Stop pretending that it's high-speed rail

Stop pretending that it's high-speed rail

November 17, 2010
Originally published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

On Nov. 2, voters across Wisconsin made their voices clear on government-run passenger rail: Don't build it. Voters in Dane, Kenosha and Racine counties soundly rejected proposed commuter rail lines. Wisconsinites also elected Republican Scott Walker to the governor's office. Walker made stopping the Obama administration's proposed high-speed rail corridor a key campaign issue, a position shared by a majority of Wisconsin residents.

Despite pre-election shenanigans by outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle -- and intense pressure from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- it appears likely that Walker will make good on his promise once he takes office. But it is important to understand what Walker is actually proposing to do. Contrary to what the Obama administration, Doyle and their allies claim, Walker will most certainly not be killing a high-speed rail project. This is because the proposed Twin Cities-Chicago high-speed rail corridor is not considered "high speed" by the standards of industrialized nations.

In Western Europe, for instance, high-speed rail lines must reach a minimum of 125 mph on upgraded track and 160 mph for new dedicated track. China currently has trains that can reach speeds in excess of 260 mph for limited stretches. When one examines the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program investment summaries maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration, an interesting pattern emerges: Almost none of the proposed so-called high-speed corridors will allow trains to travel at speeds exceeding 110 mph, which is the U.S. Department of Transportation's conveniently low minimum required maximum speed to grant a "high-speed rail" designation.

This holds for the proposed Twin Cities-Chicago corridor, which the FHA tells us "eventually" will allow passenger trains to reach a maximum speed of 110 mph for short periods. Embarrassingly, passenger trains in the 1940s regularly met or exceeded these speeds.

Conservative critics of the Obama administration have accused it of trying to turn America into a Western European-style social democracy. A more apt comparison in this case would be the former Soviet bloc, where the "high-speed" bar is set at a paltry 100 mph.

Ohio's incoming governor, John Kasich, recognizes this fatal flaw. Like Walker, he plans to scuttle "high-speed" rail in his state. Also like Walker, he has been attacked by ideological rail cheerleaders. But he is making a wise move: stopping expensive money sinkholes before they have a chance to be perpetually in the red.

Moreover, an American high-speed rail network, if it ever moves beyond the planning stage, is almost guaranteed to be a money-loser. Rail backers like to tout the supposed success of Amtrak's Boston-Washington Acela Express. It turns a profit, they say. But while the fares collected on Acela cover the operating costs, they fail to cover capital costs. And this is on the densest rail corridor that serves a cluster of some of America's largest metropolitan areas.

Acela isn't cheap. A one-way Acela ticket from New York City to Washington, D.C., costs around $130, and the trip takes nearly three hours when the train is running on schedule. Compare this to private intercity bus carriers, which typically charge around $20 for a one-way fare and make the New York to D.C. trip in about 4 1/2 hours. Unsurprisingly, private buses alone carry about four times as many passengers as all Amtrak services combined on this route. And cars on the I-95 corridor still carry the vast majority of intercity passengers.

Or compare Acela to airline shuttle service. A one-way ticket from New York to Washington typically costs $150, and the trip can take as little as 45 minutes. Acela is hardly a bargain, which is why most of the travelers are white-collar workers in downtown urban areas.

Even then, the project Walker likely will cancel is nothing like the Acela Express. The transportation demand between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul is nothing like the demand along the Northeast corridor. Nor is the proposed rail line considered "high speed" by domestic or international standards. "Medium-speed rail" would be more accurate. Returning the federal grants Wisconsin received for this project is a small price to pay to avoid this massive boondoggle.