The Obama Administration Proposes an Ambitious and Costly High-Speed Rail Plan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 9th, 2011

Nowadays Passenger Trains Yield the Right-of-Way to Freight Trains

I remember traveling by train with my family some 20-30 years ago.  My mom loved train travel.  She lived in the golden age of rail.  Has lots of fond memories.  But these are different times.  Even 20-30 years ago.  I remember on that trip we came to a stop on a siding.  Sat there for about a half hour.  Maybe 45 minutes.  I was starting to think there was a problem with the train.  Then a freight rumbled by on the main line.  After it passed, we started moving again.

Now if you understand railroading, you know how significant this is.  Back in the golden age, before planes and the interstate highway system, it would have been the other way around.  Passenger trains got the priority because they made more money.  Back then, freight trains pulled onto sidings.  But today, though heavily subsidized, passenger trains don’t make money.  Freight trains do.  They can pay for themselves.  And make a profit.  Therefore, passenger trains take to the sidings to get out of the way of profitable freight trains.

Freight trains make money because they can move a lot of freight cheaper and faster than other means of transportation.  Passenger trains, on the other hand, are neither the fastest nor the cheapest.  Planes are faster.  Cars are cheaper.  And this is why most passenger rail, including high-speed rail, don’t make money.  Even with huge government subsidies.  Not the same for planes or cars.  One way or another, we pay our own way with these faster and cheaper alternatives.

A Public Works Project that doesn’t End

Despite this, the Obama administration is proposing to spend billions on high-speed rail.  And it’s an ambitious plan (see GOP critic calls Joe Biden’s $53 billion high-speed rail plan ‘insanity’ by Daniel B. Wood posted 2/8/2011 on Yahoo! News).

According to the plan laid out Tuesday by Biden, the first step of the six-year plan would be to invest $8 billion to develop or improve three types of interconnected corridors:

Core express corridors would form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125 to 250 m.p.h or higher.

Regional corridors would lay the foundation for future high-speed service, with trains traveling between 90 to 125 m.p.h.

Emerging corridors would provide travelers with access to the larger national high-speed network and travel at as much as 90 m.p.h.

During times when oil prices soar, air and truck transportation costs soar.  But not rail transportation.  Why?  Because the massive rail infrastructure costs are greater than their fuel costs.  Unlike with planes and trucks.  Trains have to buy land (or right-of-ways).  Grade the land.  Build tunnels.  Bridges.  Lay track.  Switches.  Install communication systems to control those switches.  And more.  And they have to do this everywhere a train will travel. 

Planes fly between airports.  And trucks drive on roads paid for by fuel taxes.  They don’t have the infrastructure costs railroads do.  So volatile fuel costs impact them far greater than they do the railroads.  So the plan Biden laid out won’t be cheap.  It will be very, very expensive.  And take a long time to build.  It will be a public works project that doesn’t end.

But building high-speed rail is no easy process, says Leslie McCarthy, a high-speed rail expert at Villanova University’s College of Engineering. “Whether or not a bill would or should pass is the easiest part of all this,” she says. “The bigger part of the question is purchasing the land, getting right of ways, zoning issues, environmental impact assessments, laying dedicated tracks in a reasonable amount of time.”

She says the typical US highway project can be held up anywhere from three to five years at the low end to 12 to 20 years at the high end. “Legislators and the public aren’t aware of the number of federal, state, and local laws that agencies have to comply with that can’t be gotten around,” she adds.

The plan will employ a lot of people to build these railroads.  And they will have jobs for a long time.  But it will cost us a fortune in taxes.  Will the investment pay off?  When completed, will these railroads make money? 

In fact, the very thing that makes the Northeast so attractive for high-speed rail – its population density – could also make it the most difficult place to build. “There is so much population in the Northeast corridor that I don’t know if there is even enough room for the dedicated tracks needed for high-speed rail,” says Professor McCarthy. “And if the distances you are going are not sufficient to make efficient use of the high speeds, what’s the point..?”

Critics agree. Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“Both of these are the perfect distance for high-speed rail, connect cities over flat terrain with huge populations that have great public transportation to get riders to the railway,” he says, dismissing French claims that other lines make money. He says they calculate costs in ways which ignore capital costs.

Well, with only two high-speed rail lines actually paying for themselves, I guess the answer is ‘no’.  The proposed high-speed rail project will just be a sinkhole for tax money. 

