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Reason Writers Around Town: High-Speed Rail Debate In USA Today


The USA Today editorial board makes its case for high-speed rail investments in select locations. And Reason Foundation's Robert Poole offers the opposing view that the U.S. has few, if any, places where the economics of high-speed rail will actually make sense. Poole writes

Experts agree that the most successful rail corridors in Europe and Japan are those linking major cities 100 miles to 400 miles apart. What many studies neglect to mention, however, is that those cities are highly concentrated, with major fractions of their jobs in a traditional "central business district," unlike the large majority of decentralized U.S. metro areas. So most people there do want to go downtown-to-downtown, whereas most Americans need to travel suburb-to-suburb..

Countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Japan are also more attractive for high-speed rail because the cost of driving there is so much higher. Not only are gas taxes three to five times higher, but most of their intercity highways are toll roads. In addition, America has the world's most competitive airline markets, so our cost of flying is also lower.

Measured against international criteria, only a handful of U.S. corridors — Boston-NYC-Washington and maybe Los Angeles-San Francisco — are potentially good candidates for high-speed rail. But even here we must question the value proposition.

Amtrak estimates it would cost $117 billion to build true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Yet its own numbers show an annual operating loss of more than $350 per passenger if annualized capital costs are included.

The California project is now estimated to cost $66 billion — about twice what Warren Buffett paid for the (profitable) Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Reviews of projected ridership in California suggest the project would not even cover its operating costs, let alone the enormous construction cost.

Full column here. And more of Poole's high-speed rail commentary and research here.

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  1. Field of dreams model of transportation – Build it and they will come…

    I think that only works in the movies.

    1. trains make my dick hard

      1. “It’s true, this man has no dick!”


    Unlike Christmas ’80, I will not be denied this time.

  3. I’m still baffled as to where they came up with this crap. I don’t remember anyone seriously talking about a new gov’t funded choo-choo project until this past year, and now all of a sudden we have to have a serious conversation about this? I mean, how did this idea even get thrust into the mainstream news organizations? Here’s an ice-breaker for that conversation: if the bastard would make money, somebody will build it without the gov’t dole.

    1. The same guy who decided Iraq’s WMD issue had come to a head in 2003?


    From the article:

    “The group said they haven’t decided if they’ll leave their state jobs…”

    Why would they? It’s not like they actually do any work, and the pay is probably better than the lotto winnings anyways.

    1. “Haven’t decided if they’ll leave their state jobs”…thus proving they are morons.

    2. I thought I saw somewhere that there was a group of 8 that usually pooled for a ticket, but one guy dropped out for this one.

  5. So basically, if the US were to become completely unaffordable, rail would make sense.

  6. I just assume the passenger rail supporters in the US are just trying to work out the anguish of not finding a Lionel set under the tree on Xmas morning by spending other people’s money on real one.

    1. No, it’s much more simple than that.

      It’s plain old Euro-envy.

  7. I think liberals have watched one too many episodes of Chuggington and think this is how trains actually operate.

    1. For older generations, Thomas the Tank Engine applies as well.

      “What?! You mean trains don’t talk to the passengers and conductors or change direction on a dime???”

      1. Or Supertrain.

        And if we spend enough money on the Supertrain, we’ll need an Americathon.

  8. Oahu might have benefitted from passenger rail, in place of the nations most expensive “interstate” system, but alas.

    1. I know it has been posted on H&R before, but go onto Google Maps and ask for driving directions from Seattle WA to Honolulu HI.

      1. Come on, Google maps is ridiculous. I asked for directions to Honolulu from Portland and it suggests I drive to Seattle and kayak across the Pacific from Lake Union. Seriously? Everybody in Portland knows it’s much faster to kayak out of San Francisco. Please.

  9. What? No love for the personal rapid transit (PRT) system?

    1. You mean a like car? Or perhaps a general aviation aircraft?

      1. They just opened one up at Heathrow airport. You go to a station call up a car that’s on a monorail type track enter a destination and away you go to another station. It’s basically a Disney ride at this point. Top speed is around 30 mph. You make it more like the cars in Minority Report and you may have something.

  10. other than the fact that high speed rail in the northeast would basically mean welfare for rich limosine liberals, i dont get why the left loves trains so much. They arent even that cost effective at reducing CO2 on a dollar basis. There are so many other ways to get more bang for your buck if that is your goal.

    1. They have a fundamental correlation/causation error: Because places that they like have trains, trains must therefore generate the places that they like. Which leads them to every humans favorite error: If I like the way that I live, it must be the best way to live. And who doesn’t wish everyone the best, right?

    2. i dont get why the left loves trains so much

      The left loves public transport because it reduces the need of low income people to own a car to get to work, which in turn might force them to live in their car because working 50-60 hours per week in a minimum wage job is not enough to both maintain a car and pay rent and various essentials.

    3. I figure they love rail so much because the left has read Atlas Shrugged and are planning on replicating the Wesley Mouch method of government takeover…

  11. What the country needs is more airports with service direct to major cities. Places that are more convenient to the suburbs – Trenton, Wilmington, Reading, Winchester – taking the load off the big city airports.

    1. The reality of highly centralized air travel is a result of major airport subsidies and regulation of the industry.

  12. This is such a stupid debate. Whether or not high speed rail is or isn’t a good idea, is completely besides the point. Instead, the conversation should be about why in the hell tax payers from Iowa should pay for a rail service that runs from San Diego to LA.

    If HSR is such a great idea, then local governments should figure it out.

    1. Re: Free2Booze,

      If HSR is such a great idea, then local governments should figure it out.

      But… but… but China! China will be first! We can’t be second! Choo-choo!!!

