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Thoughts on High-Speed Rail

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Publisher’s note: As Virginia seriously considers high speed rail and dreams of a modern rail connection from DC to Richmond and then south to Charlotte and on to Atlanta, this article by Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation, an advocate of rail, is critically important. Our policy makers need to look at the reality of High Speed Rail and whether it really is the exciting addition to our transportation needs as some suggest. This article first appeared in Reason’s February issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.

While the President proposes to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail over the next six years, House Republicans plan to zero out the program. Their FY2011 Continuing Resolution would eliminate a proposed $2.5 billion this fiscal year while rescinding $2.475 billion not yet spent from FY2010 and another $3.7 billion from FY2009 stimulus funding. So we have a major collision in public policy regarding HSR.

Elite opinion seems to be shifting against HSR, with two recent negative editorials in the Washington Post, the latest (Feb 17th) headlined “A Lost Cause: the High Speed Rail Race,” and a news article in the New York Times (Jan. 11th) focusing on the weakness of the case for Florida’s Tampa to Orlando route, cancelled by Gov. Rick Scott. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood was so upset about the first Washington Post editorial that he devoted his Jan. 13th blog (FastLane) to responding to it.

As a life-long railfan, I eagerly read the Secretary’s response, hoping—finally—for some real numbers demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of HSR for this country. Alas, all he provided were assertions: it’s analogous to the Interstate highway system, it will reach 80 percent of Americans, it will “keep us competitive with other leading nations,” and of course, it will “create green, high-wage jobs.” You might argue that a blog aimed at average Americans is no place for serious numbers, but no such numbers were forthcoming from DOT officials at January’s annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, either.

In my previous writings on HSR, I have cited overview reports from the Congressional Research Service, the GAO, the OECD’s International Transport Forum, and other European studies, including the well-respected Eddington Transport Study from the U.K. These studies all find that shifting people from other modes to HSR has very small impact on emissions and oil use, does not do much to stimulate economic development, and can only be said to work well in very select circumstances.

An especially useful report has crossed some people’s screens in recent weeks. “High-Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy-Makers from Experiences Abroad” was written by Daniel Albalate of the University of Barcelona and Germa Bel of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. They review the experiences with HSR of Japan, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy and seek to draw lessons for the United States. Their country profiles point out the different policy objectives in each case, leading to somewhat different implementation strategies (e.g., some doing all new rights of way but others upgrading existing rail lines).

Among the lessons learned are the following:

  • HSR is not a particularly useful tool for fighting CO2 emissions;
  • Energy use and emissions for HSR are much higher than for conventional trains, and are similar to those for cars and buses.
  • HSR does not generate new economic activity, nor does it attract new firms and investment, but does help to consolidate and promote on-going activities in large cities.
  • Medium-size cities may be put at a disadvantage, due to HSR shifting some economic activities to larger cities.
  • HSR involves huge construction and operating costs, and cost overruns seem to be high in almost all cases.
  • Political pressures (e.g. for extra station stops or to serve low-traffic points) often lead to higher costs and decreased benefits;
  • These economics cast doubt on the use of public-private partnerships in HSR projects;
  • It is difficult to justify HSR in corridors where first-year demand is below 8 to 10 million annual passengers [far higher than any of the planned U.S. projects].

These are sobering lessons, and they should be factored into serious quantitative assessments of whether any proposed HSR project is a sound transportation investment.

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