Why High-Speed Trains Are a Ridiculous Fantasy

High-speed rail supporter Alfred Twu has gotten a lot of attention for having boldly drawn a map of where he thinks high-speed trains should go. Never mind that Twu’s map is even more absurd than Obama’s plan. What’s sad is that the romance of trains still manages to hold peoples’ attention long after passenger trains have become technologically and economically obsolete.

Slate calls this the “liberals’ dream [of] what America’s high-speed rail network looks like.”

Anybody can draw a map, and that map is likely to reflect their own particular preferences. The Antiplanner’s ideal high-speed rail line would connect my home in Camp Sherman, Oregon (population 380) with Cato’s offices in Washington, DC. Of course, I tend to move about every eight or nine years, so by the time the rail line was finished the only potential regular customer would be gone. But just think of the jobs that would be created!

Twu lives in California, and his map has six lines radiating from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco. Twu is probably thinking either of where he would like to go by high-speed train or that everyone else would like to come to California by high-speed train. (He would also like us to “imagine no cars” in which case everyone would happily live in high-density, mixed-use developments. Like many planning types, he doesn’t understand the economics behind the horror of dumbbell tenements.)

Economist Megan McArdle points out that Twu’s New York-Los Angeles line makes little sense. Few people will want to spend 18 hours (McArdle’s estimate) in a coach seat when planes can do the same trip in six at a far lower cost. Nor will many intermediate segments, such as Chicago to Omaha or Denver to Las Vegas, attract large numbers of passengers. Thus, the trains will be fairly empty for much of the route.

McArdle doesn’t mention the even more absurd Los Angeles-Miami line on Twu’s map. As this analysis shows, Los Angeles-New Orleans is Amtrak’s least-used long-distance train, and Amtrak’s attempt to extend this route to Miami failed (partly due to Hurricane Katrina) after just a few years.

Twu’s map also includes routes from Cheyenne to El Paso; Chicago to Montreal; and a line to McAllen, Texas and beyond into Mexico. Other than the politicians that represent these regions, how could anyone take these routes seriously?

Twu’s map violates conventional wisdom among high-speed rail aficionados, which holds that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not 2,000- to 3,000-miles. By “most competitive,” of course, they mean “able to capture 5 or 6 percent of the market,” which–when all modes are counted–is all that Amtrak has in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Rail supporters argue that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor barely qualifies as high-speed rail as its top speed is only 150 and its average speed only about half that (which also means that none of the lines funded by the Obama administration, outside of California, qualify either). But dreaming about faster trains does little to change the fact that the fastest trains in the world are only about half as fast as jet aircraft, nor the fact that more Americans live and work within a few minutes of airports than downtown train stations. Anyone who is really serious about speeding travel would find ways to speed airport security, which would cost a lot less and do a lot more to help a lot more travelers than building multi-billion-dollar rail lines.

Here’s the real problem: America is a two-dimensional place, and we have a 4-million-mile network of highways and streets that allows anyone to get from practically anywhere to practically anywhere else in the contiguous 48 states. Rail lines are one dimensional, and what is worse they serve only selected points on that one-dimensional line. The number of people going from one point served by trains on a line to another point will be a small fraction of the total travelers in any given corridor.

Nor can trains compete with planes, which are not only faster but save money by requiring far less infrastructure. Airlines can respond to changes in travel patterns by altering air routes overnight, but building new rail lines is phenomenally expensive in time, money, and energy. (Rail advocates never mention the energy costs of constructing rail lines, which is typically scores if not hundreds of times greater than any potential annual energy savings from operations.)

Fiscal conservatives’ nightmare of high-speed rail in America.

The other big problem with trains is political. Since high-speed passenger trains are not commercially viable, the only way to have them is for the government to build them. But even if one or two routes made sense for some environmental reason, once the government built those routes, the political demand to reach every other podunk jurisdiction represented by a powerful elected official would overwhelm all sense (see Japan’s high-speed rail system for an example).

Riding luxury trains may be more elegant than driving, taking a bus, or squeezing into the economy seats of a typical aircraft. But people who want elegance should pay for first-class air fares–which, when all subsidies are counted, are still less expensive than most high-speed trains–not demand that taxpayers give them a cushy ride.

