The U.S. has tried to build high-speed rail for 50 years | NPR Marketplace

Ben Bradford interviewed me and others (including Berkeley’s Betty Deakin) for the Marketplace story “Why can’t America build bullet trains?” I argue in a few seconds of airtime that intercity rail is not the best use of scarce public funds, which should instead be spent on urban travel. There is a related timeline at: “The U.S. has tried to build high-speed rail for 50 years


On Very Fast Trains

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have not been terribly sympathetic to high-speed trains in the US, particularly California. In a world where fuel costs were high and urban transit better, high-speed rail is a better proposition than in a world with inexpensive cars, cheap gas, poor urban transit, and affordable aviation. Unfortunately for HSR supporters, the latter is the more accurate description of the world, or at least the United States.

High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)
High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)

Australia has long had discussions about the Very Fast Train connecting Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, and possibly Newcastle and Brisbane.  Melbourne-Sydney is 714 km, and the 5th busiest air transport market in the world, so this is not, prima facie, an absurd idea.

The best show about urban planning, economic development, and transportation that you are not watching,  Dreamland/Utopia has a nice clip which lays out the problem:

Now, I don’t really know, nor does anyone else, whether HSR pencils out in Australia, it all depends on assumptions about the state of the world 20, 30, 50 years in the future, which is honestly unknowable, so I will keep an open mind. Since I wrote a book about the future of transport, I think it likely that we will have inexpensive autonomous, electric vehicles, which should be able to achieve higher speeds than cars do now, safely, and have better range than today’s EVs with continuing battery improvements. If HSR is built, it will undoubtedly be used, but that does not mean it was the best way to spend $AU 100 billion.

The most recent  proposals of CLARA  use a form of land value capture to help fund the system, by developing stations along the route, and developing suburbs/towns/cities around those intermediate stations.  I love new planned communities, and this is an exciting idea. I also love value capture. So this is a promising endeavour. But land development on greenfields often takes longer than anticipated, and thus may take a long time to justify the investment, and thus leave investors hanging if projections are not realised, or like so many infrastructure projects before, result in a government bailout. Nevertheless, if the tracks are on the ground, and the first (or second) round of investors are wiped out, the people of Australia will have gotten capital investment in infrastructure at a huge discount, though still be on the hook for operations and maintenance.

Peter Thornton has a fact-filled slide deck: Let’s get real about high speed rail in Australia, which comes down against building a full system at first, instead recommends the government, not a private entity, assume the risk and reward and improve shorter distance routes (namely Newcastle to Sydney), and expanding the system over time, rather than conceiving it as one giant project. The government could then sell the operating business and use the revenue to fund the next big thing. Other articles of his include

I will enjoy watching this play out.

Reality intrudes upon Obama’s bullet train fantasy | AEI

Image Credit: Grist

Image Credit: Grist

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama dreamily depicted a future, just 25 years hence, where almost all Americans would have easy access to high-speed rail. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down.”

I think we’ll see a space elevator before America gets a nation-spanning bullet train system. The New York Times finds that “despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China.” Reporter Ron Nixon cites experts who fault the Obama administration for spreading that dough around rather than focusing on key projects like improving Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor, “the most likely place for high-speed rail.”

Acela averages just 80 mph between Washington and New York, although the trains are capable of going twice as fast. Old infrastructure and rail-sharing slows it down. According to the piece, “a plan to bring it up to the speed of Japanese bullet-trains, which can top 220 m.p.h., will take $150 billion and 26 years, if it ever happens.”

Of course, the US is a lot different than many nations with high-speed rail, nations which have “higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership.” Not that bulleteers doubt a high-speed future will happen:

But Andy Kunz, executive director of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, thinks the United States will eventually have a high-speed rail system that connects the country. “It’s going to take some years after gas prices rise and highways fill up with traffic,” he said. “It’s going to happen because we won’t have a choice.”

Wait, we have no choice but to build high-speed rail because the highways are going to “fill up with traffic”? Let me bring your attention to this chart from Paul Kedrosky:

Paul Kedrosky

And here is transportation expert David Levinson on “peak traffic”:

It depends on where you are as to whether traffic’s declining, but national statistics have shown that per capita travel in vehicles is roughly where it was in the late 1990s. And vehicle miles traveled, the number of miles that cars are moving is roughly where it was in the early 2000s.  And this is after a 90-year increase in the amount of automobile traffic, from, you know, the 1910s to the early 21st century.

So people have sort of this expectation that traffic will continue to increase because it has increased in the past for such a long period of time.  And this is built into traffic forecasts.  It’s built into the way people view the world.  But beginning in the early 2000s, in particular after 9/11, with a number of societal changes, including things like increased gas prices, changing demographics, changing employment, the amount of travel that people were engaging in individually has leveled off and has declined on a per capita level.

Now, a lot of technologies have a lifecycle.  They have an S curve associated with them.  So they start off, they grow slowly even, there’s a period of very rapid growth.  Then it levels off.  And then something new happens and the S curve begins to decline.  And so we sort of see that in a number of things that we no longer use as much we used to.  U.S. mail volume increased for decades upon decades until the 1990s.  And it started to level off in the 1990s with the rise of email and the Internet, and then, in the early 2000s has fallen off a cliff.

So is that going to happen with travel?  And so this is the scenario that I’m painting.  And so it’s a future scenario. I don’t want to say that I predicted that this would happen, but this is one thing that might happen that nobody is taking any account of right now.

