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High-Speed Rail: The Wrong Road for America, Cato Policy Analysis No. 625

High-Speed Rail: The Wrong Road for America, Cato Policy Analysis No. 625

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Published by Cato Institute
In the face of high energy prices and concerns about global warming, environmentalists and planners offer high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving and air travel. California, Florida, the Midwest, and other parts of the country are actively considering specific high-speed rail plans.

Close scrutiny of these plans reveals that they do not live up to the hype. As attractive as 110-to 220-mile-per-hour trains might sound, even the most optimistic forecasts predict they will take few cars off the road. At best, they will replace for profit private commuter airlines with heavily subsidized public rail systems that are likely to require continued subsidies far into the future.

Nor are high-speed rail lines particularly environmentally friendly. Planners have predicted that a proposed line in Florida would use more energy and emit more of some pollutants than all of the cars it would take off the road. California planners forecast that high-speed rail would reduce pollutionand greenhouse gas emissions by amere 0.7 to 1.5 percent
In the face of high energy prices and concerns about global warming, environmentalists and planners offer high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving and air travel. California, Florida, the Midwest, and other parts of the country are actively considering specific high-speed rail plans.

Close scrutiny of these plans reveals that they do not live up to the hype. As attractive as 110-to 220-mile-per-hour trains might sound, even the most optimistic forecasts predict they will take few cars off the road. At best, they will replace for profit private commuter airlines with heavily subsidized public rail systems that are likely to require continued subsidies far into the future.

Nor are high-speed rail lines particularly environmentally friendly. Planners have predicted that a proposed line in Florida would use more energy and emit more of some pollutants than all of the cars it would take off the road. California planners forecast that high-speed rail would reduce pollutionand greenhouse gas emissions by amere 0.7 to 1.5 percent

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Published by: Cato Institute on Mar 27, 2009
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Inthefaceofhighenergypricesandconcernsabout global warming, environmentalists andplanners offer high-speed rail as an environmen-tally friendly alternative to driving and air travel.California, Florida, the Midwest, and other partsof the country are actively considering specifichigh-speed rail plans.Close scrutiny of these plans reveals that they donotliveuptothehype.Asattractiveas110-to220-mile-per-hour trains might sound, even themost optimistic forecasts predict they will takefewcarsofftheroad.Atbest,theywillreplacefor-profit private commuter airlines with heavily subsidized public rail systems that are likely torequire continued subsidies far into the future.Nor are high-speed rail lines particularly envi-ronmentallyfriendly.Plannershavepredictedthata proposed line in Florida would use more energy and emit more of some pollutants than all of thecarsitwouldtakeofftheroad.Californiaplannersforecast that high-speed rail would reduce pollu-tionandgreenhousegasemissionsbyamere0.7to1.5percent—butonlyifridershipreachedthehighendofprojectedlevels.Lowerridershipwouldnul-lifyenergysavingsandpollutionreductions.Theseassessmentsareconfirmedbytheactualexperience of high-speed rail lines in Japan andEurope.SinceJapanintroducedhigh-speedbullettrains, passenger rail has lost more than half itsmarket share to the automobile. Since Italy,France, and other European countries openedtheir high-speed rail lines, rail’s market share inEurope has dwindled from 8.2 to 5.8 percent of travel.Ifhigh-speedraildoesn’tworkinJapanandEurope,howcanitworkintheUnitedStates? Asmegaprojects—theCaliforniahigh-speedrailisprojectedtocost$33to$37billion—high-speedrailplansposeseriousrisksfortaxpayers.Costsof recent rail projects in Denver and Seattle are run-ning 60 to 100 percent above projections. Onceconstruction begins, politicians will feel obligatedto throw good taxpayers’ money after bad. Onceprojectsarecompleted,mostplanscallforthemtobeturnedovertoprivatecompaniesthatwillkeepanyoperationalprofits,whiletaxpayerswillremain vulnerableifthetrainslosemoney.In short, high-speed rail proposals are high-cost, high-risk megaprojects that promise littleor no congestion relief, energy savings, or otherenvironmental benefits. Taxpayers and politi-cians should be wary of any transportation pro- jects that cannot be paid for out of user fees.
 High-Speed Rail 
The Wrong Road for America
by Randal O’Toole
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
 RandalO’TooleisaseniorfellowwiththeCatoInstituteandauthorof 
TheBest-LaidPlans:HowGovernmentPlanning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future
.
Executive Summary 
No. 625 October 31, 2008
 
