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European High-Speed Rail Also a Huge Boondoggle

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

Beijing Hetuchuangyi Images Co,. Ltd/Dreamstime.comBeijing Hetuchuangyi Images Co,. Ltd/Dreamstime.com

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.

Photo Credit: Beijing Hetuchuangyi Images Co,. Ltd . | Dreamstime.com

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  • Sevo||

    "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."

    You think CA is going to be left behind in choo-choo boondoggles? Ha and HA!

  • David-2||

    Once again California proves superior! Their line isn't even finished and it already has all those things!

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    "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."

    Wow, Jerry, that's some weapons-grade reasoning there.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    " that's some weapons-grade reasoning there."

    Considering it's California that's about the best they've got.

  • JoeBlow123||

    Fast or slow, the trains in Europe are pretty great. It is nice to roll into the train station 10 minutes before you have to leave, get on the train, and you are in your destination a few hours later and can be in your hotel 30 minutes after you arrive.

  • CapitalistRoader||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Here's just one of my many dark secrets. I love all these government projects gone awry because it means we get to use "boondoggle" more often.

  • CE||

    And eventually all that infrastructure is sure to crumble. Maybe even before it is finished, at this rate.

  • albo||

    What's the kerfuffle over this boondoggle?

  • damikesc||

    Apparently, they need Mussolini back.

  • Detroit Linguist||

    While in general I agree with this skepticism of rail, I must say that my experience with British, French and Belgian highspeed rail was quite positive, with speeds approaching 200 mph (yes, you read that right--they have a speed display in the cars) in England (between London and Newcastle) and well over 200 kph between Paris and Brussels. Maybe other countries aren't doing quite so well, but the TGV and Eurostar are pretty impressive.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    I'd rather go by Learjet.

  • The Last American Hero||

    There is a world of difference between the user experience and the actual cost. My city has a light rail system. If you are going from an area near a station to another area of the city near another station, it is fast, the fare is reasonable, the cars are clean and safe. User experience is good.

    The cost to the taxpayer to build it and subsidize those reasonable fares is astronomical when you look at how few people it actually moves. It sucks. And when the economic center of gravity of the metro area shifts, you'll be stuck with empty trains to nowhere, unlike buses that can be rerouted.

  • David-2||

    "cost €25 million per kilometer ($29 million)" - I don't understand why you carefully translated euros to us dollars but didn't translate kilo-meters (whatever they are) to US measurements? Seems inconsistent, and uninformative too.

  • John B. Egan||

    As much as I'm not necessarily a big fan of introducing a high speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, because do we really need more competition on an already established route? Air, Greyhound, Amtrack, and basic automobiles.... But I do have to say, my family and I really were thrilled to take the high-speed rail from London to Paris. (Aside from the slower travel through the Chunnel, it was impressive.) .. Why would anyone want the US to be driving a horse and buggy when most advanced nations of the world have already successfully implemented High Speed Rail.. Korea, Japan, China, Europe... etc? Why cherry pick one 'supposed' failure? I keep getting the impression that Reason runs these nonsense articles just to keep the US as a backwater, 3rd rate nation.

  • Chipper Jones||

    Because these things are not free. Here in CA we're looking at a best case scenario of around $100 billion to make a 3 hour trip from LA to SF. And that's before we start counting operating losses.

  • DrZ||

    "Because these things are not free. Here in CA we're looking at a best case scenario of around $100 billion to make a 3 hour trip from LA to SF. And that's before we start counting operating losses."

    It's worse than $100 IMHO. There is a need for massive infrastructure similar to that of SFO-LAX for example at both ends of the line. Cities and state (tax-payers) will have to cough up for this too. I am not sure the $100B includes this. Also, TSA involvement will be expensive and it will be needed at the terminals and on the full length of the track.

    Then there is (gasp) politics. If a train line is built down the Central Valley it will likely lead to politicing about exactly where the train stops and how come it does not stop my my burg. This will ultimately lead to the promised 3 hour trip being a lot more than 3 hours.

    I can take a Southwest from SJC to LAX for under $100 and it takes about 55 minutes to LAX and a few minutes longer to SJC. How could a train ever beat these prices and speed. Ok, add another hour for TSA and waiting for the flight so it's 1:55 minutes, but that beats three hours.

    Perhaps I need to broaden my horizons, but a train from SF to LA makes no sense to me.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    A backwater, 3rd rate nation that everyone is desperate to enter. And they don't even need to wait for trains...

  • mtrueman||

    "They are now taken for granted all over Europe"

    Africa is getting used to the idea of high speed rail too. Part of China's belt and road initiative involves high speed rail link from the port of Mombassa to Nairobi and from then linking land locked countries like Uganda. They have several billion dollars budgeted for it. They have even more extensive construction going on in South East Asia terminating in Singapore.

  • DrZ||

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

    WTF!?!? I will bet you dollars to donuts that hundreds of Europeans will come to California every summer just to ride the California Choo-Choo and exclaim how much fun it was to see the cows in the Southern Central Valley. They will also marvel at how anything like this could have ever been built.

    It's not a complete waste.

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