Recently at Reason.tv: 3 Reasons Why Obama's High-Speed Rail Will Go Nowhere Fast

|

Supertrain 2010 = Supertrain 1979!

President Barack Obama has pledged $8 billion in tax dollars to build a national network of high-speed rail—trains that can carry passengers at speeds in excess of 150 MPH.

But the Supertrain fantasy was a mistake back in the 1970s, when it gave rise to one of the most expensive—and rotten—TV shows in history. And it's just as much of a wreck in the 21st century for at least three reasons:

  1. The lowball costs. CNN estimates that delivering on the plan could cost well over $500 billion     and take decades to build, all while failing to cover much of the country at all. Internationally, only two high-speed rail lines have recouped their capital costs and all depend on huge subsidies to stay in operation.
  2. The supposed benefits. "We're gonna be taking cars off of congested highways and reducing carbon emissions," says Vice President Joe Biden, an ardent rail booster. But most traffic jams are urban, not inter-city, so high-speed rail between metro areas will have no effect on your daily commute. And when construction costs are factored in, high-speed rail "may yield only marginal net greenhouse gas reductions," say UC-Berkeley researchers.
  3. The delusional Amtrak example. Obama and Biden look to Amtrak as precedent, but since its founding in 1971, the nation's passenger rail system has sucked up almost $35 billion in subsidies and, says The Washington Post's Robert J. Samuelson, "a typical trip is subsidized by about $50." About 140 million Americans shlep to work every day, while Amtrak carries just 78,000 passengers. There's no reason to think that high-speed rail will pump up those numbers, though there's every reason to believe its costs will grow and grow.

"Supertrain 2010" was written and produced by Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie, who also hosts. Approximately 3 minutes.

Go to Reason.tv for iPod, HD, and audio versions, and for supporting materials and more videos.

And subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel to get automatic notifications when new material goes live.

Advertisement

NEXT: Keystone Light Kops in The Keystone State

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Wow, Seems to me we have a LOT more important issues to deal with than some high speed rail!

    Jess
    http://www.fbi-logging.at.tc

  2. how big are the subsidies in the NE Corridor?

    and agree that the urban/suburban congestion is the problem!

    1. how big are the subsidies in the NE Corridor?

      The accounting makes it tough to figure. The NE Corridor (but nowhere else) does seem to cover its operating costs. (It comes nowhere close to covering its capital costs, of course.)

      This is somewhat biased because Amtrak makes the other, unprofitable anyway trains take their “share” of systemwide costs. If the other trains went away, then many of those systemwide costs would still exist, and they’d all have to paid from the NE Corridor. In other words, the budgeting makes the NE Corridor looks more profitable because the unprofitable lines absorb some of the costs.

      On a deeper philosophical note, the fact that Amtrak is government run means that it can’t cut the non-NE Corridor lines. By that logic, the money-losing lines are actually part of the price we pay for having the NE Corridor, because without a train through enough Congressmen’s constituencies, we wouldn’t have the NE Corridor at all. This critique doesn’t apply to propose “privatize it and let it shut down the unprofitable lines” plans, but those are always blocked.

      1. Do you think the Northeast Corridor could be profitable on its own? It was privately built and operated before the Amtrak takeover, after all.

        1. Operationally, yes. The profit would be a little smaller than what’s shown on Amtrak’s statements (thanks to cost-sharing.) I’m somewhat doubtful about covering the capital costs, but it could happen.

          Rail in this country is profitable at hauling freight. Passenger trains are a distraction for the rail owners, and not as profitable. It’s difficult to use rail for both freight and passengers– but if the objective were really the environment, replacing freight trucks with rail should be just as good as replacing passenger cars with trains, right?

          1. “”Operationally, yes. The profit would be a little smaller than what’s shown on Amtrak’s statements (thanks to cost-sharing.) I’m somewhat doubtful about covering the capital costs, but it could happen.””

