Express Train to Penury

by Bill O'Connell on January 3, 2011

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Ah, the romance of rail travel.  From Murder on the Orient Express to From Russia with Love to White Christmas to Some Like It Hot there is something alluring about a train.  But for all those warm feelings it’s time to recognize that we are in the 21st century and to leave trains to the movies. 

There have been calls for the great idea of high speed rail that is, in effect, a solution in search of a problem.  It may work well in Europe and Japan, but the United States is not Europe or Japan.  Two things needed to make high speed rail viable are population density and distances between such population densities that are not too close and not too far. We have a whole lot of neither.

Building a high speed rail system is capital intensive.  Between the track bed, carefully engineered to keep high speed trains on the tracks and the passengers comfortable, the rolling stock, and the signaling and safety equipment, it takes a lot of money to build it.  If that investment is to be recovered you need many passengers paying ticket prices high enough to make a profit and low enough to attract those passengers.  Those population centers have to be far enough apart so that the inconvenience of public transportation offsets driving by car and close enough so that the travel time is not too much longer than air travel.  How many of these routes are there in this country that satisfy those criteria?  Precious few.

Consider that part of the country where the population is densest, the Northeast Corridor, extending from Boston to Washington, D.C.  This happens to be one place in the country where rail service works.  Amtrak runs a fast train service along this corner that in 2008 actually made a profit of $41 per passenger on this service, called Acela. 

Let’s compare that to what is being planned for California.  The concept is a high speed rail link running from San Francisco in the north to San Diego in the south, a run of about 800 miles.  The initial segment of the project is estimated to cost $5.5 billion, take five years to build, and will connect Bakersfield to Madera mainly through agricultural regions.  From a construction perspective that should be an easy build with long stretches of open spaces.  Anyone care to wager what how much the estimate will grow?  The total cost is estimated at $40 billion.  If you could achieve the same profit as the Acela ($41 per passenger) and carry as many passengers as the Northeast Corridor in a year (10.8 million), it would take over 90 years just to recover the capital costs, not including any interest charges.  Is that remotely feasible?

Here’s where the problems mount, you could travel the 800 miles by air in about an hour and a forty minutes, whereas a high speed train would probably take around four hours.  One of the towns mentioned in a recent article in the New York Times as being along the route is Corcoran, population 26,000 including 12,000 “guests of the state” at nearby prisons.  Don’t count on them using the rails much.  The distance is too great and the population density is lacking.  But once again, the federal government is in the middle of something where it doesn’t belong providing funding.  Why should the overtaxed citizens of New York and New Jersey pay for a high speed rail system entirely within the state of California?  This about sums it up:

On Dec. 9, California’s rail authority received a windfall of additional federal stimulus money — some $600 million — when Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin passed on money intended for their states. California voters approved high-speed rail in 2008, and deadlines are already passing, including a Dec. 31 cutoff for the state to finalize a plan to spend federal money in the Central Valley. Initial spending will span a raft of projects, including designing stations, redirecting nearby roads and acquiring land.

So responsible governors in Ohio and Wisconsin passed on federal stimulus money; rather than return the money to the Treasury, damn it, it was going to be spent by someone!  Send it to California.  In case you hadn’t noticed lately, California is broke.  So tell me again, why hasn’t this project been cancelled?

If the people of California want to build this themselves, fine.  If a private company sees the opportunity to make a profit and wants to build this, go ahead.  But to take tax dollars from one state and give it to another to build another white elephant, is insane.  It is time to get our heads screwed on straight and live within our means.  Between cars and air travel, there are few places you cannot reach in this country.  There is no value in spending billions of dollars to hit a very small niche between the two.

That’s my opinion; I’d like to know yours.  Please comment below.

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