As part of his infrastructure investment agenda, President Obama has called for building a national network of high-speed passenger trains that would serve 80% of all Americans by 2036. Such a network would be great for America. Unfortunately, we can’t afford it.
True high-speed rail, which is defined as exceeding 200 mph, is extremely expensive to build. The $53 billion President Obama proposed spending over six years for HSR would be just a down payment. A San Francisco-Los Angeles line alone would cost $42 billion. With national debt at record levels, we do not have the funds for big, new spending programs, no matter how beneficial they might be.
What we can afford is higher-speed rail, which would compete with the automobile, not the airplane. For most travelers, top speed is not the main issue, beyond the initial gee-whiz factor. People are interested in how long a trip takes. With most interstates legally limited to 65 mph, passenger trains running at the Federal Railroad Administration speed limit of 79 mph (for rail lines without cab signaling) are usually fast enough.
Higher-speed passenger trains must travel 79 mph for most of the journey to be competitive. Raising speeds to that limit over existing trackage is far less expensive than going for higher top speeds.
These trains would operate on current freight tracks. Not long ago, most freight railroads carried passenger trains. In the 1930s, before the FRA imposed speed limits, some trains ran up to 100 mph. We can do it again.
Most higher-speed trains would probably be run by Amtrak, because only Amtrak has statutory authority to operate on privately owned rail. However, we should encourage competition by allowing railroad companies to again operate their own passenger trains and bid for part of Amtrak’s subsidy. If a railroad has its name on a train, it will care about the quality of the ride.
By using existing tracks and keeping down the cost per mile, we can offer higher-speed passenger trains to that 80% of Americans. As the likelihood of oil-supply crises grows due to turmoil overseas, these trains can give people what they need: a safe, reasonable alternative to driving.
As recently as the 1950s, it was possible to travel almost anywhere in America without flying or driving on a national network of trains and buses. What killed those privately operated trains was a combination of cheap gas and Eisenhower’s National Defense Interstate Highway Act. When one competitor is subsidized while another is taxed, guess what happens.
One way to revive that network would be a National Defense Public Transportation Act. It would offer every county a bus that would connect the county seat to the nearest train station. As funds permit, trains would be added so that fewer miles of the trip are made by bus. This plan would cost a fraction of the defense budget yet do more than all our tanks and aircraft carriers to reduce our most dangerous security vulnerability: our dependence on overseas oil.
As ridership grows, speeds can be raised incrementally, first to 90 mph, then 110 mph. High-speed rail is likely to come to America one step at a time, not by building whole new systems with vast up-front costs. Every country that has true high-speed trains—such as Japan and France—also has a dense network of conventional passenger trains. Otherwise, high-speed rail is icing without a cake.
We need to build what we have the money for: higher-speed rail that will serve most Americans, not just a lucky few who live near a small number of newly constructed high-speed lines. Don’t let unaffordable “best” true high-speed rail be the enemy of affordable “good” higher-speed rail.