            Agreed. But to make it happen they would probably have to increase fares to the point I95 looks like the better option.

            Here’s a good example. I travel to Providence RI a few times a year. Amtrak wants $118 each way and the trips is about four hours. I can take the bus for $84 bucks, and traffic permitting, it takes less than 4 hours. On the way there, traffic rarely ever permits and the trip is about 5 1/2 hours. So is the shorter trip worth an extra $152? Not for me.

            The funny part it the Acela is only 1 hour faster than regular Amtrak. High speed doesn’t work well in New England bacause of all the stops.

  3. I wonder how much in federal money the interstate highway system in the average metropolitan area has “sucked up” since 1971.

    Is $35 billion over 40 years really an issue even worth bitching about?

    1. I wonder how much in federal money the interstate highway system in the average metropolitan area has “sucked up” since 1971.

      Less than zero. On the federal level, highways and highway passengers have subsidized everything else.

      That’s not true at the state and especially local level, where general funds and property taxes have paid for roads. But there has been no federal subsidy to highways (well, until the stimulus and the 2008 transportation extension.)

      Users of the highway passenger transportation system paid significantly greater amounts of money to the federal government than their allocated costs in 1994-2000.

      Claiming that highways are federally subsidized is generally the sign of a libertarian who personally likes mass transit or doesn’t like highways trying to avoid cognitive dissonance (perhaps by preserving ignorance).

      1. Incidentally, the “average metropolitan area” definitely loses federal highway money, because the formulae give more per capita to rural areas– though that is because people in metro areas need to drive through rural areas and the rural areas have a lot of roads by passers-through as a result, so it sort of makes sense for them to be subsidized by the people who are using them. (If the locals had their druthers, they wouldn’t want the roads as large.)

        1. OTOH, metro areas definitely get transportation subsidy back thanks to mass transit subsidy.

          1. It seems that there was a lot of interstate highway infrastructure that wasn’t properly funded over the years. And the problem is much worse on the state highways.

            I think subsidized highway system is a better use of tax money than shit like NEA, highways are probably the only thing where the multiplier actually exists. However, I think highways were overbuilt, at the expense of private, profitable infrastructure (railroads) and caused a lot of problems that Washington is today trying to solve with tax dollars.

            1. It seems that there was a lot of interstate highway infrastructure that wasn’t properly funded over the years.

              Sort of. The problem’s definitely exaggerated, if you look at the FHWA’s Highway Statistics series over the years, you’ll see that actually fewer bridges are “Structurally Deficient” or in need of repair than 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. It’s just that some bridges are always in that state. (Structurally deficient includes “perfectly fine bridge, but wasn’t built to carry as heavy loads as exist now, or isn’t as high for tall trucks as we’d like.”)

              However, I think highways were overbuilt, at the expense of private, profitable infrastructure (railroads)

              There were private, profitable highways as well.

              The highway trust fund is relatively unobjectionable, as far as things go, because it’s paid for by users. The formula could be improved, or roads could be privatized, but there’s not subsidy going on of highways, at least at the federal level.

          2. Thanks, John Thacker, for the substantive responses. I think that I’m a libertarian who likes mass transit, and the information that you’ve provided makes it more difficult for me to shield my opinions with my ignorance.

        2. “”Incidentally, the “average metropolitan area” definitely loses federal highway money, because the formulae give more per capita to rural areas– “”

          That’s not a subsidy?

      2. “”Claiming that highways are federally subsidized is generally the sign of a libertarian who personally likes mass transit or doesn’t like highways trying to avoid cognitive dissonance (perhaps by preserving ignorance).””

        Still curious about how you are defining subsidy.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal-Aid_Highway_Act

  4. Just wondering – what determines if previous comments are deleted when a post gets a bump? Are there objective criteria, subjective criteria, or is it just the server squirrels?

    1. Drunkard’s walk.

      1. One or two-dimensional, three-dimensional, or four or more dimensional? Makes a big difference.

        1. Eleven dimensions.

          1. Sorry, funding has only been provided for one dimension.

            This is a rail LINE, after all.

