Transportation Policy

European High-Speed Rail Also a Huge Boondoggle

A new report finds high costs, and low speeds on Europe's high-speed rail lines.


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High-speed rail is working out in Europe about as well as it is here in America—that is, not great.

A new report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA)—the E.U.'s spending watchdog—found that the continent's web of high-speed rail lines are "not a network, but an ineffective patchwork" that suffers from chronic cost overruns, delays, and poor performance.

"High-speed rail infrastructure is expensive, and is becoming more so," reads the report, noting that the average high-speed rail project cost €25 million per kilometer ($29 million) and that "cost overruns…and delays were the norm instead of the exception."

The ECA's audit looked at 10 completed or under-construction rail lines in six E.U. countries, finding that a major cost driver was the tendency to shell out for extra-expensive high-speed rail lines that go on to carry conventional trains at conventional speeds.

Of the six currently operating lines examined in the ECA's report, trains were running on average at speeds of 45 percent of each line's design capacity. None of the lines saw trains averaging above 250 kilometers an hour (the speed that many consider to be truly high-speed rail).

Had these European countries stuck to building or upgrading conventional rail lines, says the ECA, "costs involved could in fact have been far lower, with little or no impact on operations."

This failure looks even more galling when you compare the time saved by these high-speed rail lines to the costs of building them. In four of the lines looked at in the ECA's report, transportation officials spent over €100 million ($116 million) for every minute of travel time saved.

For instance, a planned German high-speed rail line is expected to get you from Munich to Stuttgart 36 minutes faster than conventional rail lines at the cost of some €13 billion ($15 billion). That shakes out to €368 million ($423 million) per minute saved. (A flight between the two cities takes 45 minutes.)

The ECA's report also stressed the poor coordination between European countries when building their high-speed rail lines, making for poor continent-wide connectivity and suppressing ridership.

All these problems will, of course, sound familiar to watchers of the slow-rolling disaster that is California's high-speed rail project.

Originally sold to voters at the low, low price of $68 billion, the Golden State's bullet train now costs $98 billion and will not be fully operational until 2033. Once promised to deliver commuters at blistering speeds straight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, California's high-speed rail will now wind through the state's Central Valley on a mix of high-speed and conventional rail tracks.

None of this has dampened California Gov. Jerry Brown's enthusiasm for high-speed rail. In a January State of the State address—his last as governor—Brown tried to shore up support for his pet project by directing his audience's attention beyond the sea.

"I like trains and I like high-speed trains even better," said Brown. "Eleven other countries have high-speed trains. They are now taken for granted all over Europe."

Given the continued cost overruns, delays, and politicized design decisions, Brown has already succeeded in delivering a European-style rail experience.