Is High-Speed Rail a Boondoggle?
Credit: Yali Shi
Credit: Yali Shi

America’s global competitors are racing to construct or expand sophisticated high-speed rail networks, while U.S. plans for high-speed rail have stalled. Should we continue to pursue construction of advanced train systems for commuting, travel, and business, or is high-speed rail a colossal waste of public funds?

“Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system, and everybody stands to benefit,” declared President Barack Obama when he released his strategic plan for a nationwide high-speed rail system in April 2009.

“With a high-speed rail system,” said Vice President Joe Biden, “we’re going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks.”

A high-speed rail system would relieve traffic congestion and reduce air pollution. Biden has called the program “a giant environmental down payment.” How has this investment panned out?

In a recent news segment, CNN raised serious doubts about the viability of a high-speed rail network, charging that “four years and $12 billion after [Obama's] pledge to bring high-speed rail across America, the slow trains are just moving a little faster.” The program has so far created 134 “scattered projects” across the country that seem far from achieving the goals laid out in 2009.

For example, Washington state received $800 million from the federal government to improve the trip between Seattle and Portland. But that investment has only made the three-hour forty-minute ride 10 minutes shorter. Washington’s trains max out at 79 mph and average in the low 50s. In a January report in the same series, CNN found that $52 million spent on tracks in Vermont only shaved 28 minutes off of Amtrak schedules — not a great return on investment, considering the amount of public funding devoted to these projects.

However, Paula Hammond, former secretary of transportation for Washington state, argues that there are other benefits from the project, such as expanded routes and more reliable scheduling. She explained that the state never intended to build a system like the famous “bullet trains” of Japan and Europe. Notwithstanding grandiose D.C. promises, in the Northwest region, said Hammond, “we want the ability of our communities to be connected so that we can provide travel, a daily business trip between Seattle and Portland, and the opportunity not to have to fight traffic.”

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper complained that it seems “misleading” to bill these federal expenditures as “high-speed rail” funding when they’re really just being used to make slow trains move a little faster.

For now, the most ambitious plan for a high-speed bullet train is a California project that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco and run trains at speeds of 200 mph. However, the expected cost of the California project mushroomed from $34 billion when first approved in 2008 to $98-$118 billion in May 2012, with no track laid thus far. The high projected cost has led California to scale back its plans, and the project remains unpopular among California citizens.

“Costly high-speed rail and other intercity rail projects are not federal priorities, especially in this era of trillion-dollar budget deficits,” the conservative Heritage Foundation argues. “They should not be exempt from budget cuts.” Evidently, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) agrees. Federal high-speed rail funding would be eliminated under Ryan’s 2014 budget proposal.

But rail supporters are not taking these criticisms lying down. In January, Streetsblog, a news source dedicated to sustainable transportation, took aim at CNN’s reporting on high-speed rail, calling it “a high-profile smear campaign on the high-speed rail program from a mainstream media source trying to expose government corruption and waste where none exists.”

In reality, Streetsblog explains, the federal rail program was never just about bullet trains; regional improvement projects were always an important part of the program. Also, a fully functional high-speed rail network would take much more than four years to build: “[T]o expect something as massive and complex as high-speed rail to instantly appear like magic the minute the deal is inked is, well, a little naïve.”

Any long-term high-speed rail development is more likely to be a “multi-generational effort.” And, contrary to CNN’s implied message, high-speed rail is already operating in the U.S., with rail ridership growing by 49 percent since 2000. “Imagine how many people would flock to trains if they were fast, elegant, and on time,” Streetsblog argues.

Moreover, construction and support of a high-speed rail network may become a national priority if the U.S. hopes to maintain a competitive advantage within the global economy. By comparison, countries in Western Europe have had an advanced high-speed rail system for decades.

China, the U.S.’s main economic competitor, has already completed more than 5,800 kilometers of high-speed railway, according to Singularity Hub. In the next two years, China intends to double that amount to connect its most densely populated regions with its busiest manufacturing centers, and plans to hit 31,000 miles by 2020.

Of course, strategies that work in China wouldn’t necessarily succeed in the U.S., but rail advocates think America’s failure to keep up with high-speed rail development will work against its ability to provide a favorable and efficient environment for business activity.



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  • Hubert Abner
    April 2, 2013

    I can only speak for myself. Even if high speed rail came by the front door of my house and my place of business today I would not use it. I am thankful that I have been able to live during our time in America where we have been able to afford almost total individuality when it comes to personal transportation.
    It will not last for those coming after me and when that time comes they will have to involve themselves into a strenuous period of catching up to avail themselves of high speed rail because it just makes too much sense.
    If, however, I was going to be around for many more years I would choose driver-less automobiles.

  • E. Gittleman
    April 2, 2013

    China can succeed where the US cannot because they do not have to deal with environmental impact statements, relocation of citizens, or confiscation of private property and lands. To compare the US and China on high speed rail would be similar to comparing an apple to a coconut.

