High-Speed Rail…Reality Check?

Neal Peirce’s most recent column for the Washington Post Writer’s Group focuses on the Obama Administration’s commitment to high-speed rail. On the one hand, Peirce at least acknowledges that the hype doesn’t come anywhere close to the reality of what we will get with the $13 billion federal commitment:

So it’s a safe bet the vast majority of the $13 billion in new rail funding the administration has so far identified won’t go for 133-mile per hour marvels like France’s TVG. Or Japan’s 180-m.p.h Shinkansen (a line I recall riding, with wonder, fully 32 years ago).

Realistically, most of the early Obama train dollars will go for better track signals, upgrading or adding extra tracks to existing rail corridors.

Unfortunately, Mr. Peirce still doesn’t seem to understand the achille’s heel of high-speed rail: it won’t address is a significant or meaningful way any of the things he cares about. Only the most ideological advocates of high-speed rail make claims that intercity rail will seriously reduce carbon emissions, improve congestion, or reduce our dependence on foriegn oil. Even under the rosiest scenarios, high-speed rail won’t take enough cars off the road to make that kind of dent.

Still, Mr. Peirce doesn’t seem to be concerned about objective studies such as the Reason Foundation’s due diligence report on the California rail initiatve that cast serious doubt on high speed rail proposals. To be successful, high-speed rail proposals rely on several questionable assumptions about ridership, network connectivity, and performance. He writes:

But a robust American rail system is about more than tracks and train sets. It will make us less oil dependent, undergirding our national security. It will lower our carbon emissions. And it can contribute in a big way to the mobility and economic health of the “megaregions” where most Americans now live.

A prime example: the prospect of a Chicago-centered “hub and spoke” rail system to serve the Midwest. With top train speeds increased to 110 miles an hour, two hours would be trimmed off the Chicago-Detroit or Chicago-Cleveland runs. Equally vital: the convenience of frequent service. Chicago-Detroit daily round trips would rise from three to nine, for example, and Chicago-Milwaukee service from eight to 17.

But it’s not just major cities that would benefit. Think of the connectivity that could be delivered to such smaller cities as Peoria and Springfield in Illinois, Lansing and Kalamazoo in Michigan, and LaCrosse in Wisconsin—many hurting from loss of regional air service. For major enterprises headquartered in Chicago and other top cities, these towns can function as valuable “back offices” for professional and financial services, or for specialized manufacturing—if they’re easily reached.

This kind of writing makes me wonder if rail advocates look seriously at the ridership forecasts for these high-speed rail corridors. High-speed rail isn’t transportation for the masses. Its ridership is a small, targeted segment of business travelers and tourists.

These proposals are also focused on dowtown to downtown trips because these are the segments long enough for trains to get to speeds of 110 mph or more. Moreover, as my colleague Bob Poole has pointed out, “high-speed” rail in the U.S. is really “medium” speed. We’re talking 110 mph, not 150 mph or more.

While Mr. Pierce is correct to note that state governors have endorsed these proposals, he should also point out to his readers that virtually all of these proposals are supported as long as the federal government underwrites the lionshare of the start-up costs, including purchases of track, right of way, and trains. In other words, Midwestern governors will commit to the project as long as Floridians, Georgians, Oklahomas, Texans, and others pony up to subsize them.

High-speed rail might have a niche in our transportation system as an alternative to short-haul airline trips and a small share of automobile trips. But we should be honest about these benefits; they are not broadbased and this rail system will not anchor a 21st century economy or metropolitan areas. They should also pay for themselves, and not siphon needed funds from other parts of the nation that will see little benefit.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.