Share

20 thoughts on “Why High-Speed Trains Are a Ridiculous Fantasy

  1. gecko55

    I don’t disagree that “long distance” rail in the U.S. is rather fanciful. But rail between urban centers for short- / medium-distances can be a good option indeed.
    Zurich-Paris.
    Car: 656 km, approx 6 hours. Direct cost (fuel, tolls, parking): approx $130.
    Plane: 1 hr 20 min flight time. Door-to-door total time approx 3 hours (including 40 minutes from CdG airport to central Paris). Cost: $205, assuming a round-trip ticket plus $15 for bus from airport into central Paris. (Lowest price fare and only available at off-peak times.)
    Bus: 11.5 hours (one at day leaving at 7.30pm). Cost: $80.
    Train. 4 hours (Zurich main station – Paris Gare de Lyon; departures every two hours). Cost: $153.
    Yes, gas is much more expensive in Europe compared to the U.S., and dedicated passenger tracks in Europe enable higher speeds. But for some corridors in the U.S., rail doesn’t have to be a “ridiculous fantasy.”

  2. FrancisKing

    “What’s sad is that the romance of trains still manages to hold peoples’ attention long after passenger trains have become technologically and economically obsolete.”

    Antiplanner later contradicts this, by pointing out that

    “Twu’s map violates conventional wisdom among high-speed rail aficionados, which holds that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not 2,000- to 3,000-miles. By “most competitive,” of course, they mean “able to capture 5 or 6 percent of the market,” which–when all modes are counted–is all that Amtrak has in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.”

    So, obsolete in some corridors then.

  3. FrancisKing

    “But dreaming about faster trains does little to change the fact that the fastest trains in the world are only about half as fast as jet aircraft, nor the fact that more Americans live and work within a few minutes of airports than downtown train stations. Anyone who is really serious about speeding travel would find ways to speed airport security, which would cost a lot less and do a lot more to help a lot more travelers than building multi-billion-dollar rail lines.”

    I agree with this, as far as it goes. Air travel is more advanced than rail, and the internet is more advanced than air travel. There is plenty of scope to improve telecommunications.

  4. bennett

    Here in Austin we have a mass transit vision with a similarly ridiculous map. I wonder if these are just cases of ambition and reality being too far a part or if it is a calculated effort to drum up support knowing full well that the vision will never be a reality.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Twu is probably thinking either of where he would like to go by high-speed train or that everyone else would like to come to California by high-speed train. (He would also like us to “imagine no cars” in which case everyone would happily live in high-density, mixed-use developments. Like many planning types, he doesn’t understand the economics behind the horror of dumbbell tenements.)

    Overall, this post is one of The Antiplanner’s best efforts.

    Here again, we can file a lot of this in the “be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it” file.

    In that “imagine no cars” fantasy world, there is no highway user revenue to subsidize transit either.

  6. Sandy Teal

    I think the many problems of the proposal are easy. The interesting question is why high speed rail advocates think people want to sleep on a train or arrive at oh-dark-thirty. Do they live in reality? People do that for bargain basement travel or sleeping cars, but that is a very unattractive way to travel (and I have done that). Sleeping cars on a high speed train would be astronomically expensive.

    How can intelligent people read about these proposals without laughing? The worst plane trip is cheaper and only 4 hours.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    Sandy Teal wrote:

    I think the many problems of the proposal are easy. The interesting question is why high speed rail advocates think people want to sleep on a train or arrive at oh-dark-thirty. Do they live in reality?

    A lot of those advocates pine for a U.S. transportation system as it existed in about 1920 or 1930, when trains were the dominant mode of intercity transportation, and want to use the taxing and regulatory powers of government to return us to those blessed days. Of course, there are no more steam locomotives, but high-speed rail is a modernized form of the trains once pulled by steam power.

    People do that for bargain basement travel or sleeping cars, but that is a very unattractive way to travel (and I have done that). Sleeping cars on a high speed train would be astronomically expensive.

    Agreed. In my opinion, there are two types of trains where sleeping cars still make sense:

    (1) “Land cruise” type trains, similar to taking a cruise by sea; and
    (2) “Take your car” type trains, like the Amtrak Auto train between Sanford, Fla. and Lorton, Va.

    How can intelligent people read about these proposals without laughing? The worst plane trip is cheaper and only 4 hours.

    Much of it is about returning the nation to the Good Old Days (never mind that they were not especially “Good”).

  8. prk166

    I don’t know why Twu doesn’t have his trains serving North Dakota. People from around the country are migrating their for work. Maybe Twu really, really, really is imaging a car with no future so that all these people, these ex-oil workers in North Dakota, are jobless and have no means to travel?

