Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico is acquiring Florida East Coast Railway for $2.1 billion. This raises questions about the future of Brightline, FEC’s planned moderate-speed rail line that was previously called All Aboard Florida. Brightline is scheduled to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in July, and extending to Miami in August.
Phase two of Brightline is to be an extension to Orlando, which would require construction of about 40 miles of new rail line that would be used almost exclusively for passengers. FEC estimates this will cost more than $1.0 billion.
Brightline claims its trains will operate at 80 to 125 miles per hour. But it is promising to deliver people the 65 rail miles from Miami to West Palm Beach in 60 minutes. That’s an average speed of–let me see–65 miles in 60 minutes (counts on fingers) works out to just 65 miles per hour. That’s certainly faster than existing commuter trains, which require about 100 minutes for the same trip (making many more intermediate stops). But it’s not significantly faster than driving, which Google says takes about 70 minutes.
Jerry Brown’s brilliant plan to fund the California high-speed rail line out of greenhouse gas emissions allowances appears to be coming to a screeching halt. California’s most-recent sale of such allowances was expected to bring in at least $600 million; instead, it earned just $8.2 million. At the projected average cost of $200 million per mile, that’s enough to build about 200 feet of rail line.
The problem is that there is a “glut of emission allowances on the market” because so many entities, including various European nations and, in California, various public utilities, are trying to earn money selling them. On the other hand, potential buyers are unsure about whether the program will continue; if it is cancelled, the allowances they buy will be worthless. The California law is supposed to sunset at the end of 2020, and if revenues remain so law the legislature is not likely to renew it.
The other problem is that Brown was counting on emissions sales to fund projects the state can’t really afford. While the efficiency benefits of cap-and-trade are proven, it is far from efficient to use permit revenues to fund boondoggles. Even the Pope questions the morality of selling the right to pollute.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reviewed the proposed Texas Central high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston and concluded it was not viable. Last week, the Reason Foundation released a much-more detailed review that reaches the same conclusion.
Reason’s report notes that Texas Central officials claim they won’t need any subsidies, but still plan to ask the federal government for government-guaranteed low-interest loans. While Reason joins with the Antiplanner in supporting private rail projects, the desire for government-backed loans, says Reason, makes it “critical to assess the viability of this project.”
Reason’s assessment concludes that Texas Central officials have overestimated ridership and underestimated costs. As a result, ticket revenues are likely to fall almost $100 million per year short of operations & maintenance costs. Of course, that means there would be nothing left over to repay the government-guaranteed loans, so lenders would be out about $18 billion. That’s based on a construction cost of at least $20 million per mile based on the fact that the only high-speed rail lines that have been built for less had cheap or free right of way. Since the line in Texas would go over mostly private land, the right of way isn’t likely to be cheap.
One of the projects on the supposed Trump infrastructure priority list (which, I am 90 percent convinced, is not an official Trump administration list) was a Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line. When the Antiplanner called this project a boondoggle, I received an email from a supporter saying it will be entirely privately financed. While that would alleviate my objections, I remain skeptical that it could work.
The Texas Central project is backed by the Central Japan Railway and proposes to use Japanese high-speed rail technology in the 240-mile corridor from Dallas to Houston. Trains would make only one stop between those two cities, making the journey in 90 minutes at top speeds of around 200 miles per hour.
Here’s a rare example of a headline asking a question whose answer is “yes”: “Did bullet train officials ignore warning about need for taxpayer money?” Although the headline would have been more accurate if it had stated, “Bullet train officials cover up warning about need for taxpayer money.”
When the California High-Speed Rail Authority put the 2008 measure on the ballot for the state to build the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, they claimed that the line would earn more than a billion dollars a year in operating profits (compare tables on pages 21 and 22), and that private investors would gladly invest around $7 billion in the project in order to get a share of those profits (figure 26).
As recently as two months ago, when asked at a legislative hearing if other high-speed rail operations earned “a substantial profit,” rail authority chair Dan Richard replied, “all of them, virtually all of them, make operating profit.” But Richard had to know that was a lie.