Introduction
Imagine walking a few blocks from yourdowntown San Francisco office and board-ing a sleek, electrically powered train. Withina few moments, your train departs, on time,whisking you and hundreds of other passen-gers away at more than 200 miles per hour.On board, you can have a drink in the barcar,chatwithotherpassengers,orpluginyourlaptop and wirelessly surf the web. In barely more than two-and-a-half hours, after a jour-ney of nearly 400 miles, you can disembarkfromthetrainindowntownLosAngeles.This attractive fantasy is the picture thathigh-speed rail advocates want you to have inmind when you consider their proposals inCalifornia, Florida, the Midwest, and manother parts of the country. Viewed from slightlydifferentperspective,however,andfan-tasylooksmorelikeanightmare.Imagine spending $25 billion of publicmoney building a high-speed rail line—notcounting the interest on bonded debt or costoverruns, which together will quite probably doublethecosttothepublic.Whenthelineiscompleted, it is turned over to a private com-pany that put up a relatively small amount of money—say, $5 billion. If they can run it at a profit,theygetalltheprofits.Iftheylosemon-ey, it will be up to the public to make up thedifferencesoasnottowastetheinitial$25(or$50)billionexpense.Taxeswillbedivertedtopayoffthedebtforsome30years,afterwhichthetaxpayermightseem to be off the hook. But one of the dirty littlesecretsofpassengerrailtransportationisthatmostoftheinfrastructure—thetrains,therails, the electrical facilities, and the stations—must be completely replaced, rebuilt, or reha-bilitated every 30 years. Of course, the privatecompany running the trains won’t have themoneytodothat,soitwillbeuptothepublicto find the money or suffer complaints aboutdelayedtrainsandothermishaps.Contrarytotheapparentattractionoffastdowntown-to-downtown travel times, thetruthisthatfewpeopleliveorworkindown-towns anymore. As a result, even a 200-mile-per-hour train won’t take more than 3 or 4percent of cars off the highways it parallels.Instead, the main effect of this heavily subsi-dized train will be to put struggling (and rel-atively unsubsidized) short-haul airlines outof business. Although the electrically powered trainmightbesomewhatmoreenergy-efficientand(if the electricity does not come from fossilfuels)lesspollutingthanairplanes,theenergy andpollutioncostofconstructingtherailline(which will require huge amounts of fossilfuels) will be so great that it will take decadesof operational savings to pay back that cost. And,soonafterthosedecadesarefinallyup,itwill be time to completely rebuild the line—atahighenergyaswellasfiscalcost.Inshort,high-speedrailwillrequireahugeamount of public money to build. The deci-sion to build carries a huge risk both that theultimate cost will be much greater than pre-dicted, and that the ridership and other bene-fits will be lower—especially since the consult-ing firms hired to forecast those benefitsexpect to profit from rail construction. Oncebuilt, the environmental benefits will beminisculeandthemaineffectwillbetoreducethe availability of private, relatively unsubsi-dizedmodesoftransportation.From this perspective, high-speed trainslook a lot less attractive than the architects’drawingsfeaturedoneveryrailbrochure.Thetensofbillionsofdollarsthatwillberequiredto build all of the proposed high-speed raillines in the United States could be muchmore effectively spent on things like schools,NewOrleanslevees,payingdownthenation-aldebt,or—perhapsbestofall—leftinthetax-payers’ pockets.
The Status of U.S. High-Speed Rail
 AmtrakrunsitsAcelatrainsatspeedsupto135 miles per hour in the northeast corridorbetweenNewYorkCityandWashington,DC.In one 35-mile stretch between New York and
2
Few peoplelive or workdowntown, soeven a 200-mphdowntown-to-downtown trainwon’t takemore than3 or 4 percent of cars off thehighways itparallels.
 
