Let's Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead


Advocates were ecstatic when President Obama had $8 billion for high speed rail put into the stimulus bill. His administration planned to make HSR one of the cornerstones of its infrastructure investment program. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Europe to check out HSR there in person and came back proclaiming, “High speed rail is coming to America.” The $8 billion, we were told, was a down payment, and that in little more than two decades, America's largest cities would be linked by a web of high speed trains.

But as it turns out, a series of snafus and reversals has left Obama's HSR agenda on life support.

First is the public perception of the failure of the stimulus bill. Unemployment never came down to projected levels. Spending largely went to keep state and local government workers already employed, not towards infrastructure or new jobs. Obama has since admitted he was mistaken to believe there were such things as “shovel ready” projects for even roads, much less a complex undertaking like high speed rail. But more importantly, rather than put that $8 billion towards focused projects that would really advance the ball of high speed rail in America, it was peanut butter spread across a large number of projects around the country, ultimately not driving significant improvements. This feeds the perception of $8 billion that just went “poof.”

At the same time, the federal deficit ballooned to $1.5 trillion and the national debt to an astounding $14 trillion. Virtually all parties agree on the need to address our massive structural deficit. The Tea Party focused on a hodge podge of issues, but primarily on reducing government spending. The movement grew to prominence and fueled a Republican comeback in the 2010 elections. In this environment, getting anything done will be difficult, and especially funding items like HSR that are easy to characterize as frivolous and favoring just a few urban regions.

The biggest impact may have been at the state level, however, as a wave of new Republican governors ripped up HSR plans and sent stimulus funds back to Washington.  This includes Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida, all of whom said “thanks, but no thanks” to federal rail funds.

But beyond those philosophically opposed to HSR, some  high speed rail advocates have done themselves no favors either. They've resolutely backed pretty much any and every rail project regardless of whether it is potentially useful or an outright boondoggle. They've engaged in false advertising by labeling 110 MPH peak speeds as “high speed rail” instead of what it really is:Amtrak on steroids. (One of the more serious HSR advocates is Richard Longworth, who labeled the Midwest 110 MPH rail plan the “Toonerville trolley”). Nevertheless, Illinois is pocketing well over $1 billion of the HSR stimulus funds for this “high speed” system that will offer end to end journey times that are at best only slightly better than what's already being provided today by Megabus – and that for only a handful of trains a day on a line still subject to freight interference.

Advocates have excoriated opponents to high speed rail, but have shown themselves largely utterly unserious about the enterprise as they have put no focus on overcoming major institutional barriers such as the steam road era thinking of the Federal Railroad Administration which is stuck in the 90s – the 1890s – or the mismanagement at Amtrak.  Getting to an HSR system that works is going to involve major reform (or replacement) of those agencies since all proven, international HSR systems are illegal in the US under current rules.  Witness here also the histrionics about a Republican proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor rail operations rather than engage with it as a starting point.  Even in Europe and Japan, many HSR operations are private, so there’s no reason they can’t be in the US too.

To be clear, though I myself have been ambivalent about the high speed rail enterprise, I do not consider myself anti-rail in the slightest. I agree that HSR could bring potentially significant benefits, particularly in the Northeast, although it’s a somewhat more speculative enterprise in most parts of the country.  This is one on which reasonable people can disagree.  But however one feels, getting to the benefits will require a properly designed and operated true high speed system, something few of the current proposals would provide.

It's time to take a major gut check on high speed rail in America and rethink the direction. Clearly, with the budgetary and political situation, significant future HSR investments are unlikely. Even if some billions materialize, the experience of the stimulus suggests that they will be frittered away as salami slices sent hither and fro.

A better approach might be to take some time to think more clearly about what we want high speed rail to look like in America.  It starts with learning from best – and worst – practices abroad, while noting the important differences versus the US. We need to put a proper regulatory regime in place and reform the FRA; to set up a framework for a successful privatization of any system, probably with operations contracted to an international operator with high speed experience; and to jettison any thought of Amtrak as the ultimate HSR system operator.

We can then prove these concepts out in the one corridor where high speed rail is clearly a slam dunk in America: the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston.  Despite what the Acela brand might imply, this is far from high speed service today, and there's clearly room for vast improvements. Studies can proceed in parallel in other regions, and one we've proven in the NEC that HSR can be for real in America, other regions might opt in.

In short, it’s time to stop pretending we are going to get a massive nationwide HSR rail network any time soon.  Advocates should instead focus on building a serious system in a demonstration corridor that can built credibility for American high speed rail, then built incrementally from there.  That's about the best hope for HSR left in America. Without a rethink of the current approach, high speed rail is well and truly dead.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

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One major omission...

I find it somewhat amazing that you could write this article with a straight face and not even mention California's High Speed Rail program. Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin may have all rejected federal funds- but California absorbed a plurality of them to extend the first leg of the route through the central valley. It is still on schedule, and it is still going to go 220 mph.

I'm just trying to wrap my head around why you wouldn't even hint at the fact that there is still one true high speed rail program moving forward in this country.

Moving forward?

So far it is still vaporware.


