High Speed Rail, why it doesn’t work for the USA

The train lobby thinks we have a generational failure in not investing in high speed rail, and lists how all the cool countries are getting their high speed rail on. https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2017/07/01/a-generational-failure-as-the-u-s-fantasizes-the-rest-of-the-world-builds-a-new-transport-system/

France, Germany, China, India, Japan and other nations are investing in high speed rail. But we’ll look at the reasons behind that in a bit.

Canada, Russia, and the United States are not on that list. Why? Well it turns out there are very good reasons.

The first good reason should be obvious to anyone who can look at a damn map. France, Germany, China, India and Japan have large cities that are relatively close together, where a trip to the airport is expensive, but a car trip by business people clogging the highways would be a problem, so high speed rail makes a crap ton of sense. If you have to build roads or build high speed rail to serve a population of people who don’t have a lot of cars per capita, trains make sense.

Speaking of cars…the rate of car ownership per 1,000 people in China is 83. In the US it is 797 per 1,000 people. And looking at the Europeans, you don’t want to spend a long car trip in a subcompact micro machine. I knew a guy who worked with a European who always wondered why American cars were “so big and inefficient” and always bragged about his Renault….until he had to land in Chicago and drive a rented Lincoln down to California. Then he understood why American cars are comfortable, because we think nothing of 100 miles for travel by car, and Europeans generally don’t. I guess that addresses the “cultural” aspect of why high speed rail isn’t worth it to Canada, Russia, or the United States.

Now lets specifically look at geography and apply some numbers…

In Canada, if you wanted to link High Speed Rail from Vancouver to Toronto, it would require over 4,300 kilometers of rail, most of it traveling through the United States. Even traveling at 250 kilometers per hour, you are looking at 17 hours of travel time by “high speed rail” which is over twice the time a plane ticket for a direct flight would cost you in terms of time. Seattle to Portland is about a two and a half hour drive, a 45 minute flight, or a 3 and a half hour trip on Amtrac. Sure “high speed rail” would shorten that travel time down, but given the fact that normal speed trains are hardly turning a profit indicates that there just isn’t a market demand (despite the fact that I-5 can be a freaking mess during rush hour traffic).

Russia could actually benefit from some high speed rail, for example from Moscow to St. Petersburg. But High Speed Rail is expensive, even more expensive than the standard slow trains that Russia already has. Once again, there isn’t an economic drive to get more people around Russia faster than the other options.

So, with all of these things, where does the United States stand on rail? Well, we have more lines of track than any other nation by a long shot, in fact the next three nations on the list need to combine their numbers to get up to our level. We excel at rail transport and do so without a nationalized rail system. France and China, lauded by the train lobby, have nationalized systems which require extensive taxpayer support because passenger trains just aren’t that profitable (and the Amtrac corporation is heavily subsidized by the US taxpayer in the classic example of a ‘boondoggle’).


European passenger subsidies, because the market won’t support these things on their own…. source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Subsidy_per_passenger_journey_for_UK,_Germany_and_France.png

So there you have it. The most populous cities in the US (New York and LA) are literally separated by a continent, while the most populous cities in Japan are only 503 kilometers apart (Tokyo and Osaka), and Mumbai to Delhi is 1,400 some kilometers (and not connected by high speed rail). China’s rich coastal cities are all clustered against their eastern seaboard, and it makes sense for high speed rail as part of the Chinese plan to modernize their country under the almighty control of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Boston to NY high speed rail “Acela” service makes sense, and accounted for about 25% of Amtrac’s revenues, and yet Amtrac still requires subsidies from Congress to stay operational. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/03/21/amtrak-gets-nearly-2-billion-federal-spending/447301002/ Although the 2 Billion US dollars seems like chump change compared to the 17 Billion Euros that Germany forked over for their rail system, or 13.2 Billion Euros that French Taxpayers got hosed for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Europe#Subsidies

Meanwhile, the one US State that has multiple cities arranged in a roughly linear arrangement has been trying to imitate Europe with it’s own high speed rail project, which is over cost, over budget, over time, and is at 77 billion dollars and climbing: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/12/californias-77-billion-high-speed-rail-project-is-in-trouble.html

If I haven’t made it clear that “high speed rail” isn’t a suitable solution to the transportation needs of the United States by now, there is only one more argument to make. A first class ticket from Boston to Washington DC on the Acela will cost you more than a coach ticket on an aircraft for a direct flight, and a Greyhound bus ticket will set you back 67 dollars, and arrive only an hour past the “Acela Express.” When you have two cheaper options, one faster and one slower, why would you take the train? Why is the plane and bus cheaper than the train? Because they don’t get subsidies from Congress and have to live or die solely by their market performance. None of the nations with “high speed rail” including the United States have a purely private sector passenger rail system.

So yes, we did spend a generation not wasting taxpayer dollars on a system that would never get weened off of taxpayer dollars. But in terms of fixing any sort of problem from pollution to gridlock traffic, trains aren’t going to cut it.

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