overseas HSR lines, in 2008 dollars. Except for an outlier in Japan that cost $143 million/mile, they averaged $51 million per mile to construct (i.e., these figures do not include the vehicles). Thus, a 300-mile system would cost $15.3 billion.

Despite various claims to the contrary, the Government Accountability Office found: “In each of the countries we visited, the central government paid the up-front construction costs of their country’s high-speed rail lines, and did so with no expectation that its investment would be recouped through ticket revenues.”

Rest of Column Here

Reason Foundation Study on California High-Speed Rail Plan

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.