The Antiplanner is an unabashed rail nut. My office walls are filled with pictures of trains and rail memorabilia. I’ve traveled at least a quarter of a million miles on Amtrak and Canada’s VIA. When I’ve visited Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, my preferred method of local travel has always been by train. I helped restore the nation’s second-most powerful operating steam locomotive, and my living room has the beginnings of a model railroad.
There is no doubt that, if high-speed rail worked, I would be the first to support it. But my definition of “works” is somewhat different from that of rail advocates, one of whom once told me that he considered a rail transit project successful if it allowed just one person to get to work a little faster — no matter how much it cost everyone else.
For me, “works” means that a project is cost-effective at achieving worthwhile objectives. “Cost-effective” means that no other projects could accomplish the same objectives at a lower cost. “Worthwhile objectives” might include reducing traffic congestion, air pollution, or energy consumption. Though high-speed rail advocates are gleeful about the prospect, I don’t consider shutting down competing air service to be a worthwhile objective.
This series of posts on high-speed rail has revealed at least twelve important facts.
1. Far from being a success, Japanese bullet trains put the previously profitable, state-owned Japanese National Railways into virtual bankruptcy. This forced the government to privatize the railroad and absorb $200 billion in high-speed debt.
2. Nor did the bullet trains slow Japan’s adoption of automobiles. Instead, the growth of auto driving accelerated when the bullet trains were introduced, partly because the Japanese National Railways responded to their monetary losses by raising fares. Since the bullet trains were introduced, rails lost more than half their market share of travel to the automobile.
Some commenters have kindly pointed out that, at 29 percent, rail’s market share in Japan is still very respectable by Western standards. But Japan’s main island, Honshu, where most of the high-speed rail lines are located, has a population density of more than 1,100 people per square mile. That’s a far greater density than any comparable area of the U.S. or Europe, so it is likely that rail’s share would be high even without high-speed rail. Most Japanese railway passengers don’t ride the high-speed rail in any case.
3. Europe’s high-speed rail story is no better. Since introducing high-speed rail, rail has slowly but steadily lost market share to autos and airlines. Despite spending tens of billions of dollars per year subsidizing rail, the only European countries where rail has more than a 9 percent share of passenger travel — including Hungary and Switzerland — don’t have high-speed rail.
4. Florida studied and discarded high-speed rail partly because of the high cost and partly because environmental analyses concluded that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the No Build Alternative.”
5. The proposed California high-speed rail network is currently projected to cost at least $43 billion, and the actual cost is likely to be well over $50 billion. Although rail advocates claim California taxpayers will only have to pay only $9.95 billion (plus a roughly equal amount of interest) of this amount, there is absolutely no assurance that either the federal government or private investors will be willing to dedicate much money to the project.
6. The $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds that voters will consider approving in November will not do much more than build a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Jose. They will, however, add about $650 million in annual costs to a state government already saddled with deficits.
7. If the California system is ever built, the Rail Authority’s projected 2020 ridership numbers are not likely to be achieved. The Authority is projecting more than three to nearly six times as many riders as Amtrak carries in its Northeast Corridor, which has more people than the California corridor will have in 2020. High-speed rail’s time advantage over air is most pronounced on the shorter trips taken in the Northeast Corridor than the longer trips that would be more typical in California, casting further doubt on the Authority’s projections.
8. Voters do not have a choice between highways or high-speed rail. They have a choice between highways or high-speed rail and more highways. Even if ridership projections are achieved, high-speed rail will reduce traffic on parallel roads by an average of just 3.8 percent. Since traffic on rural California freeways grows at 2.7 percent per year, traffic will be back to pre-rail levels less than 18 months after the network is completed.
9. When the costs of construction are counted, high-speed rail will save either trivial or no amounts of energy, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. The main discernible effect of high-speed rail will be the decimation of local air services.
10. Despite the straw-man alternative in the EIS, highway and air alternatives will cost far less than high-speed rail. California can and should develop a 21st-century transportation system funded entirely out of user fees. But that system will consist mainly of highways and air, not high-speed rail.
11. Like other megaprojects, planners and advocates of high-speed rail are guilty of both optimism bias (where planners deceive themselves) and strategic misrepresentation (where they deceive the public). While the line between the two is sometimes difficult to discern, claims that the state can build even just the San Francisco to Los Angeles segment without spending more than $10 billion, that the rail system will reduce the need to build more roads and expand airports, the use of a straw man alternative in the EIS, and assumptions that cars and planes will never become more energy efficient than they are today are all examples of one or the other.
12. As others have noted, the main beneficiaries of high-speed rail will be the companies that will design, engineer, and build it — including Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company that did most of the projections for the EIS. These companies in turn are the main backers of the line.
If you live in California, the scariest possibility is that, if the measure passes, the Rail Authority will blow the entire $9.95 billion accomplishing practically nothing. If you live outside of California, the scariest possibility is that the measure’s passage will lead to a cascade of similar high-speed rail projects all over the country costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars — while still accomplishing practically nothing.