The Washington Post editorialized against spending any more tax dollars on California’s high-speed rail project, saying “California should have to fill in its project’s economic and logistical blanks” before more federal or even state dollars are spent. While no one is surprised to see fiscally conservative papers such as the Washington Examiner come out against high-speed rail, the fact that the traditionally liberal Post is against it suggests that the end is near.
Naturally, rail advocates accuse the Post of being “unfair,” but they miss the Post‘s point, which is that the California High-Speed Rail Authority only has a tiny fraction of the money it needs, no private investors have offered to contribute (despite the Authority’s predictions that they would provide at least $6 billion in funding), and the Authority has been accused of mismanagement and optimism bias by, among others, the California State Auditor, a peer committee of transportation engineers, and experts at the University of California at Berkeley.
Orange County was planning to spend a whopping $184 million on an Anaheim “transit center,” 90 percent of whose customers would arrive or depart on a high-speed train. But with it looking more and more likely that train will never arrive, county officials are backing off this grandiose plan.
In Florida, lobbyists are working furiously to keep that state’s high-speed train alive. The state’s governor says he will decide whether or not to kill the line in the next few weeks. Even a major high-speed rail advocacy group, America 2050, concludes in a report that high-speed rail doesn’t really make sense in Florida because the state lacks any concentrations of people.
Recently, there were reports that many in China are questioning that nation’s high-speed rail program. In response, a Chinese-American analyst writing for The Atlantic argues that, “a network of high-speed rail can generate the kind of economic organization and development that the interstate highway system produced in the US.”
Sadly for rail buffs like the Antiplanner, he is wrong. Even in a country like China, where auto ownership is still rare, high-speed rail simply can’t produce the same benefits as the Interstate Highway System for several reasons.
1. High-speed trains carry no freight. By sharing the same facilities with both cars and trucks, interstate highways reduce the costs to both.
2. High-speed trains don’t go door to door. The advantages of door-to-door service provided by the automobile outweigh the speed advantage of high-speed trains, which is why autos are getting to be very popular in China.
3. High-speed trains are convenient for only a small group of people. Unless you live or work near a train station and your destination is also near a train station, other modes of travel will work better.
4. High-speed trains are very expensive. Fares on China’s high-speed trains are several times greater than on conventional trains, which further limits the market to a narrow elite.
Instead of building more high-speed rail, China should work to relieve the traffic congestion that is certain to increase as more people buy and drive automobiles. Of course, if China’s goal is to bankrupt America, one way to reach that goal would be to encourage us to build lots of high-speed trains, especially if we also buy Chinese technology for those trains.