Michigan’s Rail Grants Represent High-Speed Rail Deception

Unfortunately, the most recent round of U.S. Department of Transportation rail grants is showing more of the political underbelly of transportation politics than anything else. While the grants themselves are largely pragmatic–they focus on incremental improvements in intercity passenger rail routes–politics is by no means absent from the mix. Randal O’Toole does a stunning job of laying out the rote politics behind discretionary rail transportation spending in a compelling oped for the Detroit News (May 12, 2011).

Michigan received $200 million in grant money from U.S. DOT to upgrade the Detroit-Chicago Amtrak service. According to O’Toole:

“When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced this week that he was awarding Michigan nearly $200 million for high-speed rail, he claimed that the project would bring “trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes.” But Michigan’s own grant application says the $196.5 million will only increase average speeds from 60 to 64 mph – with the top speed remaining unchanged at 79 mph. That is, travelers will save a mere 12 minutes – not 30.

“Why the discrepancy between the claimed 110 mph-and-30 and the real 79 mpg-and-12?

“Page 12 of the grant application tells the tale: After spending the $197 million, the state is applying for another grant that will require hundreds of millions more to increase speeds to 110 mph.

“Together with Michigan’s senators and governor, LaHood’s press conference was an exercise in high-speed deception. ”

According to Michigan’s own calculations, $1 billion more would be needed to get 110 mph trains along this line (which is “high speed” only by America’s low standards).

What’s the alternative? The unsubsidized mass transit option of private intercity bus service. Again, O’Toole points out in the Detroit News article:

“By comparison – with virtually no subsidies – Megabus carries people between Chicago and Detroit at fares of $15 to $18. While Amtrak takes 6-1/2 hours, Megabus takes just 5-2/3 hours, mainly because it stops only in Ann Arbor, while Amtrak trains stop 8-9 times.”