High-speed rail will take taxpayers for a ride
My wife and I are planning a weekend in Philadelphia with our three kids. I thought it would be fun to take everybody up from D.C. to Philly on the Acela Express, Amtrak's fastest passenger train. It's only 95 minutes from downtown to downtown. Then I checked the ticket prices: $1,320.00 round-trip for the five of us. Even the slow Northeast Regional would cost hundreds of dollars. Driving takes an hour longer than the Acela but costs about $115.00 round-trip for gas, tolls and parking. We're driving.
I recalled this as I read a recent blog post by The New Republic’s usually sensible Jonathan Cohn, in which Jon protests the fact that several Republican gubernatorial candidates who are running against federally-funded passenger trains in their respective states. The Recovery Act, a.k.a. the stimulus, contains $8 billion for high-speed rail, "one of those investments," Jon says, "that virtually every reasonable expert, from left to right, would agree is worthwhile. But reasonable people appear to be in short supply in the Republican Party these days."
Well, to paraphrase an old Luther Ingram song, if those Republicans are unreasonable, I don't want to be reasonable. As my Amtrak experience suggests, the economics of passenger rail, no matter how fast the trains go, are dubious almost everywhere in the world -- especially in the far-flung U.S. Once federal funding runs out, states would almost certainly be saddled with endless operating subsidies. Eight billion dollars for high-speed rail is $8 billion that could be far more effectively spent on conventional transportation needs like roads or harbors -- if it has to be spent at all.
High-speed rail boosters invariably cite the U.S.'s alleged backwardness vis-à-vis Japan, Spain, Germany or France. Yet even in Japan, one of the world's most densely populated countries, only one "bullet train" line, the one between Osaka and Tokyo, is profitable. Europe's passenger rail systems report profits -- but only because they hide public subsidies off-budget. According to a 2008 study by Amtrak’s inspector general, honest accounting shows that Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the U.K. and Spain subsidize their trains heavily -- up to $37 for every mile a train travels in Germany.
The reason is obvious, or should be. Trains are very expensive to operate -- yet they must compete against alternatives -- cars, buses and planes -- that are often cheaper for travelers on a per-mile basis. In the U.S., with its well-developed interstate highway system and thousands of airports, this problem would be even worse, as Amtrak's consistent money-losing suggests.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has likened the Obama administration's vision for a high-speed rail network to President Eisenhower's support of the interstate highway system. It never seems to occur to him that the interstate highways helped destroy what was left of passenger rail in this country, because it made it cheap and easy for Americans to drive where they wanted to go. And those highways will still be around to compete with any new system.
For cost and convenience, cars beat almost any passenger rail system you can imagine, even a high-speed one. That would be true even if the U.S. adopted European-level gas taxes, which isn't going to happen, anyway. Consider the proposed Tampa-Orlando route, which President Obama promised $1.25 billion in seed money amid much fanfare a year ago. The trip would take about 55 minutes, compared to 90 minutes by car. But the route starts in downtown Tampa and ends at the Orlando International Airport -- which is, like, in the middle of nowhere, roughly 15 miles from Disney World. So once you get there, you'd have to rent a car or schlep your stuff on some bus. After all the hassle and expense of getting to and from the train, you won't have saved any time and you’ll be sorry you didn't drive.
And Florida is a relatively propitious place for high-speed rail since the state already owns the necessary land. In California, where the Obama administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are promising to support a proposed $42.6 billion L.A.-San Francisco line, the new system would have to use existing corridors that belong to freight railroads. And the freight lines don't want to share, noting, rationally, that it wouldn't be safe to crowd the lines with trains traveling all sorts of different speeds. Similar hassles have arisen in other states. Resolving the freighters' issues will drive up the costs of passenger rail, assuming they can be resolved. So far, the Wall Street Journal reports, freight carrier resistance has helped delay the distribution of all but $597 million of the planned $8 billion in passenger rail money. In Europe, subsidized passenger rail has displaced freight from trains to trucks; given traffic, highway safety and the environment, the U.S. has no interest in duplicating that experience.
I have ridden the Shinkansen -- Japan's bullet train -- and, let me tell you, it's cool. But in their techno-envy, American advocates of high-speed passenger trains lose any sense of economic rigor. Yes, fast passenger trains may be awesome -- but exactly why do we need them? Cars, buses and planes are already doing a good job of moving people around. If the purpose of high-speed rail is to create jobs, other infrastructure investment can do that. If the purpose is to save energy or limit greenhouse gases, then rail, which uses massive amounts of electricity, much of it presumably generated by coal-fired plants, may be inferior to air or car travel.
If there were a compelling passenger-rail business model in the United States, the private sector would have pursued it long ago. Federally-subsidized trains will take this country nowhere, fast.
| October 8, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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