High-Speed Rail: An Evaluation


Note: This article is adapted from the recently published Reason Foundation report Assessing the Results of the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, by Wendell Cox

It is expected that high-speed rail will be a priority for the new administration. Recent history with “faux” high speed rail in the United States and genuine high-speed rail internationally suggests an expensive price tag for taxpayers and little impact on travel.

But beyond the federal spending aspects is the question of how much value would be produced by such funding. Consequently, this report offers a detailed review of the most recent attempt to boost passenger rail by funding high-speed rail projects and improving service in Amtrak corridors.

In 2009, the Obama administration proposed, and Congress enacted, legislation that authorized the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program. The program offered grants to four states to develop and implement new HSR corridors, but only one (California) was accepted. It also offered many grants to improve the performance of individual Amtrak corridors.

This report draws on many sources to assess the results of projects in the HSIPR program. The results suggest caution in attempting a similar program during the new administration. For example:

  • California High-Speed Rail: HSIPR funding of $3.9 billion for the 520-mile planned Phase 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This project included the 119-mile initial construction segment (ICS) in the Central Valley and the high-speed rail infrastructure component of the new Transbay Transit Center. High-speed rail service was to cover the entire Phase 1 route (from Los Angeles to San Francisco) by 2020. Since the grant awards, however, both Phase 1 and the ICS have doubled in cost and decreased in scale, with portions now expected to operate in “blended” service with commuter trains. Service operation dates have been delayed by at least seven years on the ICS and at least 13 years for Phase 1. Cost projections for Phase 2 have not been updated. The overall federal commitment equaled nearly one half of the $8.1 billion spent on HSIPR corridor grants nationally.
  • Seattle-Portland Corridor: HSIPR funding of $0.75 billion for upgrading infrastructure. This project aimed to reduce travel time by 10 minutes on this trip that took between 3:20 and 3:30, and to add two daily round trips. The infrastructure was completed and the two new trains were scheduled to begin operating on December 17, 2017. Tragically, a safety related fatal derailment approximately 50 miles into the first trip of a new Seattle-to-Portland train halted the service expansion.
  • Chicago-St. Louis Corridor: HSIPR funding of $1.34 billion. This project upgrades infrastructure with new locomotives and passenger cars to reduce travel time less than one hour from the previous five-hour and 40-minute (5:40) trip. No additional service was to be added. Incomplete critical safety improvements (positive train control) have precluded achieving travel time reductions.
  • Chicago-Detroit Corridor: HSIPR funding of $0.6 billion for upgrading infrastructure. This project aims to reduce travel time by 30 minutes on this trip that took between 5:05 and 5:35 without adding additional service. With a top operating speed of 110 mph, this project has substantially achieved its intended travel time improvement.
  • Charlotte-Raleigh Corridor: HSIPR funding of $0.52 billion. This project aimed to improve safety (largely by upgrading infrastructure that eliminated grade crossings) and increase train frequencies. The infrastructure improvements were completed on schedule and one additional train was in operation in 2019.
  • Chicago-Iowa City Corridor: HSIPR funding of $0.23 billion. This project sought to upgrade infrastructure to re-establish service, which would operate at a maximum speed of 79 mph. After the grant award, Illinois and Iowa suspended the corridor improvements citing cost escalation and operating subsidies problems. Illinois recently announced that it would begin work, though in Iowa the suspension continues.

From the perspective of value for taxpayers’ money, this report finds inconsistencies between project objectives and the assumptions on which public policies have been adopted.

For example, none of the five major conventional corridor HSIPR projects had a significant share of rail travel in their respective corridors. As a result, none of the projects would materially reduce the market shares of the dominant modes in their respective corridors, even if all project objectives were met.

Another concern for taxpayers is cost overruns, which are endemic in high-speed rail projects around the world. Publicly funded high-speed rail systems have incurred large cost overruns relative to forecasts at the time of project approval, as documented in comprehensive research by European academics. Specifically, the California high-speed rail project and Great Britain’s HS2 project have incurred some of the most egregious cost overruns, a decade or more before there could be any prospect of complete service operation. This unfortunate experience seems likely to continue until there is effective and successful reform of high-speed rail planning and management approaches.

Even after construction is complete, financing operations have proved challenging. The international experience in countries with stronger intercity rail shares and more concentrated population, strongly suggests that the U.S. has little potential for financially successful high-speed rail projects. Out of the many high-speed rail lines that have been developed in the world, only three have covered their capital and operating costs from commercial sources, especially passenger fares. Each of these corridors had substantial pre-existing rail ridership, which is an advantage shared with only one corridor in the United States (the Washington to Boston Northeast Corridor).

With these challenges in mind, developing public policy that efficiently serves the taxpayers requires that decisions be made based on the best possible information. The data and analysis available at the time of project authorization should provide a reliable basis for informed decision making. This has not been the case in passenger rail, as substantial post-authorization cost escalation has been typical.

It is unfortunate enough when cost escalation occurs on a critical megaproject—one that is an important part of the existing transportation system. It is particularly unfortunate when the cost-escalation occurs in a non-critical project—those not required for the continued operation of the overall transportation system. Until megaprojects are built cost efficiently and perform well financially, taxpayers would be better served without them (including high-speed rail).

Some high-speed rail and other intercity rail niche markets may be commercially developed by the private sector and operated commercially (without subsidy). Such systems would have the advantage of switching unforeseen risk for cost overruns away from the taxpayers to private investors. Moreover, the private sector would likely choose projects with a high likelihood of financial sustainability over those without. But private businesses must also consider the relatively high cost of permitting and regulation involved in such projects.

The policy analysis concludes with the following recommendations:

  • Given the tendency for gross underestimation of costs that has occurred among government-sponsored high-speed rail projects, taxpayers should not be “on the hook” for the success of a project. The federal government should not provide funding or loans for new high-speed rail projects.
  • The federal government should support commercial passenger rail development with regulatory assistance in the form of simplified environmental reviews, expedited permitting, and expansion of tax-exempt private activity bonds, backed by revenues from the commercial company.

View or download Full Study: High-Speed Rail: Federal (HSIPR) Program and Policy Analysis

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Photo credit: Approaching the Hudson River Tunnel in New Jersey toward New York’s Penn Station (by author).

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I love high-speed rail

I love high-speed rail.
The TGV of France is awesome.
Even Italia has decent fast trains.

You just have to admit that it will never "pay for itself".

Dave Barnes