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Opinion: The bottom line on top-speed trains

(The following column by Eric A. Morris appeared on the New York Times website on August 24, 2009.)

NEW YORK —Edward Glaeser and I have been writing about high-speed rail (HSR) over the past couple of weeks; he just finished his cost-benefit analysis of a hypothetical Dallas-Houston line with a look at land-use impacts. His overall conclusion, even making some very generous assumptions in favor of rail, is that the line would be a net cost to society of at least $375 million per year. This includes HSR’s potential environmental benefits as well as the direct gains to riders.

A couple of caveats are in order. First, transportation investments are highly context-sensitive; Dallas-Houston may not pencil out, but other lines may have more potential. Glaeser and I will return to this in a couple of weeks.

Second, we have been considering a true electric high-speed rail system with average speeds of 150 m.p.h. or more. Florida has flirted with such a system, but currently only California is in the advanced stages of planning one. This is where much if not most of the stimulus money will eventually go. The proposals on the table for the rest of the nation are currently much more modest; while electric HSR is the endgame, for now plans focus on maintaining what we have or on raising the top speeds of existing Amtrak trains (outside the Boston-Washington and Los Angeles-San Diego corridors) from 79 m.p.h. to 110 m.p.h. This sounds quite fast, but average speeds would be well below the top speeds; we’d be looking at an effective increase from about 40 to 50 m.p.h. to about 70 to 75 m.p.h. This would be done through many small-scale improvements to existing freight routes, including upgrading track, signaling systems, and crossings.

But even this more modest strategy is not inexpensive. Current estimates are vague, but one puts the cost of upgrades to three comparatively modest Midwest segments (Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Detroit, and Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison) at $4 billion. This totals out to $200 per resident of those cities, a considerable amount given that most of those people will use the service rarely, if at all.

Moreover, this path will not have the transformative environmental benefits that HSR backers tout, since the services in question will use diesel trains and will not travel at game-changing speeds.

Certainly neither Glaeser nor I pretend to have the last word on this topic. We are looking to start some debate, not finish it. So if you want to learn more on the pros of true HSR, check out the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s site, or this report for the views of an articulate critic, the Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole.

I personally am a skeptic, but it’s not because I don’t think HSR is cool. In fact, a love of high-speed rail was one of the things that got me into the transportation field. I have extensive experience planning, designing, constructing, financing, and operating HSR networks; these have spanned the nation and have been terrifically elegant, with state-of-the-art locomotive technology and thousands of miles of flat, straight track to keep speeds high.

However, those HSR systems were built from electricity, not steel. And while the HSR currently being proposed will cost tens of billions, the cost of my HSR network was comparatively modest: perhaps $30 in fixed costs for the purchase of the computer game Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, plus negligible variable costs for the power to run my computer and depreciation on my mouse button. The sum total of the utility I experienced from this kind of HSR paid for those costs many times over.

Costs in the real world are quite different. HSR is an exciting idea, and if we could make it appear by magic wand it’d be a terrific addition to our transportation network. But everything has a price, and the way things currently stand, the projected costs look like they outweigh the benefits. If the thought of some ominous budget numbers lurking on a piece of paper in far-off Washington doesn’t move you, consider the opportunity costs of this spending, in terms of health care, education, the economy, defense, or a (more effective) method of slowing global warming. Or if you want to keep the money in the realm of transportation, it could go to address what I consider to be the more serious problem we are facing: moving people around within our cities, not between them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

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