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.

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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.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.