Obama's plan for high-speed rail doesn't go far enough.

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April 16 2009 7:07 PM

Wrong Track

Obama's high-speed-rail plan does too little too soon.

High-speed train. Click image to expand.
High-speed train

In a speech Thursday morning, President Obama outlined his vision for high-speed rail: "Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."

What a wonderful world it would be—if you could afford it.

The most prevalent criticism of Obama's high-speed rail plan focuses on its cost to taxpayers. But what about its cost to riders?

Obama has so far set aside $13 billion for high-speed rail. (The stimulus package allocates $8 billion, and the budget allots another $1 billion a year for the next five years.) But that doesn't begin to cover even one of the 11 high-speed rail corridors designated by the Department of Transportation. For example, California's proposed high-speed rail line would cost at least $35 billion to build. Upgrading all of the nation's corridors to "high-speed rail" would cost scores of billions more. Replacing the entire system with bullet trains—i.e., laying new tracks and building new vehicles that could go up to 200 mph—could reach a $500 billion.

That's not news. Cost has been a major obstacle for high-speed rail for years. In Florida, voters repealed their approval for a rail system after cost estimates reached as high as $25 billion. In Texas, a project died after the price tag hit $6.8 billion. California's high-speed-rail system has been famously on hold since 1982, largely for financial reasons.

Obama anticipated the skepticism, calling the initial $8 billion "just a first step. We know that this is going to be a long-term project."

What he did not address, though, is how much people will have to pay once the rails are built. Right now, Amtrak is a luxury product. One-way tickets from Washington to New York City currently start around $70. During peak times, that can rise to $140. On the ultrafast Acela, tickets start around $100 and quickly reach double that.

The bus? That costs $25. And it has wi-fi. (So does Amtrak at a few stations.)

And the Northeast Corridor is the busiest train route in the country. In other regions, where there won't be as many travelers—say, Chicago to St. Louis—there won't be the same stream of revenue to cover costs, which means either higher ticket prices or more government subsidies.

Obama has spent his career opposing policies that disproportionately benefit the rich. But it's hard to think of a service more skewed toward the wealthy—and employees of wealthy companies—than high-speed rail. Amtrak currently accounts for about 0.1 percent of U.S. intercity passenger miles. High-speed rail, even less. (The only high-speed rail currently in America is the Acela express from Washington, D.C., to Boston.) That's partly because trains don't serve all cities, and they're not always convenient if you live far from a station. But it's also a question of price.

High-speed rail advocates see this quibble coming. California's proposed high-speed rail addresses the price question in its business plan, estimating that tickets would cost up to 50 percent less than plane tickets. A ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles would be $55—and it's potentially faster, greener, and more comfortable than flying. That's terrific—but also optimistic if costs rise unexpectedly, as they tend to do, or if the projected 93 million boardings a year fail to materialize.

Moreover, the nifty new trains wouldn't even be that fast. The term high-speed rail may conjure images of 200 mph Japanese bullet trains. But California is the only state with a proposal like that. The rest of the high-speed rail would be built using existing track, on which trains can't go much faster than 110 mph. (The Federal Railroad Administration defines high-speed rail as anything over 90 mph. Their European counterparts set the bar at 125 mph.) That's an improvement over the conventional rail speed of 80 mph, but hardly the futuristic overhaul Obama seems to envision.

High-speed rail skeptics—deniers, to some—point to other obstacles. The government would have to pay private freight companies that own the tracks for the privilege of using them. Then passenger trains would have to share the tracks with freight trains going half their speed, forcing vehicles to slow down or stop. The government would also have to buy or take land if it wanted to lay new tracks, and eminent-domain laws aren't nearly as government-friendly in the United States as in France.

Eventually, the United States could have a countrywide network of bona fide bullet trains. And as Obama likes to reiterate, no one said this would be easy. But upgrading our existing rail lines to support slightly faster trains doesn't bring that future any closer. In fact, it may postpone it. Instead of spending money making small upgrades to a flawed system, the government might get more mileage, so to speak, by starting from scratch.

Yes, it would cost taxpayers more in the long run. And it would take longer to get there. But if the goal is a high-speed rail system to rival Europe's or Japan's, then it may be the most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B.

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