Thursday, April 21, 2011

The high-speed rail hoax

High-speed trains, operating at 150 mph or more, are a holy icon of our liberal politicians and pundits. As part of his campaign for “investments,” President Obama has repeatedly called for multi-billion dollar expenditures on these projects. Supposedly these trains will save vast amounts of petroleum in an scenario in which millions of people renounce the use of their gas-guzzling cars.

The high-speed trains are ostensibly needed to “compete” with Western Europe and Japan, where, however, geography and demographics are vastly different. The notion that high-speed trains can cover our own nation is clearly an illusion. If they are built at all, they will only carry a few elite travelers from one fashionable destination to another. "We're gonna be taking cars off of congested highways and reducing carbon emissions," says Vice President Joe Biden, an ardent rail booster. Yet most traffic jams are urban, not inter-city, so high-speed rail between metro areas will have no real effect on one’s daily commute.

Even in a moderate scenario, the expense is staggering. A low-ball estimate from CNN is that delivering on the plan could cost well over $500 billion and take decades to build, all while failing to cover much of the country at all.

And of course there is the Amtrak precedent. Since its founding in 1971, the nation's passenger rail system has sucked up almost $35 billion in subsidies. According to Robert J. Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, "a typical trip is subsidized by about $50." Even so, Amtrak is increasingly unaffordable. Following a recent visit to Washington DC, I was told that a train ticket back to NYC would cost an appalling $110. I took a bus instead--for $25.

About 140 million Americans trek to work every day, while Amtrak carries just 78,000 passengers. There's no reason to think that high-speed rail will pump up those numbers. Yet there is every reason to believe its costs will grow and grow.

One such train, from Disney World to the west coast of Florida has wisely been canceled by the governor.

After a fashion, things or going forward in California, where initial funding for a high-speed rail project was approved by the voters on November 4, 2008. The start-up allocation was a measly $9.95 billion. Ultimately the line would stretch, or so it is claimed, from San Francisco to San Diego, passing through the state’s Central Valley. There is no indication that the system would connect with any similar high-speed rail in a neighboring state.

At the end of last year construction began on the first 54 miles of the system, starting just south of Madera at Borden, to continue on through downtown Fresno to Corcoran. In other words (with all due respect to the citizens of those places) it is a trip from nowhere to nowhere.

September 2008 saw the appearance of a report "The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report," sponsored by the Reason Foundation and several other watchdog groups. The report projected that the final cost for the complete high-speed rail system would be $65 to $81 billion. This is significantly higher than earlier estimates. In fact experience has shown that vast cost overruns are almost inevitable in boondoggles of this type. The report also projected fewer riders by 2030 than officially estimated: 23-31 million riders a year instead of the 65-96 million forecast by the sponsoring authority. The report stated that no existing high-speed rail train currently meets the proposed speed and safety goals, although the safety systems have not been fully specified, and that the reduction in CO2 emissions would be inconsequential. The time required to reach the proposed speeds, the distances between stops, and the fact that for part of the route the high speed trains will travel on regular freight train tracks rather than upgraded high speed rail tracks indicates that attaining the proposed speeds would be difficult between the majority of stops.

It may be that the dire condition of the country’s finances will put a stop to such extravagance. Yet our money problems have not prevented us from staying in Afghanistan at a cost of two billion dollars a week, and attacking yet another Muslim country, Libya.

Eventually, the high-speed rail fantasies will end--but not without a great deal of waste and useless construction.



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