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    prk166 wrote:

    I don’t know why Twu doesn’t have his trains serving North Dakota. People from around the country are migrating their for work.

    Even with the growth in employment in North Dakota, is that growth a “boomtown” or will it last?

    And even if it does last, is it concentrated in one place that could credibly be served by Amtrak? I think the answer is no.

    Maybe Twu really, really, really is imaging a car with no future so that all these people, these ex-oil workers in North Dakota, are jobless and have no means to travel?

    That’s the dream of many in the “anti-auto vanguard,” as Professor James Dunn put it some years ago. But even if fossil fuels go away at some point, I think automobiles will still be serving most travel in most advanced nations.

  10. prk166

    Sweet! Thanks!

    As for North Dakota, I was just throwing it out there for fun. But really, once one throws off the shackles of metrics why not make sure Minot has a stop? And then of course, one wouldn’t want to leave out South Dakota. Maybe some some of Great Plains spine HSR route parallel to US 85 could be built, eh? :)

    You are right to quest the boom. It takes a series of improbable events to occur to lead to a Silicon Valley of the past or the shale oil boom in the Baken they’re seeing in eastern MT and western ND. Once the drilling slows down I’d expect to see employment take a big hit. And one of the main beliefs – and we’ll see if it holds true – with the currently new fracking + horizontal is that a lot more oil is pumped out a lot faster ( that seems to be holding up ) and that because of that the lifespan on the wells will be shorter.

    The thing though is, what sustained boom of sorts like this ever really lasts, at least in terms of employment growth and overall number of jobs? It didn’t happen with mining in Colorado nor on the UP ( MI ). It didn’t happen with steel in Pittsburgh nor automobiles in Detroit.

  11. Sandy Teal

    President Obama apparently thinks it is important to corporations that the countries they place investment has high speed rail. Or, you could read it as the 147th stawman argument of the SOTU.

    Ask any CEO where they’d [sic] rather locate and hire–a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet; high-tech schools, self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America–a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina–said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And that’s the attitude of a lot of companies all around the world.

  12. PlanesnotTrains

    Plane: 1 hr 20 min flight time. Door-to-door total time approx 3 hours (including 40 minutes from CdG airport to central Paris). Cost: $205, assuming a round-trip ticket plus $15 for bus from airport into central Paris. (Lowest price fare and only available at off-peak times.)

    Why do rail foamers always make the assumption that everyone is going city center to city center. When will you learn this is not a valid metric.

  13. the highwayman

    C. P. Zilliacus: In that “imagine no cars” fantasy world, there is no highway user revenue to subsidize transit either.

    THWM: If that were so, then there would be no need for subsidizing transit either.

  14. prk166

    SNCF, the company that operates France’s high speed rail lines, is pushing new bus service

    http://www.idbus.com/about-us

    ABOUT US
    Because Europeans are increasingly looking to spend time with their families or friends. Because the coach is a modern and flexible form of transport with all the advantages of the car in terms of speed and liberty. Because those who love to travel by road want to adopt a different lifestyle today, one that respects the environment as well as their budget. Because travelling by coach is about combining all the benefits of car-pooling with comfort, safety and access to a professional service.

    For this reason, SNCF has created iDBUS, a long-distance coach service that links the major European cities. With its latest generation regular lines, iDBUS aims to become the leading European provider of long-distance coach travel. On board passengers will find comfort and accessibility, attention and information. With one main point of focus: to reinvent the passenger experience beyond merely providing client satisfaction. An inherently sustainable solution that enables iDBUS to meet a wide range of passenger needs:

    iDBUS promotes mobility and simplifies journeys.
    iDBUS creates a social link between passengers from different parts of Europe.
    iDBUS provides safety for its passengers by providing them with the most advanced facilities.
    iDBUS offers a reliable, transparent and professional service.
    iDBUS invents the ‘captain’, the key point of contact for passengers and the guarantee of a high-quality journey.
    iDBUS is up to date with the times with more room per passenger, WiFi, electrical outlets and geolocation in real time.
    iDBUS, the first fleet to be 100% equipped for people with reduced mobility so that all passengers’ needs are met.
    iDBUS has chosen a balanced service, not the lowest price, nor the highest, but a new approach to coach travel.
    Travel in good company with iDBUS!

Leave a Reply