      1. fap fap fap fap fap

    2. —“If HSR is such a great idea, then local governments should figure it out.”–

      The local gov’ts have figured out that it isn’t such a good idea, unless they can have somebody else pay for it.

  13. i dont get why the left loves trains so much

    1) Train-as-project = a locus of insider graft, massive imposition of an expert-class fixation on helpless citizenry, displacement and resettlement of especially disfavored and powerless subsets of said citizenry, etc.

    B) Train-as-object: Other people being visibly herded tingles miscellaneous repressed attachments to heroic era of fascism, etc.

    ?) They’ve been told to love trains now, so they do, until they’re told not to (again).


    1. This is a beautiful comment

    2. “displacement and resettlement of especially disfavored and powerless subsets of said citizenry”

      History repeats itself.

  14. High-Speed Rail Debate In USA Today

    Or, “How would you like your boondoggle: One lump, or two”?

  15. America is campaigning towards firing teachers, eliminating public education system, eliminating access to healthcare for the sake of lower taxes…so that we can pay more for education, healthcare, etc.

    I can’t imagine that anyone (conservative, liberal, or libertarian) could support spending tax dollars on a rail system. From the $$$ i’ve been hearing, the rail system will cost more than WAR.

    Nonetheless, I’d rather my tax $$$ go to a rail system that would at least produce jobs all over than pay for WAR.

    1. Re: Alice Bowie,

      America is campaigning towards firing teachers, eliminating public education system, eliminating access to healthcare for the sake of lower taxes…


      I can’t imagine that anyone (conservative, liberal, or libertarian) could support spending tax dollars on a rail system.

      I can’t imagine anybody supporting paying for bombing Libya, yet here were are…

      Nonetheless, I’d rather my tax $$$ go to a rail system that would at least produce jobs all over than pay for WAR.

      War “produces” jobs as well – somebody has to make the damned bullets.

      1. “War “produces” jobs as well – somebody has to make the damned bullets.”

        I often bring this point up to liberals. If you think all Obama’s deficit spending on stimulus creates jobs, so did Bush’s Wars.

        1. #-

          I assume you are just toying with the Chads and Tonies, but are you conversant with military keynesianism?

          1. i’m not advocating the policy, i’m just saying that if you think what Obama did has efficacy, Bush’s deficits including the war spending also did.

    2. “America is campaigning towards… eliminating public education system”

      Point me to where those politicans are. I want to sign up.

      1. seriosuly though, what makes “public” education so special? If we could get the same education results for half the money by giving out universal vouchers, why not do that?

        1. Re: #,

          seriosuly though, what makes “public” education so special?

          For lefties, Public Education is very close to their hearts because it represents the epitome of what’s wrong with Central Planning: miscalculation, misappropriation, miseducation, misapplication, misrepresentation, mistake.

          1. I knew that women generally leaned left, but that’s a whole lot of misses.

  16. “but most of their intercity highways are toll roads.”

    I thought those countries were socialist, that sounds downright libertarian.

    1. I believe the tolls are more to punish the drivers than pay for the roads.

      The gas taxes they charge in Europe have a similar purpose.

  17. Incredibly, this post has been up for an hour and neither Chad nor Tony has appeared to lecture us on how much better we would be if we all used high speed rail, not to mention lived in centralized cities with 15,000+ people per square mile.

    1. High school isn’t out for another hour or so.

    2. Living in centralized cities with high population density is what happens when you don’t have a federally subsidized highway system. Progressives don’t like the dense, ad-hoc cities like you find in southeast Asia. They like planned cities, with an ideal ratio of parks per-capita, inspectors and regulations for everything, and a ban on internal combustion engines.

    3. In Tony and Chad’s utopia, the re-education camps will be more spacious.

      One good side-effect of 15,000 people per square mile is that everyone is going to be incredibly fit from walking 20+ flights of stairs on a regular basis…. do you think the elevators will actually work in a government-built high rise?

    4. It seems Ken Schultz is also in this camp. According to him, if you use “too much” energy, you are directly harming him and you’d better stop. I can only assume that this rule applies to food, clothing, etc. as well.

      1. You re missing Ken’s point, methinks. He is not saying “too much.” He is saying that each unit of energy use (no matter how large or small) has potential negative consequences that place a burden on others. He thinks that the user should be the one that pays the price for those negative consequences, taking responsibility for the outcome of their own use. If those negative consequences are paid by the user rather than others, I don’t think Ken would have any problem with any amount of energy use.

        He can, of course, correct me if that is an unfair summary.

  18. I don’t see any nefarious intent in most supporters of rail projects. I mostly see people who have been to Europe and like the train system there (hey,so do I). But the problem is the usual liberal problem: if something is good, then it must be worth whatever it costs. The thinking seems to stop right there.

    1. The European train system *is* worth the cost. The problem is that this does not imply that a similar train system in the US would be worth the cost.

  19. “But shouldn’t the federal government do for high-speed rail what it previously did for highways, airports and seaports ? i.e., pay for and build the infrastructure and let private parties operate it? Those making this argument forget that our intercity highways, airports and seaports are self-funded. User taxes and user fees (tolls) cover both the capital and operating costs of these major transportation infrastructures.”

    I call bullshit.

  20. User taxes and user fees (tolls) cover both the capital and operating costs of these major transportation infrastructures.

    This seems to be based on the idea that everyone who is taxed in a community is a user of the airports and roads in that community. From that framing, rail is no different and taxes and user fees cover the capital and operating costs of all rail projects. The difference, of course, once you go there is the scale. Rail gets a few billion dollars nationwide while air and car travel get 30 or 40 times as much.

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