Trying to Copy Spain’s High-Speed Rail System in the U.S.

My new column on the country’s medium-speed rail plan:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood traveled to Europe recently to study high-speed trains in Germany, France, and Spain. Spain’s system apparently captivated U.S. transportation officials because of its scope and alleged cost-effectiveness. It’s unclear, however, whether they took away the lessons that count for transportation policy in the U.S.

True enough, Spain may have the most aggressive and advanced high-speed rail plan in the world. Service from Madrid to Seville began in the early 1990s, and the program has been a cornerstone of the governing socialist party’s attempts to forge a sense of national unity.

The current plan calls for the network to have more than 6,000 miles of track by 2020, putting 90 percent of the Spanish population within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station. Trains will hit speeds of 186 mph. Despite lower construction costs than experienced by either France or Germany, the program will likely cost Spanish taxpayers at least $100 billion Euros (or about $140 billion) if completed.

This is truly an impressive plan. And that’s just it. It’s a plan—for Spain.

Touting the Spanish high-speed rail plan as a “national model” for the U.S. is a stretch by most measures. The two countries are simply on different scales. Geographically, Spain is about twice the size of Oregon (or about 20 percent larger than California). Per capita income is lower than California and about equivalent to Oregon. Spain’s economy churns out about $1.4 trillion worth of goods and services every year, a little less than California.

Spain’s “national” rail network would be roughly equivalent to building out a web of rails for a regional system in part of the U.S. And it would be more expensive, probably running more than $300 billion for a six thousand mile network similar to Spain’s on the West Cost, Midwest, or East Coast. The cost of mimicking Spain and building a national high-speed rail system that would put 90 percent of the U.S. population within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station would be truly astronomical.

But no one in the U.S. is seriously proposing anything close to the kind of national network the Spanish claim to be implementing. On the contrary, most analysts recognize that a truly national high-speed rail system in the U.S. doesn’t make sense.

Full Column Here