And here is a good piece by Tim Worstall on the impact of potential impact of driverless cars on high-speed rail. Technology will change how America’s gets around. But more likely it will be 21st century technology, not that of the 1970s.

Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump | Grand Forks Herald | Grand Forks, North Dakota

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Pat Doyle of the Star Tribune for an article on High Speed Rail. For some reason, I don’t see it there, (and I don’t get the paper), but it did show up in the Grand Forks Herald: Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump

MINNEAPOLIS – Prospects for a high-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the foreseeable future have disappeared, the casualty of funding shortfalls and political priorities.
The refusal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to accept federal money to build a link in the line “does kill it … at least for the short term,” said Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. “We could be talking 10 to 15 years.”
But transportation officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the federal government are continuing to work on proposals for a high-speed line, committing $1.2 million to plan possible routes in case prospects improve over the next few years.
While Minnesota says a system could be running by 2017, there is no indication that enough federal or state money will be available to make it happen.
After 15 years of pursuing high-speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, advocates are focusing immediate attention on simply upgrading existing Amtrak service by adding a daily train or nudging up speeds.
The dashed prospects for high speed come as President Obama vowed in last month’s State of the Union address to make it available to 80 percent of Americans by 2035.
Obama dedicated $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed — defined as 110 miles per hour or faster. But Walker’s decision to reject $810 million of it to build a link between Milwaukee and Madison resulted in those funds being re-routed to other projects. Walker said the line would have cost Wisconsin millions to operate.
“It pretty much kills it until he’s no longer governor, for starters,” said David Levinson, a professor with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. “Even if he’s no longer governor, the federal government might not be interested in funding high-speed rail at that point. … I don’t know if that window will ever come back.”
Advocates aren’t giving up.
“We’re not dead,” said Dan Krom, who directs Minnesota’s passenger rail program and has worked for more than a decade on high-speed rail. Wisconsin’s rejection of federal money “doesn’t stop our work in getting to Chicago.”
It takes several years to select a route and complete engineering work, he said, and “administrations can change.”
Others moving ahead
While the Twin Cities-to-Chicago project has stalled, other regions are moving ahead. Illinois is using $1.1 billion in federal money to begin building high-speed from Chicago to St. Louis. California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance a San Diego-to-Sacramento line.
America 2050, a coalition of regional planners and academics supported by foundations, last month ranked urban corridors on their suitability for high-speed trains. It considered population, employment, transit ridership, air ridership and highway congestion in scoring the corridors.
The Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked fourth in the Great Lakes Region, behind Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Indianapolis and Chicago-Detroit, but ahead of the Chicago-St. Louis line under construction.
“The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor may have the edge, because of the larger air market and the strength of ridership on the Milwaukee-Chicago section of the corridor,” the study said.
Nationwide, the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked 23rd out of 86 corridors, outscored by many routes in the northeast and in California.
In an effort to gauge business support for high-speed rail, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked members if they supported the Milwaukee-to-Madison link as part of a system “connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities.” They split, 214-214, on the question.
“There was no solid way to push,” said Timothy Sheehy, president of the association.
Cost concerns
“We vehemently oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison line,” said Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie. While not commenting on whether the governor might ever support a Twin Cities-Chicago line, Werwie said, “We cannot saddle our taxpayers with another ongoing operating-subsidy cost.”
Krom acknowledges that operating costs are a challenge, with gasoline taxes designated for highways. “They don’t have a sustainable funding source,” he said of high-speed lines.
Wisconsin already faces a projected $3.6 billion budget gap and Minnesota faces a $6.2 billion deficit.
A line between Chicago and the Twin Cities running at speeds of 110 miles per hour could cost $1 billion to $4 billion to build. But a 200 mph system that would be an alternative to air travel could cost $25 billion to $30 billion.
“Nobody wants to spend money because of the deficit, … and these services don’t pay for themselves, unfortunately,” the U’s Levinson said.
But Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, says high-speed transportation will save energy and serve “a more mobile workforce … making cities and regions more attractive to young people.
“These are long-term, expensive projects that do require a far-reaching vision about what we want to be.”
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

State Seeks Stimulus Funds to Study High-Speed Rail

I am quoted in State Seeks Stimulus Funds To Study High-Speed Rail by Jamie Walden. The State in question is Arkansas. The route is Little Rock to Texarkana (ultimately to Dallas).

Flowers said the applications for a cut of the $8 billion allocated to a high-speed rail system by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 were due Monday. The government received applications for grants totaling more than $102 billion, he said.

The land rush is on, get your HSR application in the queue.

Reason study on California HSR

Reason Foundation has completed a study of the proposed California High Speed Rail line. The net: it is an unwise investment. Links below:
* News Release
* Policy Summary (.pdf)
* Full Study: The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report (.pdf)
* Brief: High-Speed Rail Plan Is A Financial Boondoggle
* Brief: Marginal Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
* Brief: Exaggerating Rails Effects on California
* Findings at Glance

California’s high speed rail just won’t die

According to an editorial by Michael Dukakis, L.A.-S.F. train is a quick traffic fix – Los Angeles Times, California should build a high-speed rail line to reduce urban congestion. Clearly the former governor has never heard of opportunity costs . Spending money on intercity transportation means the money cannot be spent to solve real problems within metropolitan areas, where the traffic is.

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