    • paul
      April 3, 2013

      HSR is all about connectivity. Connectivity means growth and prosperity. The railroads, panama canal, the interstate highway system. All massively expensive, all brought huge benefits and growth to the US economy. Yes, HSR is hugely expensive up front but it will pay a massive return in the long term and is actually cheaper than the alternatives of expanding the interstate system or building more airports.

      • Paul from Long Island
        April 3, 2013

        I couldn’t agree more. Private enterprise won’t take on these nation-wide challenges. And it’s not just about individuality in private transportation. No one woujld be forced to save time and avoid the headaches of traffic turmoil. But businesses and industry would benefit immensely. Rail is faster and less expensive than trucking and can carry larger cargo items.

        • April 3, 2013

          Paul from Long Island
          Private enterprise won\’t take on this challenge because without massive government subsidies it couldn\’t operate. No one would be forced to use it but everyone would be forced to pay for the construction, maintenance and operation of the money losing proposition.

          Yours is the first comment I have ever seen about HSR for freight. I don\’t recall any government official or other HSR proponent even suggesting that we transport tank cars of LPG, chlorine and ammonia at 200 mph. That would be insanity.

          • April 3, 2013


            The Interstate Maglev Project business plan calls for capturing about 1/5th of the interstate trucking. This one fifth is essentially the current boxed goods delivery, Walmart, high priority FedEx, UPS type delivery, including air cargo. We project that carrying this non-hazardous material will generate the revenues required to pay for the system. When the national Maglev network is complete and interconnects our major ports, producer and population centers the system will provide overnight shipment for only 10 cents per ton mile in cost. During the day, we will provide 300 mph passenger vehicle service on the same guideways so travelers can travel on direct vehicles with frequent departures along heavily traveled routes. I agree it would be insane to transport highly toxic or explosive materials on highways (even though we do). Rail is safer but as you know it is quite slow. The freight rail system advantage is its cheapness and relative safety. Obviously, the Interstate Maglev Project raises competitive headwinds. When it was first proposed by the late Senator Patrick Moynihan of NY, who saw this as a system that could use the rights-of-way of the Interstate Highway System, it passed the Senate but was strongly opposed by the airlines and other transport interests. Both increasing congestion that he predicted and the rising cost of fuel are the drivers for the efficient electric Maglev system. The carriers use only 1/13th the electric power of electric motor driven passenger vehicles. 2nd generation superconducting Maglev can transport passengers for 5 cents a passenger mile compared to Amtrak’s Acela at $1 per passenger mile. The only thing close to this operating cost performance is a highway bus. For reasons I can’t fathom the high speed rail troops and their manufacturers seem to have a fear of the Superconducting Maglev. One of the comments in this discussion reported that a highway lane mile is $79 million. The 2-way elevated guideway for the 2nd gen Maglev is about $26 million. When the system operates on grade in a Maglev mode on an adapted conventional rail the cost is reduced to about $8 million per 2-way mile. It would be a serious policy mistake to continue constructing the new HSR alignments.

            There are larger economic issues at stake. Most agree that the US needs new industries that can export to the rest of the World markets. We strongly believe that 2nd Generation Maglev can be very competitive and can be good for our balance of trade, help reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons, and reduce our carbon emissions.

      • Jonathan Baker
        April 3, 2013

        Paul, You say”is actually cheaper than the alternatives of expanding the interstate system”. Do you have anything to back up that statement?

        I can tell you that in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least, it costs 100 times as much to build BART than an 8 lane freeway. This over the same route and the same distance.

        • Craig
          April 3, 2013

          BART is a government project, therefore doomed to failure and massive cost overruns before the first shovel of dirt is turned. HSR, run concurrently with existing right of ways, and constructed by private industry would be much more economical.

          According to the forecast, the total number of people flying commercially on U.S. airlines will increase by 0.2 percent to 732 million in 2012, then to 746 million in 2013, and then increase more rapidly to 1.2 billion in 2032. The aviation system is expected to reach one billion passengers per year in 2024.

          I travel 50-60 flights a year for business. Of the last 16 flights, ALL were late, and 8 had equipment issues. HSR for business would be an advantage. It would also increase public travel for vacations and such. If you and your family could board and ride in HSR comfort, say 400 miles, on a Friday for a weekend vacation, rather than drive, would you? Within 2-3 hours you are reaching 1/3 of the country.

          The airports are already jammed, late, broken. HSR works very well in every country I have ridden it in.

          • Daryl Hanson
            April 3, 2013

            The biggest problem with airlines is the continual involvement from government. (Hint TSA, and stupid security rules) Why has the number of people flying decreased? Because the economy is stagnate or contracting if you remove the malfeasance of government officials for fudging the numbers.

            Population in large cities is decreasing due to technology and other (moving to the suburbs). The need for centralized transit is decreasing so HSR will become worthless. Cars and busses are the best transference in a decentralized population area period!!!!!!

            Europe’s rail systems are also no panacea, they are constantly in the red and dependent on the largess of the taxpayer. Look at the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain (& Cyprus)) and tell me if that is a model for any American endeavor?

    • S.Kutil
      April 3, 2013

      This is true! And is never said!

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