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On High-Speed Rail, Look at the Costs and Results Before You Leap

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During his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden talked about a “rail revolution” that would include large increases in funding for Amtrak and potentially coast-to-coast high-speed rail (HSR) service. A member of his transition team talked about expanded and faster Amtrak routes displacing short-haul airline service. Especially if the Senate changes hands after the George runoff election, a major infrastructure bill and/or stimulus bill next year might well include large-scale federal grants for such projects.

If this has a familiar ring, it’s because one of the first legislative accomplishments of the Obama administration was a High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR), enacted as part of a major economic stimulus agenda in 2009. HSIPR offered multi-billion-dollar grants for true high-speed rail projects in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin plus a wide array of smaller grants to upgrade medium-length Amtrak corridors.

Republican governors in three states rejected the high-speed rail grants because they said they feared they could potentially leave their state budgets to cope with construction cost overruns and ongoing operating subsidies for the rail lines. Those funds were reprogrammed for Amtrak upgrades. But California eagerly accepted $3.9 billion for its planned 520-mile California high-speed rail system that was supposed to link Los Angeles and San Diego in the south with San Francisco and Sacramento in the north, at an originally estimated cost of $25 billion.

The results of all these grants are disappointing, as documented in a detailed Reason Foundation assessment by demographer and transportation analyst Wendell Cox. Here is the essence of the report’s findings:

  • California HSR: the cost for a scaled-back (Los Angeles to San Francisco) system has tripled to $75-80 billion, and the available funds are being spent solely on a 119-mile initial segment from Bakersfield to Merced in the middle of the state. There is no current plan or funding to build the rest of the planned 520-mile system.
  • Amtrak Northeast Corridor: The $0.75 billion grant has made some marginal improvements, enabling a top-speed increase on a small segment from 150 mph to 160 mph. Some of the work is still uncompleted.
  • Five other intercity Amtrak corridors: some of the planned additional trains have not been added, and only two corridors have seen top-speed increases to 110 mph, with the others still running at 79 mph. These modest gains cost $3.4 billion.

That is very little real-world improvement for a total expenditure of $8.1 billion. Cox’s report goes into some of the reasons why.

First, true high-speed rail  —of the kind we see in Europe, Japan, and China — is hugely expensive. It requires an all-new HSR-only right of way, with much gentler curves and complete separation from any highway grade crossings. This often means extensive tunneling and elevated construction.

The cost per mile of the planned 520-mile California high-speed rail system, assuming it could actually be built for the current estimate of $80 billion, is $154 million per mile. And Amtrak’s own estimates for replacing its existing Northeast Corridor with true high-speed rail work out to over $500 million per mile.

Second, nearly all overseas high-speed rail lines that have achieved high ridership attracted it mostly from previous rail passengers who upgraded from conventional passenger rail. Except for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, we have no such large-volume passenger rail between U.S. cities. In all its other intercity corridors, Amtrak at most handles a few percent of all intercity passenger trips, with nearly all going by car, bus, or plane. So upgrading existing Amtrak lines from 79 miles per hour top speeds to 110 mph—even if it attracted a few more passengers—would have very little effect on actual travel in those corridors

One of the key themes of the Biden administration may be trying to reduce CO2 emissions and, during the campaign, passenger rail was presented as if it can make a significant contribution to that goal. What is left out of this vision is that, except for the Northeast Corridor, all Amtrak trains are, and will continue to be, powered by diesel locomotives. That is hardly a green alternative. In fact, a decade ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists compared the CO2 emissions of intercity trips by individuals or families using bus, train, car, SUV, and plane. For a family of four, Amtrak turned out to have the highest CO2 emissions per trip, while the intercity bus had the lowest. For a lone individual, riding the bus still beat the train, but the train was better than the car, SUV, or plane.

These findings suggest that policymakers should take a very hard look at any proposal that resembles the 2009 High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program. That program spent many billions of taxpayer dollars with little real value as a result.

As philosopher George Santayana is remembered for writing, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”


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