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High Speed Rail Going Nowhere Fast

This column was written by David Freddoso.

Book a train from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and you're in for a ride that takes 17 hours, 35 minutes. Given the choice between that and a two-hour plane trip, it's little wonder that most Washingtonians prefer to fly, despite the security searches and the long lines at Reagan National. It is also little wonder that some airlines still make money, whereas Amtrak, America's near-monopoly provider of inter-city passenger rail service, requires huge annual subsidies.

But what if inter-city train service became much faster? President Obama wants to offer Americans such an option, and to that end he has promised an $8-billion federal investment in high-speed rail, plus $5 billion more over the next five years. That's just $13 billion in all, and for that, Obama promises to start building ten different rail corridors, each between 100 and 600 miles long.

"What we're talking about," he says, "is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."

It sounds lovely, but before you go to sleep with visions of bullet trains dancing in your head, it's worth examining the numbers more closely. Any real-life high-speed rail system on the scale Obama is promising would be vastly more expensive than the $13 billion he has committed; in fact, it would require close to half of the $787 billion contained in his recently passed stimulus package.

We know this because high-speed rail systems in other nations were not built, and are not operated, anywhere near so cheaply as Obama suggests. In the past decade, Taiwan built a single 215-mile high-speed passenger route for $15 billion. Germany, France, and Italy, often cited as advanced railroad nations, subsidize their rail systems heavily: Between 1995 and 2003, Germany spent $104 billion on subsidies, France spent $75 billion, and Italy spent $64 billion, according to a 2008 study by Amtrak's inspector general. Rail ridership in Europe far outpaces that in the U.S., but in spite of these huge subsidies, trains have lost a significant portion of their market share to automobiles and planes since 1980.

Although the U.S. has no true "bullet trains," at least two states have developed and approved detailed plans for high-speed rail that came with cost analyses. In 2000, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative mandating construction of a 320-mile bullet train from Tampa to Miami via Orlando. The voters repealed it four years later when they saw the price estimate of $25 billion. (Other estimates put the cost as high as $51 billion in 2004 dollars.)

Last year California voters approved a ballot proposition to dedicate $10 billion in bonds to a high-speed rail line slated to cost $45 billion just for its main leg between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If this project is ever completed - which would require tens of billions from the federal government or from private investors - it will probably end up costing more like $65 to $81 billion, according to a study by two rail experts at the Reason Foundation.

These are some benchmarks for the price of high-speed rail. Yet somehow, Obama's plan envisions spending a mere fraction of the cost of either the Florida or the California plan, while sending trains speeding along both those routes, as well as routes in New England, Texas, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, and the Midwest. The document outlining Obama's strategic vision promises express trains running at speeds above 150 miles per hour, rivaling some of the Japanese bullet trains, the French TGV, and the Spanish AVE. Obama is promising such trains virtually everywhere - you could take one from Little Rock to San Antonio, if you chose.

"This plan incorporates all of the high-speed rail routes that were federally approved several years ago," says Ron Utt, a railroad expert at the Heritage Foundation. "Nobody's ever invested any money in them because there's not enough money anywhere to actually build them. This is sort of like a concession to the rail buffs - that now we'll pretend we're going to build them."

In the real world of high-speed rail, Utt said, $13 billion gets you "almost nothing . . . You would build more sidings and a couple of extra double tracks here and there, and reduce the time of some of the trips."

At the very best, riders can hope that a few lines will get marginally faster, along the lines of Amtrak's Acela service. For between $133 and $155 (one-and-a-half to two times the price of a regular train ticket), Acela cuts 20 to 27 minutes from the three-and-a-quarter-hour, 230-mile trip between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The trip would cost about $20 by bus, with high-speed Internet service the whole way.

It is perfectly understandable why a politician like President Obama would present a plan like this. In a time of fear and worry, promises of high-speed rail excite the imagination, and Obama's plan spreads the empty promises among ten different geographic areas for maximum political benefit.

What could be more presidential than promising a chicken in every pot - even if all the plan actually delivers is an egg?

David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.
By David Freddoso
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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