  5. It’s “schlep”, not “shlep”. Jesus Christ monkeyballs, get your Yiddish right, you putzes.

    1. Oh come on. There’s no generally accepted transliteration for Yiddish. It’s written in the Hebrew alphabet natively.

      1. Don’t be a nudnik, John.

        1. Can I be a nudnick, then?

          1. That’s just meshuga, dude.

  6. President Barack Obama has pledged $8 billion in tax dollars to build a national network of high-speed rail?trains that can carry passengers at speeds in excess of 150 MPH.

    OK, let’s assume that the trains can average 200 MPH, while a driver on an interstate can only average 50 MPH:

    For a journey of 200 miles:
    1) Depart home & travel to a station: 45 minutes in an average city. (This assumes car travel as buses take longer due to multiple stops.) You are dropped off, so you don’t have to take time to find a parking space. This ignores the fact that you have either had to wait for a taxi to pick you up or a second person who has picked you up has had to give up their time to drive you to the station and an equal amount of time to get back.) In very large cities (CMA = 1 million +), the time to get to and from the station is going to be much longer.
    2) Board train and await departure: Minimum 30 minutes. Assumes no time for TSA inspections or spent purchasing tickets.
    3) Train departs and travels nonstop to destination: 1 hour
    4) Leave train and meet ground transportation: Minimum 15 minutes.
    5) Travel from station to destination: 45 minutes in an average city.

    Total time: 3:15, based on the generous assumptions above. This assumes you are the sort of traveller who cuts everything fine, making no allowance for delays. Note that, if you miss your train, you are going to have to wait for the next one, so leaving home 5 minutes late could mean arriving many hours late.

    Travel time by car: 200 miles @ 50 MPH = 4 hours. If you leave 5 minutes late, you will be 5 minutes late getting to your destination.

    Time saved under best conditions: 45 minutes. And you don’t have a car for local transportation.

    1. Assumes no time for TSA inspections or spent purchasing tickets.

      Yeah, it’s strange how rail boosters in the Administration– including the President– keep touting the lack of security as a rail advantage. Which it is, but why does the disparity exist? The stupid reasons for plane security apply to trains as well– the plane-as-missile argument doesn’t as much, but not only is that much harder to do these days (passengers won’t sit still, assuming that a hijacking means a free trip and a cool story if they cooperate), but train stations being downtown create their own special capability for havoc, and if you blow up a rail line you can cause way more disruption than taking one small plane out of the sky (but not hitting a giant building).

      So in one way, the fact that the Administration is so big on rail is an indicator that they have an interest against decreasing TSA security theater.

      1. There is no reason to assume that trains would be “security free”, especially if they were a ‘prestige’ high-speed train.

        Think Madrid March 11, 2004.

        1. Here’s what’ll happen:

          The trains (assuming they’re ever actually put in place, which they probably won’t be) will start out with minimal secruity. No strip searches, no screenings, just a couple of guards wandering around, maybe with a dog.

          At some point, someone will bring a gun onto a train. Whether the carrier uses the gun or not, the media will make a big thing about it, and then BAM! Airport-style TSA setup at the train stations. For the children.

        2. Oh sure, absolutely. But President Obama has been going around talking about how a big rail advantage is that you won’t have to sit through security when boosting this plan.

          1. Sorry, I saw where your first reply was going and meant to amplify it, not rebut.

            Another major vulnerability of HS trains is the track. You just need another Timothy McVeigh parking a truck close to the track and waiting for the train to go by. How are you going to guard hundreds of miles of track? (Fertilizer an fuel oil is for amateurs, BTW.)

            1. “” You just need another Timothy McVeigh parking a truck close to the track and waiting for the train to go by.””

              Unless I’m on a train loaded with federal agents, I’m not worried about the McVeighs.

