High-Speed Rail Won’t Help the Masses

High ticket prices and too few stops and stations will make them trains for the wealthy

“Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city,” said President Barack Obama. “No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, not taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”

Such is the image President Obama painted as his administration launched a nearly $14 billion commitment to start building high-speed rail through out the country. But that imaginary scenario isn’t how high-speed trains will actually play out here in the United States.

Trains embark from terminals on schedules set by train companies, not the riders. Most train stations have parking lots because most Americans don’t, and won’t, live within walking distance of the rail terminal and have to drive to the train station. Riders sit in waiting areas. Many trains, particularly Amtrak trains, are notoriously late, requiring travelers to factor in a time “buffer” on both ends of their destination. Train travelers on overnight trips often check their bags. And, all too often U.S. passenger trains slow and stop on tracks, waiting for freight trains to pass and a green light from the signal indicating the tracks are clear.

One element of President Obama’s description is true: we don’t have to take off our shoes.

Painting implausibly rosy pictures for proposed or pet projects is nothing new. But high-speed rail proponents may be taking this to a new level.

The president, with train commuter Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood by his side, called for “a smart transportation system” that would improve mobility, reduce air pollution, boost productivity and create jobs. “What we’re talking about,” he said, “is a vision for high-speed rail in America.”

But high-speed rail cannot become the backbone of a 21st century transportation system in America. To see why, we only need to compare it to the last truly national investment in transportation: the Interstate Highway System

The Interstate system built a national network of highways and connected every major city center in the country at the time. It boosted productivity by providing 24-7 access to a network of roads that linked dozens of cities within metropolitan areas and hundreds of then vibrant downtowns. Economists have estimated that the economic returns on that investment climbed into the double digits because it dramatically reduced travel times, primarily for freight. Decades later, as wealth and productivity drove incomes higher; the Interstate highways enabled the dramatic expansion of mobility for the masses through more intensive use of the automobile.

Contrast this system with the meager high-speed rail routes proposed in the U.S. The planned tracks connect just a few locations within a state. The California system is planning for one stop in Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million people. There will be stops in a few nearby cities like Burbank and Ontario. The Bay Area houses a population of nearly 7 million people in 101 cities, but is expected to have just five stops: downtown San Francisco, San Francisco International Airport, Palo Alto (home of Stanford University), downtown San Jose, and Gilroy. California’s won’t get door-to-door service or be within walking distance of many destinations.

In the Midwest, the Ohio “3-C” train corridor plans to link the state’s largest metropolitan areas-Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland-with just 10 stops. These metropolitan areas are home to more than 8 million people in hundreds of cities in more than 15 counties. In contrast to the rail plan’s 10 stops, just one Interstate highway, I-71, links hundreds of cities in the Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland metropolitan areas with more than 100 exits. The I-270 beltway circling Columbus, Ohio includes 37 exits alone.

Of course, 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.

Sam Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban and land use policy for Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).