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High-Speed Rail in America

November 1998

High-speed rail, of course, has run in other places for some time. The inauguration of Japan's famous Bullet Trains in 1964 surprised a world that thought trains were a thing of the past. Sailing alongside the superhighway at over twice the speed of the racing autos, high-speed trains throughout the post-industrial nations have helped give rise to a so-called "new age of the train."(1)

Except in America.

Now traffic jams, air traffic congestion, air pollution and car crashes are becoming increasingly severe in our country. High-speed electric trains–capable of moving large numbers of passengers between cities safely, efficiently and with minimal pollution, are being recommended as a solution by people fed up with what is supposedly the world's best transportation system.(2)

A Case For High-Speed Rail. Joseph Vranich thinks it's past time for high-speed trains in America. Vranich, the author of Supertrains, says air-traffic congestion is becoming intolerable at many airports: A 1991 estimate for Chicago's O'Hare Airport showed 12,000 hours of passenger delay per year.(3) He also says many passengers don't want their frequent flier miles because they are tired of airport delays.(4) The "winglock" of air-traffic congestion can be mitigated by transferring passengers to high-speed trains for short trips. For these journeys, it can actually be faster to take the train because time-consuming airport procedures are eliminated–and the trains go to the very center of cities.(5)

On the highways the situation is even worse. Vranich points to a Federal Highway Administration estimate that vehicle delays due to freeway congestion in urban areas would increase 400 percent from 1985 to 2005.(6) But one railroad track can carry as many people as a twelve-lane highway: Not only does this make high-speed rail a cheaper way to increase capacity than highways, but it takes up far less space.(7)

Vranich also points to the excellent safety record of high-speed rail as a reason why we need it in the U.S. Since they began operation, high-speed trains throughout Europe and Japan have carried billions of passengers without a single passenger fatality, barring the recent German crash which was not on high-speed track.(8) High-speed rail is considered to be the safest form of transportation. If people here were given the choice to take high-speed rail instead of driving, a few of our 42,000 annual highway deaths might be eliminated.(9)

Our transportation problems are so severe that Vranich concludes the debut of high-speed rail in America is inevitable. Traffic congestion is so costly that even the highway lobby is advocating high-speed rail in certain corridors.(10)

A Case Against High-Speed Rail.(11) The James Madison institute issued a study on what it calls a "controversial" plan for high-speed rail connecting some of Florida's major cities. The rail plan is being promoted by its prospective builder Florida Overland Express (FOX) and by the Florida Department of Transportation. A major purpose of the project is to alleviate air and highway traffic congestion. The study says that high speed rail is not a good idea for the U.S.--and especially not for Florida. The benefits would be much smaller than predicted by the promoters, and the costs far higher.

According to the Madison Institute report, barriers to success for high-speed rail in America are far greater to those in Europe and Japan. Population densities are much lower: U.S. urban areas tend to have 2,000 to 5,800 people per square mile, whereas Japanese and European urban areas tend to have 15,000 or more. Transit systems are used less, and connecting intercity rail service is almost nonexistent. In short, the reports says high-speed rail is not commercially viable in the U.S.

Because discount airlines have entered the market, average airline fares over the route are 15% lower than projected rail fares. Also, airplanes will make trips between cities as fast or faster than the trains will. It also says the FOX fares will be "20 times the cost of a personal auto trip" and that "auto trip times will actually be faster between some locations."

Since it will fail in the market, the report says, FOX will do little to alleviate congestion in the air or on the ground. All airports in the Miami-Orlando-Tampa corridor, where the rail line is planned, are expanding or intend to expand to accommodate future air traffic. And as for highway congestion, the rail line would only divert an average of 1/30th of the traffic in a single lane. The study says that for reducing gridlock and winglock, airport and highway expansion "are more cost-effective than building high-speed rail."

And these hardly noticeable benefits of the FOX project will come at a huge cost, says the report. Recent large infrastructure projects have a record of serious cost overruns: Denver1s new airport (300% over budget), the Channel Tunnel project (140% over budget) and Boston1s Central Artery/Tunnel highway project (100% over budget and still under construction). FOX will no doubt be the same.

So the benefits will be hardly noticeable–and FOX will be a "financial disaster" for the state of Florida. Or so goes the report.

High-Speed Rail: Worth the Cost. The need for solutions to America1s transportation problems is more than enough reason to make high-speed rail part of our system. How much longer must we as Americans be deprived of such a basic mode of intercity travel?

If the success of high-speed trains in other countries, and their economic viability there, is any indication–then there is a place for those trains in America. The James Madison report graphically understates that overseas success. It fails to note the effects of the first TGV line from Paris to Lyon: The number of airline passengers on the route fell by 40%, car traffic on the parallel motorway fell 30%, and train ridership grew by 500%. The line was profitable enough to pay off its construction costs in only a few years.(12)

Evidence suggests there may actually be more of a ridership base for high-speed rail in the U.S. than in Europe or Japan–because while U.S. population density may not be what it is elsewhere in the world, this country has the highest travel volume of any in the world.(13)

The claim that airport and highway expansion are more cost-effective than high-speed rail is based on the artificially low cost of expanding those systems. It's based on low gasoline prices and discount airfares.(14)

And why should policymakers, as recommended by the study, reject high-speed rail on terms of "commercial viability"? That's not the way most transportation planning is done. Said a government highway official, "If we had to do a cost-benefit analysis of the interstate highway system, it wouldn't have been built."(15)

Ultimately the authors of the report discussed above seem critical of high-speed rail at any cost--relying on statements such as "High-speed rail planning is based upon assumptions, not analysis!" They even accuse the Florida DOT of "adopting a policy of preference toward high-speed rail that could injure Florida's economy [by reducing highway funding]." As the federal government in 1998 is spending $30 billion on highways but less than $1 billion on railroads, the injury they should be concerned with is injury to the credibility of their report.(16)

High-speed rail construction should begin immediately in America, because

1. No major mode of transportation should ever be completely excluded from our developed country

2. High-speed rail is energy-efficient and limits pollution, traffic jams, and highway accidents--its present exclusion from our system is damaging to our economy and environment alike

The Madison study authors should take a ride on a high-speed train. And ask themselves if Americans--sick of worrying about air pollution and traffic delays and the extreme cost of the new highway bill signed this year (ironically, "Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-First Century")--might enjoy it. Or at least have the choice.


1. Allen, G. Freeman. Railways Past Present & Future. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1982.

2. Vranich, Joseph. Supertrains: Solutions to America1s Transportation Gridlock (New York: St.

Martin1s Press, 1991) 337.

3. Supertrains, 275

4. Supertrains 9

5. Supertrains 264-269

6. Supertrains 337

7. Supertrains 336-339

8. Supertrains 343

9. Supertrains 341-342

10. Supertrains 17-18

11. Cox, Wendell. James Madison Institute Policy Report # 21: Evaluation of the FDOT-FOX Miami-Orlando-Tampa High-Speed Rail Proposal.

12. High Speed Rail (HSR) by Oliver Keating ( See "The Drive to Make Trains Go Faster"

13. Vranich, Joseph. Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America1s Passenger Trains (New York: St. Martin1s Press, 1997). See "Sidetracking High-Speed Trains."

14. High-Speed Rail by Oliver Keating. See "FAST TRAINS COSTS AND BENEFITS OF FUTURE POSSIBILITIES IN US" under "Discussion Area"

15. Supertrains.

16. 31998 Transportation Funding.2 News from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Feb. 1998: 1.

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