The Pragmatic Case Against High-Speed Rail

Reason Foundation has been spending a fair amount of time criticizing high-speed rail initiatives proposed by states such as California and the federal government. Much of the criticism by our analysts as well as others focuses on the fiscal impacts, the poor design of the proposed corridors, and the unwise tactics of proponents that gloss over the many, many problems these initiatives face if implemented in the U.S. Reason Foundation’s contribution can be found in its “Due Diligence” report on the California initiative and in our commentaries. Randal O’Toole has made several contributions to the discussion, and his most recent report can be found here.

While these criticisms all have merit, we can’t lose sight of the fact the biggest reason high-speed rail won’t work in the U.S. is that it doesn’t make sense as a project funded from general tax revenues. High-speed rail is not a public good and it’s not mass transit. It is corridor transit. At best, it’s a niche market serving a highly specialized, relatively wealthy, and narrow customer base (high-income business travelers with expense accounts and tourists). It won’t relieve urban traffic congestion and its contribution to improving air quality (or reducing carbon dioxide emissions) will be negligible because it won’t carry enough riders to make a big difference. These factors undermine high-speed rail justificatons based on public good arguments.

That said, a more important factor may be more straightforward and direct: Certain preconditions are necessary for corridor transit to work, and they don’t exist in the U.S. Most fundamentally, intercity rail needs to connect major urban downtowns or large employment centers that are close together–withing a couple hundred miles of each other. (In this respect, the emphasis on density per se is misplaced; the key is the density of the destinations.)

We simply don’t have that many large downtowns in the U.S. We have several midsize metro areas, but the downtowns are mere shadows of their former selves and contain a very small minority of the region’s job base. High-speed rail is doomed to failure under the best of circumstances because it simply can’t generate ridership. Spain and Europe is an interesting case in point: high-speed rail connects very large urban centers with populations in the millions that are closely connected as the “bird flies”: London-Paris, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Lyon, Hamburg-Berlin, Florence-Rome, Madrid-Barcelona. Many of these cities are also very large: London and Paris both boast populations greater than 10 million. Rome, Berlin, Madrid, and Barcelona have populations between 2 million and 5 million.

In the U.S., Chicago is a metro area of close to 10 million, and its downtown population is about 500,000, but Detroit’s entire city is below 900,000 and Cleveland’s citywide population is below 500,000. The U.S. has very few corridors that fit the criteria necessary to sustain serious and viable high-speed rail. So, ideology aside, a national network of high-speed rail simply doesn’t make sense.

In theory, a corridor linking Chicago and Detroit might make sense (or Los Angeles and San Francisco, or Boston and Washington, D.C.), but the value of this service should be evident in consumer demand–ridership at high enough levels to pay for itself. We should also remember that while fiscal objections are legitimate ones, few would object to these proposals if they paid their way. If users are willing to pay for the benefit they receive, I doubt we would see much resistance anywhere.

The problem, of course, is that high-speed rail in the U.S. is promoted as an end in itself, with unrealistically high expectations, and based on the erroneous idea that somehow this narrowly targeted niche transportation “choice” is a public good. It is not. It’s a private good masquarading as a public good.

My most recent column critically evaluating Spain’s system as a model of the U.S. can be found here. Bob Poole’s writing is prolific, but this article outlnes a useful critique of the national proposal.