          2. Funny, because I keep hearing airport type security is coming to Amtrak. Don’t know if it ever will, but every now and then it’s a hot topic in NYC.

    2. “”And you don’t have a car for local transportation.””

      That’s the one that kills it. If the trip is 200 miles, and I need a car when I get there, I’d drive.

      1. That’s a very good point. Not only are the higher population densities and lower distances in Europe conducive to using rail to get from place to place, but the urban layout of towns and cities (denser building, more public transport etc.) mean you are less likely to need a car at your destination. And fewer people own cars to start with.

    3. Out of curiosity, where do you live Aresen? I’ve found that for people who actually live inside cities on the DC-Boston corridor the times you are stating are pretty inflated. Especially if the person you are visiting also lives in or near one of those cities. Furthermore, I find it a positive that taking the train allows me to not worry about taking my car to whatever city I’m visiting–parking is often inconvenient and expensive. And actually when I lived in NYC I didn’t even own a car.

      So I would argue that depending on starting place and destination the train is far superior to any other mode of travel, as long as you don’t mind its high price.

  7. Public trains are the crack cocaine of big government political philosophies.

  8. Why are all these new technologies based on mid-1800’s tech? Wind farms and trains? What’s next: high speed wagons or nexgen clippers?

    1. Actually, there have already been proposals for wind-powered cargo ships with high-tech masts and automatic sails.

      1. There are already cargo ships using wind-power (kites rather than sales) to lower fuel use:

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7205217.stm

  9. Here’s an idea to improve traffic + lower pollution:

    1. Prohibit bottleneck lanes. I have yet to meet any two or more people who carpool to take advantage of them.

    2. Prohibit traffic jam lights. They are the opposite of merging.

  10. It’s interesting to point out that the only two countries that have high-speed train networks that have actually paid for themselves (Japan and France) have population densities vastly higher than the US (Japan: 873 people/sq. mile; France: 294; US: 83). Most of the other countries that have high-speed rail have massively higher population densities (e.g. Belgium: 918; Germany: 594) or only have them running between major population centers and/or along densely populated corridors (Spain’s AVE only covers Madrid-Seville and Madrid-Barcelona; Sweden’s system only covers the heavily-populated south of the country) and even then the networks require massive subsidies. High speed is lovely for national pride and so forth, and is a cool way for young urban sophisticates like me to travel, but it’d be a ridiculous waste of money to roll it out in the US (except for in the northeastern corridor). America (at least outside BosNYWash) simply doesn’t have the population density to make high speed passenger rail viable, and the fact is that whether you like highways or not, there is a tremendous legacy network of highways already in place, changing the cost-benefit calculus markedly. France and Japan didn’t have massive national highway systems when they built their bullet train/TGV networks, and they have, as I noted before, far denser population, than America.

  11. No form of transportation is profitable in the United States. Hidden subsidies abound. For example, the airlines don’t directly pay for the FAA-that comes from the general fund. If airlines had to pay for things like air traffic control directly, they would lose money (they frequently do anyways).

    Most roads and highways are free to drive on. Some, but not all, or even most, of that funding comes from gasoline taxes and the like, but most comes from general funds.

    1. No, most of the funding (around two thirds) comes from gas taxes.

      At the federal level twenty-five percent of the gas tax goes to subsidize urban mass transit. None of that money comes from users of mass transit. It’s only in the last few years that the feds have been drawing down the “Highway Trust Fund” (a useful accounting fiction for keeping track of gasoline tax revenue), ie taking money from the general fund to make up for shortfalls in gas tax collections.

      If urban mass transit needs a subsidy, it needs to come out of general revenues, not from raiding the “Highway Trust Fund”.

  12. There was a recent story in the Chicago Tribune about a proposed high speed link between Chicago and St. Louis.

    I believe if the travels at its maximum speed, you can make the trip in 3 hours and 45 minutes. That saves about an hour and a half over a regular train.

    But no where in the article does anyone pose the question “Who wants to go to St. Louis?”.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.