Obama’s State of the Union Address: More of the Same on Trains

For the second year in a row, President Barack Obama has fretted over the “faster trains” of Europe and China in his State of the Union Address. In his third address, however, the president set a specific goal:

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

In recent years, Americans’ heads have been filled with images of the future — a future where they will be able to take trains at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour the same way they have heard citizens of developed European and Asian countries can dart across continents. After all, as Mr. Obama frequently asks, why should they have faster trains than us?

Yet this allusion to a supposedly more cosmopolitan future in transport rests on a shaky foundation of programmatic sluggishness, high pricetags, and political mislabeling. The Department of Transportation’s high-speed passenger rail program was initiated when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 became law. Since then, DOT has designated 11 high-speed rail corridors. But earning this designation does not mean they are particularly viable.

One of the proposed corridors the president mentioned was the seven-state Midwest Chicago Hub Network. Despite Mr. Obama’s optimism, the situation on the ground is quite bleak. Wisconsin and Ohio recently elected governors who campaigned heavily against high-speed rail investment in their states, and the Obama administration pulled stimulus funds for the projects out of those two states. In addition to Wisconsin and Ohio, this move effectively takes Minnesota service off the table.

It is also quite misleading to refer to this as high-speed rail, at least in the sense that the Chicago Hub Network somehow compares with Chinese and European high-speed passenger rail. In those countries, trains can travel at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour. In contrast, “high-speed” trains in the Midwest will eventually be able to top out at 110 miles per hour for very limited stretches. Nor will the Midwest trains ride on electrified railways, which is the only practical method of achieving speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour.

In California, things are no better. While the proposed corridor would be electrified, cost overruns are very likely in the already cash-strapped Golden State, the benefits touted rely on incredibly dubious assumptions, and many residents in the path of the train are less than thrilled with the project. Even the consistently liberal Washington Post editorial page called on President Obama to “hit the brakes on California’s high-speed rail experiment.”