The Transport Navigator’s Perspective: High Speed Rail

Should the Freight Rail King Join the Passenger Rail Race?

Noël Perry

On the one hand, the United States leads the globe in freight railroading with minimal public funding. On the other hand, the U.S. makes scarce investment in rail passenger service. Most notably, the U.S. sports little investment1 in high-speed rail (HSR), the latest darling of infrastructure investment, most notably in Western Europe and China. Is it a typical, short-sighted American error in public policy or a sensible response to transport realities?

What Is High-Speed Rail?

HSR is a railroad upon which the trains run at very high speeds, usually in excess of 150 mph, and sometimes 250 mph. Although HSR uses quite conventional technology, it is of uniquely high quality, requiring dedicated right of ways. Conventional enhanced operations run on the existing track and require relatively little incremental investment, like the Acela trains on Amtrak.

A Green Alternative

The proponents of HSR point to several advantages, especially the efficiency of fuel use. HSR has a fuel consumption of a half to a third of that of an aircraft. Moreover, today’s aircraft all burn petroleum-based fuel with significant production of carbon dioxide. HSR is often powered by electricity produced from low-carbon natural gas, or no-carbon nuclear power.

Big Cities Like HSR

HSR also has an advantage when its termini are in dense cities. The terminals’ small footprints allow the tracks to penetrate right to the center of such cities, just as Amtrak penetrates Manhattan. As long as the city is very dense and supplied with abundant transit, this arrangement works very well.

No More Weather Delays?

HSR is relatively impervious to the effects of clouds and wet weather, except for very high winds and frozen precipitation. However, American travelers’ boasts of clock-like performance of European passenger railroads are not supported by the facts. European HSR averages on-time performance of 90 – 92%. Still, that is better than the 80 – 82% performance of U.S. airlines.

Why Are Americans Still Going to the Airport?

Just penetrating the New York metropolitan sprawl would require at least 20 miles of deep tunneling, not to mention the business of securing easements in the crowded suburbs that lie across much of its route.

The answer lies in the matter of the physical “roads” that high-speed railroading requires. These roads must have three special characteristics. First, they cannot be shared, so they must be built on new, purpose-built tracks. Second, high-speed trains need straight, level tracks with gentle curves. This limitation is a major problem where there are hills, mountains or urban concentrations. Those latter conditions require expensive tunneling, land condemnation or elevated tracks to allow the very high speeds. Finally, to ensure a smooth, safe ride, the track structure has to be very, very strong and well-aligned. Note importantly that laying this kind of track is very energy intensive, largely powered by diesel engine machinery emitting carbon emissions, and thereby reducing the green advantages of HSR.

There Are Big Bucks at Stake Here!

The challenge of these limitations is money. The proposed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles is estimated to cost $77 billion, and that’s before solving the difficult problems of entry into the cities and the tunneling in the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains. Consider the cost of a line from Boston to New York. Just penetrating the New York metropolitan sprawl would require at least 20 miles of deep tunneling, not to mention the business of securing easements in the crowded suburbs that lie across much of its route. Such a line would be twice as difficult to build as the California project.

How Many Americans Will this Investment Serve?

The challenge of expensive infrastructure is always a matter of density. HSR finds its sweet spot as defined by three characteristics. First, the distance must be between 300 and 500 miles. Less than 300 miles, and the time spent traveling to and from the train degrades any HSR time savings. More than 500 miles, and the speed advantages of 600 mph aircraft defeats rail. Second, the termini of the routes must be very large cities to collect the required volume of riders. Only six U.S. routes, connecting 22 cities fit these criteria now. Finally, the cities have to be served by excellent public transport. Of the 22 cities counted above, only five have the requisite transit. In contrast, the cities served by current Chinese and Western European routes have two to three times the density of American cities, and all have good transit. That leaves but two corridors: Boston to Washington and New York to Chicago in the U.S., benefiting only a very small fraction of U.S. travelers.

Where Would the Money Come from?

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To date, no private investors have built a route,which is no surprise, since only two of the 20-plus existing routes break even. The two make money because they were built years ago for a tenth of the current construction costs. The economics, therefore, say that the money must be public and the subsidies justified on social grounds.

The Math for These Systems Will Get Tougher and Tougher:

Such reality leaves policymakers with the following choice: the not-yet built, inflexible and very expensive HSR, or the existing, flexible and privately funded airlines. In an era when the opportunity cost of public spending is increasingly an issue, choosing the former seems far-fetched. Do you suppose the California voters who originally approved the SF-LA system would still support it if they realized that its completion would come at the expense of social programs or higher taxes? What about the voters in the 30-40 states not served by HSR? Will they support something that New Yorkers or Los Angelenos will enjoy? Even the most optimistic proponents of HSR admit to a 20-year build-out. By 2039, the Federal government will be in a profoundly different fiscal mode, given the irreversible ballooning of its deficit. Funding modest time savings for a minority of its population will not pass the sniff test.      

1 There are currently two U.S. corridors in active planning or construction: one connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the other from Dallas to Houston. The San Francisco to LA route, approved by a voter referendum, is currently scaled back to a laughable, less expensive line from Merced to Bakersfield, California. The other corridor, a privately funded one from Dallas to Houston, is currently blocked by a judge’s decision barring the use of eminent domain acquisition of right of way. Notably, the state of Florida turned down federal funding for a line from Tampa to Orlando.2 A U.S. group is attempting to build a corridor from Dallas to Houston

Photo Credit: rikkyall/