I assume the advocates for HSR are on the whole reasonably intelligent people. Therefore, it follows that if there was a good justification for HSR they would have found it and be using it. The fact that their justifications and strategies are so lame tells me that it isn't justified.

HSR lack cost comparisons and ROI data

I tend to agree. I have always found it suspicious that HSR advocates have many blogs and organizations dedicated to their efforts and they spend a lot of time saying "but highways and airports are subsidized too" yet it is very difficult to find on their websites any modal cost comparisons, return on investment comparisons, etc.

Here ya go

Rail is the most subsidized on a passenger-mile basis ...


The resulting federal subsidy per thousand passenger miles was as follows:
Inter-city passenger rail: $186
Urban transit: $118
Air travel: $ 6
Highways: -$2 (yes, that is minus $2)

We need to be clear about the definition of federal a "subsidy" for each mode of travel. A subsidy is not the same thing as "federal funding" altho many transit, rail, and high-speed rail advocates keep trying to twist the language so that it is. If an infrastructure project is funded by payments made by its users, there is no subsidy involved. A subsidy occurs when non-users are compelled to pay for such a project.

What pro-rail folks often do, incorrectly, is lump the local roads with the highways and cry, “See! Roads are subsidized too!”

Not only that, but money from the gas tax is siphoned off to subsidize transit. So one of the first reactions will be, “If the roads need a subsidy then let’s start by returning the money given to transit to the road fund.”

rail would perform similarly if given similar amounts of funds

Good find. I may not agree with your position, but at least you aren't giving us a testimonial of your personal experiences and stating it as fact.

Unfortunately, as it stands, rail in America is crap. The little (and decreasing) amounts of money sent to passenger rail just helps it limp along before it is ultimately shot. If we were to actually invest in efficient rail transport, it could rival air and highway travel. At one point I saw models for CA HSR that suggested the SF to LA route would turn such a profit, the San Diego and Sacramento legs would be fully funded. Given the travel time and cost is projected to beat out both driving and flying and the staggering numbers of travelers between these two cities, it is not shocking. What's more is it may help relieve congestion on those well traveled highways, making more room for trucking.

But, roads and air travel are subsidized too and to a scale that makes Amtrak subsidies look pathetic. The amount of subsidy that has been invested over the decades has made roads and airports reliable pieces of infrastructure that help fuel our economy. Why would you assume rail would be any different? Indeed, non-passenger rail transportation is still very profitable. I assume that is because the infrastructure was setup well before our government gave highway and air an unfair advantage through massive subsidies. It seems to me that if we want to argue that the market prefers one thing or another, both should have an equal advantage. Were that true, I don't think the market would chose one over the other, but would prefer a duplicative set of systems where one dominates in one area and the other in another area:
Air travel would obviously dominate cross country passenger trips.
Train travel would dominate regional passenger trips and cross country good transportation.
Highway travel would dominate regional good distribution and the more flexible passenger trips with multiple stops.

At least, based on each mode's strengths, that's what I think the market would chose in an equal setting.


Thanks for the data and the link. I always appreciate it when people do point out reliable data. Oh, and btw the link you posted is dead. It's now at http://www.bts.gov/publications/federal_subsidies_to_passenger_transport...

Is HSR politically doomed period?

I wonder if substantial HSR systems are doomed politically for the foreseeable future because fundamentally they are not good investments of resources. That is to say that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on HSR is most sensibly done in the NE corridor but would such a proposal be able to win sufficient political support from the rest of the country to pass the Congress? Unlike investments in airports, investing $100 billion in a NE HSR system does little to nothing to alleviate inter-city travel in the Middle, Southern, and Western states. Could it be that in order to have any hope of winning sufficient political support in the Congress, the feds must spread the HSR system around like peanut butter to many regions of the US and as such that inevitably means supporting many HSR proposals that are boondoggles in the making?

Now, if the US had not spent hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would have a nice chunk of change to spend on such infrastructure projects. But that is an alternative history. We now live in a time of fiscal restraint and hard choices.


The political class would have found a way to squander that money. So don't even think that "if we hadn't spent the money on ... "

The U.S. political class, especially President Obama, has presided over this historic collapse of fiscal credibility. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405270230420330457644633208449390...

Acela was the demonstration project.

Is this an attempt at revising history? Acela was the demonstration project!

Now you want to come back, spend billions more, and have a do-over? Didn't get it right the first time?

I agree in that calling anything below 120 mph high speed rail is disingenuous. It would be better to call trains between 80 and 110 (or 120) mph as HPR (High Performance Rail).

HSR is a boondoggle anyway. If you really want to go fast, you should invest in maglev. It costs about the same to build; it's significantly cheaper to operate; it's faster and quieter; and its more efficient. Indeed, the Japanese Central Railway (JR Tokai) has already announced that its next Bullet train will a maglev. The plan was recently approved and they will probably break ground in 2014.

The Chinese have proposed putting a maglev in a vacuum tube so that it can hit 600 mph!

And those folks in California think they're going to be high tech and fast with their HSR ... HA!

Otherwise focus on expanding the current network and getting up to HPR speeds and build a much larger and more comprehensive network for the same amount of money.