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When is high-speed rail not high-speed rail?
When it rolls on U.S. rail tracks.
On Oct. 28, the Department of Transportation gave out $2.4 billion in grants to high-speed rail projects. This is on top of the $8 billion that was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the "stimulus" package.
If you think this money will usher in a new era of European-style trains, think again. Most of these projects are simply for slight upgrades to the network.
The Obama administration has been pushing hard for a revamped passenger rail network. Backers like to tout the supposed success of high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, conjuring up images of sleek bullet trains zipping past mphcars stuck on congested roadways. They claim opponents are living in the past or, worse, are in bed with a host of villains ranging from automakers to multinational petroleum companies.
Rail boosters claim that high-speed passenger rail is necessary to ensure American prosperity in the 21st century. If China is pouring billions upon billions of dollars into these trains, they say, why not us?
But in all of their cheerleading, high-speed passenger rail proponents never mention what is perhaps the most damning fact about these projects:
Most are not even considered high-speed by international standards.
In Western Europe, for instance, high-speed rail lines must reach a minimum of 125 mph on upgraded track and 160 mph for new track. China has trains that can reach speeds in excess of 260 mph for limited stretches.
In contrast, only three of the United States' eight new high-speed rail corridors that received funding will feature trains capable of reaching speeds in excess of 110 mph. Embarrassingly, passenger trains in the 1940s regularly met or exceeded these speeds. Only California's proposed high-speed rail corridor would resemble anything close to a "modern" European or Asian passenger rail line.
Conservative critics of the 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 was set even lower, at 100 mph.
Yet even that is probably too fast for some of America's proposed lines.
For instance, trains traveling on the Charlotte-Raleigh leg of the planned Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-Washington "high-speed" corridor would top out at 90 mph. The current federal speed limit for trains traveling on Class 5 track is 80 mph for freight and 90 for passenger rail -- hardly the revolution in mobility the administration claims these projects represent.
That is partly because true high-speed rail lines are extremely expensive. They require new dedicated track and infrastructure. And if they want to get into the heart of cities, that often involves vastly expensive tunneling. The brand new 140 mph HS1 route in Britain -- running from London to the Channel Tunnel -- for example, cost more than $8 billion by itself. It is 67 miles long. Its cost works out to around $130 million per mile.
So, even with $10 billion -- and assuming the projects get beyond the planning stage, which most won't -- all this cash can deliver only minor upgrades.
In no way will any of these projects be competitive with air travel, and the likelihood of them competing effectively with the automobile also is small. Because of the cost of even these small improvements, ticket prices are going to be high. As with Amtrak's Acela, the routes will appeal only to a small number of highly paid businessmen who want to get in and out of a city's central business district quickly -- such as trial lawyers and Wall Street bankers.
If we were going to have genuine high-speed rail in this country, the time for the necessary upgrades to the lines would have been the 1950s and '60s. That, however, was when government was busy killing off the passenger rail industry by investing heavily in the interstate highway network.
No one can predict what the transportation needs and preferences of future Americans will be. Thankfully, it is never too late for the Department of Transportation to finally abandon its long-standing commitment to central planning.