Boston they speed up to 150 miles per hour.
1
SegmentsofAmtrak’s
SouthwestChief 
,betweenChicago and Los Angeles, and its
Surfliners
,between Los Angeles and San Diego, reachspeedsof90milesperhour.Otherwise, the maximum speed for pas-sengertrainsthroughouttheUnitedStatesis79 miles per hour—and then only on routeswith proper train control systems and whosegrade crossings are fully protected by cross-ingsignalsandgates.Withoutthesefeatures,the maximum speed is no more than 59miles per hour.Rail advocates point to the much higherspeeds attained by trains in other nations asevidencethattheUnitedStatesis“behindthetimes.ThetrainbetweenBeijingandTianjin,China, reaches speeds of nearly 220 miles perhour.
2
Startingin2011,Japanplanstooperatetrains as fast as 200 miles per hour.
3
Trains inFrancegofasterthan185milesperhour,whiletrains in Germany and Britain are nearly thatfast.
4
The Federal Railroad Administration setsnational standards for regulating the maxi-mum speeds on all rail lines in the nationaccording to the quality of the track and thesophistication of the train signaling systems.To go at successively higher speeds, rails mustbemaintainedtoincreasinglystrictstandards.
5
Most rail lines have signals that informtrain crews if there are other trains ahead of them. Passenger trains on lines that have nosignals are limited to 59 miles per hour. Withsignals,trainscango79milesperhour.Trainscan only go faster if the railroad has installedautomatic systems that will stop the trainwhen necessary—even if the crew fails to stopthetrain.
6
FRArulesalsolimitspeedsbasedongradecrossings.Fortrainstogoupto110milesperhour, crossings must have signals and gates.From110to125milesperhour,crossingsareonlyallowediftheyincludean“impenetrablebarrier” when trains approach. Above 125miles per hour, no crossings are allowed.
7
In 1991, Congress asked the FRA to desig-nate up to five high-speed rail corridors,expanded to eleven in 1998.
8
These corridorsare eligible for federal funding for planningand improvements such as the installation of gradecrossingsignalsandguards,thoughthe$30 million available for such grants in 2008will not go very far.
9
The 11 “corridors”—oneof which looks more like a spider web than a corridor—total more than 9,000 miles inlength(Table1).Inmostofthesecorridors,theFRAhassetatargettopspeedof110milesperhour.Whilethis is more than the 59- to 79-mile-per-hourcurrentlimitinmostcorridors,high-speedrailaficionados do not consider 110 miles perhour, or even 125 miles per hour, to be true“high-speed rail.” The California legislaturehasdefined
high-speedrail 
asraillineswithatopspeed greater than 125 miles per hour. “Thereason for the 125 miles per hour threshold,”says the California Senate TransportationCommittee, “is that existing passenger railequipment can operate at this speed if theappropriate signaling technology is installedand the right-of-way meets a variety of designandsafetystandards.”
10
Theproblemwithincreasingexistingtrackspeedsfrom79to110milesperhourormoreis that the rails in nearly all of these corridorsareprivatelyownedbyfreightrailroadssuchasBNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and UnionPacific.Nominally,therailroadswouldbenefitfrom such improvements, but since theirfreight trains would rarely need to go morethan 79 miles per hour—60 is more typical—they see no reason to help pay for the expen-sivesignalingandtrackmaintenancerequiredforthehigherspeeds.Moreover,araillinerun-ning both 110-mile-per-hour (or faster) pas-senger trains and 60-mile-per-hour freighttrains presents major operational problemsthatarenotwelcomedbythefreightrailroads. Although the FRA has designated thesecorridors, the actual work of planning thehigh-speed rail lines is done by the states.State planners have taken two differentapproachestorailservice.Insomecases,thehaveconfinedtheirworktoimproving gradecrossings and keeping track of the up to 79-mile-per-hour standards or, in the Midwest,to boosting speeds on existing tracks to 110
3
High-speed railaficionadosdefine truehigh-speed rail asrail lines with atop speed greaterthan 125 milesper hour.

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