Socialists “always run out of other people’s money,” said Margaret Thatcher. “It’s quite a characteristic of them.” Some of the best examples can be found in the field of passenger rail transportation.
California’s plan to pay for high-speed rail with revenues from sales of greenhouse gas cap & trade permits has hit a speed bump. The first sale, which was expected to bring in $150 million, only brought in $10 million. At that rate, it will be centuries, instead of the planned decades, before the line is built.
When Atlanta opened its streetcar line, it offered the service for free for a year. As soon as it began charging a dollar a ride, ridership dropped by nearly 50 percent. Now the state of Georgia is threatening to shut the line down because of inept management resulting from a lack of funds.
Progressive Railroading, which has never met a passenger train subsidy it didn’t like, claims that, after six years and $1.3 billion, work on moderate-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis is “nearing the finish line.” Since the trains will go a maximum of 110 miles per hour, it isn’t true high-speed rail; Progressive Railroading calls it “higher-speed rail” while the Antiplanner prefers the term “moderate-speed rail.”
It turns out that Illinois is also approaching “the finish line” at moderate speeds. After nearly six years of work, Illinois has trains running at 110 mph on only one 15-mile segment of the 284-mile trip. The “final phases” of the project will be completed “within the next few years,” the magazine says vaguely.
When it is done, trains that currently take 5 hours 20 minutes will finish the trip in “about” 4 hours 30 minutes, for an average speed of 63 mph. Google maps says people can drive the distance in 4 hours 20 minutes, so the train will still take more time than driving. Plus, of course, the train probably won’t go where most people want to go as there just aren’t that many businesses or residences within walking distance of either Chicago Union Station or St. Louis’ Amtrak station. If you are driving alone, the $27 cost of an Amtrak ticket is enough to pay the marginal costs of driving; if you have some passengers, you’ll save money even counting all the costs of driving.
The Los Angeles Times has a special report finding that the California high-speed rail project will cost far more and take far longer than the rail authority is promising. The official cost estimate remains $68 billion for an abbreviated system despite the fact that a 2013 Parsons Brinckerhoff report to the authority said there was no way the project could be done for that price.
P-B’s report was “never made public” and the rail authority refused to release it under the state public records act. However, “an engineer close to the project” slipped a copy of the report to the Times.
The rail authority has established a record for ignoring such reports. In 2012, another consultant told the authority that costs should be revised upwards by 15 percent. The authority simply fired the consultant.
Despite continued evidence that high-speed rail is a waste of money, reporters still write articles lamenting that high-speed trains in America are “elusive.” It’s elusive for a simple reason: it makes no sense, being slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than both.
Due to the high costs, high-speed rail projects proposed more than 100 years ago were similarly flawed. In 1893, someone proposed to build a 100-mph line straight from Chicago to St. Louis for $5.5 million–around $135 million today when using GNP deflators but more than $6.5 billion when measured as a share of the economy at the time. The proposal went nowhere.
Then, in 1906, someone proposed a similar, 100-mph line from Chicago to New York called the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line (several railroads at that time were named “air line” probably because they wanted to indicate they offered the shortest route between two points). The line would have either no curves or none that trains couldn’t negotiate at 90 mph. It would have no grade crossings so wouldn’t have to stop for other trains or risk hitting cars crossing its tracks.
Quentin Kopp, who once chaired the California High-Speed Rail Authority and led the effort to persuade voters to pass the 2008 law authorizing its construction, is speaking out against the project as currently planned. To succeed, he says, high-speed rail needs to run on dedicated tracks at high speeds and frequencies.
Instead, the current plan calls for California’s high-speed trains to run on the same tracks as slower Amtrak and commuter train. This will greatly reduce the average speeds because high-speed and conventional trains can’t be safely operated together. The current projected frequencies are two to four trains per hour (half in each direction), while Kopp says 10 to 20 trains per hour is needed for the trains to be “financially secure,” which presumably means that fares cover operating costs as required by the 2008 law.
When Kopp first proposed the project, it was supposed to cost $33 billion. Now it is expected to cost $68 billion for slower, less-frequent trains. Kopp has personally been involved in legal challenges against the project.