2/11/11 – Update: An interesting article from National Review on the cost of High Speed Rail, High Speed Funding in President’s Budget Means More Waste of Taxpayers Dollars. Kathryn Nix makes many of the same points as I do here, but provide insight into the total cost of this ‘program’ a whooping $600 billion over 20 years (not including subsidies ones the lines are built).
During President Obama’s SOTU speech, he touted investment (read spending/subsidies) in a high speed rail system as a way to jump start our economy and move our country forward in order to be competitive on the world stage. My immediate reaction was that this is not a good time to spend billions of dollars on a new program. I would prefer that we focus on cutting spending, reducing the deficit and balancing the budget. Once the economy is on track and our finances are under control, I still wondered if this would be a good investment.
A bit of research helped shed some light on this question, feel free to do your own if you don’t agree with my conclusions. An article written by Ronald Utt, Ph. D. was very helpful, http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2010/03/America-s-Coming-High-Speed-Rail-Financial-Disaster. Dr. Utt provides great detail on the cost and sucess of high speed rail systems in other countries that are held up as examples for the United States to follow.
The geography of the United States is significantly different from other countries that have implemented high speed rail systems. It is far more costly to connect our major population hubs than it is in say France or Japan. It is possible that in limited areas, such as the Northeast, high speed rail may make economic sense. But attempting to connect all of our major population center is not only cost prohibitive, but not economically sustainable.
The attached table shows the km of high speed rail lines currently in place. The total amount of high speed rail lines for all countries, excluding China, is 9,430 km. A single line from Los Angeles to New York would require 4,490 km of track. Approximately half the number of miles for all countries combined just to connect a small percentage of our entire population. Our geography just doesn’t fit the model for a cost effective rail system of travel. And you might ask why I did not include China in the comparison. China does not have a system of roads comparable to our interstate system, so they need rail to build out their basic transportation system. Also, a large majority of Chinese citizens do not have nor can the afford automobiles, so rail it the logical choice of transportation for their country.
|Country||In operation (km)||Under construction (km)||Total Country (km)|
If you build it they will come, right? If we have an extensive high speed rail system, people will forgo using their cars or flying in favor of travel by train, correct? Since we like to use European countries as an example for how we should operate in the United States, let’s look at the percentage of travel associated with rail travel there. In a study done by the Amtrak inspector general, six European countries (UK, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and Austria) spend over $42 billion per year in railroad subsidies and yet the usage was 7.9 % of all surface transportation (which excludes boat and air). Of course the $42 billion does not include the cost of building the systems, only the yearly shortfall between revenue and operating expenses, sounds like a great deal! The point, even with the great system they have in Europe, when people travel they prefer cars not trains. If European countries which cannot get their usage above 8%, it seems to me that it is a fallacy to think that we will do better in the US, particularly with our love affair for the automobile and desire for independence. Also, it is clear that even in Europe that high speed rail is a losing economic proposition. In the same time-frame as the Amtrak study, the United States spent roughly $55 billion for all forms of transportation, most of which was covered by user fees. Clearly rail travel in general and high speed rail in particular are not an economically feasible alternative.
So unless I’m really missing something, why would the our government propose such an extensive high speed rail system. I believe that the it is one of the basic responsibilities of the federal government to provider for roads and transportation, so I am not opposed to this idea on constitutional or free market grounds. I’m just curious about the “motivation” behind this system. I think there are two clear reasons; appeasing the climate change proponents and providing graft to labor unions.
The climate change proponents will cheer this proposal because they believe that it will reduce carbon emissions. The theory is that people will stop driving cars and use high speed rail, which is admittedly a far cleaner technology. Of course, I don’t think this will happen, for the reasons discussed above. The second reason is far more likely the prime motivator. The jobs created by building this system will most certainly go to Organized Labor, further payoff for the unions support of Democrats and President Obama. Once the system is up and running, labor unions will also run the system. So it seems that once again, it is not about moving the country forward, but instead, consolidating power and adding voters to the base.
I can’t help being so cynical. In all of the reading I did for researching this project, the proponents of a high speed rail system did not offer any facts or financial analysis, only rhetoric and marketing speak. I would take this effort more seriously and less cynically if I were presented with a real cost and revenue model. The taxpayers deserve nothing less before we embark on this journey.