High-Speed Rail:  Huge Expense with Little Benefit

All right.  So the proposed high-speed rail will never pay for itself.  And it will become a permanent sinkhole for our tax dollars.  But it will at least get cars off the road, right?  Reduce our carbon footprint?  Make the earth a greener place?  Or at least take us to our destinations faster?  Probably not (see Obama’s High-Speed Sale by Ernest Istook posted 2/8/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

The “high speed” adjective invokes thoughts of bullet trains speeding at 150 mph, 200 mph or more.  The reality of Obama’s plan is—at best—the 85 mph that is the average speed of America’s fastest train, the Amtrak-run Acela.

When Obama claims his trains would reach 100 mph and more, he’s talking about peak speed reached only for short stretches, not the average.

I’ve actually traveled on Amtrak.  Not the Acela.  But we did reach speeds in excess of 60 miles an hour.  For a short period of time.  In the middle of farm country.  In a metropolitan city, for about 20 minutes or so, we crawled.  The track was so bad that speed limits were reduced.  To prevent further trains from derailing. 

City to city high-speed travel in excess of 150 mph will require new, dedicated track between point A and point B.  Until you have that you’ll never ‘average’ anything close to those high speeds.  And that will require a grand, bold and expensive plan of railroad building.  The question is, knowing that such a railroad will never pay for itself and may never move people faster (unless you build terminals outside of cities where you’ll be able to build these dedicated lines and bus people to and from these terminals), will we at least save the planet?

An exhaustive Department of Energy analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes, “intercity auto trips tend to be relatively efficient highway trips with higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates — on average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips. Additionally, if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat12 — making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

The lack of energy or pollution savings leaves us with the key problem:  Huge expense with little benefit.

So we spend a fortune for what?  Surely there must be a better way.

Rail travelers don’t pay their own way as drivers must do.  Obama’s plan would increase the rail subsidies, which already are heavily subsidized with tax money–often by hundreds of dollars a trip for each passenger–whereas the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that drivers receive no subsidy:  Drivers buy the roads through fuel taxes, and also must pay for their own car, gas, insurance and repairs.

Well, there appears to be a better way.  Cars.  And we already have them.  So wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient to stick with what we already have and works?

Big Infrastructure brings in Big Federal Money

Yeah, well, that’s not how politics work.  Politicians run for reelection based on how much money they’ve brought home to their districts.  And big infrastructure brings home big federal money (see High Speed Funding in President’s Budget Means More Waste of Taxpayer Dollars by Kathryn Nix posted 2/9/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

Heritage’s Ronald Utt writes that a high-speed rail program would create “perpetual massive government subsidies and larger budget deficits” and “additional burdens imposed on hard-pressed state governments, which will be required to match the perpetual federal subsidies to build the system.”

And bringing home federal money to their districts will be the only benefit of high-speed rail.

Despite its cost, high-speed rail will be ineffective at achieving its goals, if Europe’s experiences are any indicator. High-speed rail is expected to reduce auto and air travel, but in Europe, the trend is actually the opposite: Despite huge government subsidies, travelers are opting more and more to take non-subsidized and less expensive forms of travel.

Per capita spending on rail alone in six European countries was comparable to the United States’ entire transportation budget, yet, says Utt, “these countries received a poor return on their money given that more than 90 percent of passengers in these countries chose other travel modes—mostly auto—despite the subsidies.” Moreover, Utt cites the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s finding that reducing travel time between major East Coast cities by 30 minutes would cost $14 billion but only reduce auto transportation by less than 1 percent.

Can you say boondoggle?

Passenger Rail cannot Subsist without Taxpayer Subsidies

High-speed rail will never pay for itself, it will require perpetual government subsidies, it will not reduce our energy consumption or reduce our carbon footprint.  All it will do is increase deficit spending at the federal and state levels. 

There’s a reason why government subsidizes passenger rail service in the United States.  Because the railroad companies know there is no money in it.  They can make money moving freight.  But not people.  So they move freight.  And let people fly or drive their cars when they want to travel.  Or let the government pay for those passenger trains the way only government can.  With our tax dollars.

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One Response to “The Obama Administration Proposes an Ambitious and Costly High-Speed Rail Plan”

  1. PITHOCRATES » Blog Archive » LESSONS LEARNED #78: “It’s a dishonest politician that sneaks sneaky legislation into a bill.” -Old Pithy

    […] any ground is broken.  Because currently high-speed rail is all pie in the sky.  Only two lines to date operate at a profit.  One in Japan (Tokyo to Osaka line).  The other in France (Paris to Lyon line).  All others […]

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