Does High Speed Rail Have a Future?

Forgive me for talking about high speed rail even though Ryan Avent says I'm not allowed to.  I just can't control myself, I'm afraid.

As libertarians go, I'm a big fan of high-speed rail.  I think it would be very nice if we had some in the Northeastern United States, where it might actually work, rather than the pathetic Acela that shaves a whole fifteen minutes off the trip between DC and New York.  Unfortunately, that is apparently never going to happen, because in the United States, acquiring new rail rights-of-way seems to be virtually impossible.  That means that the Acela has to run on existing track, which is not very good for high speed rail because, first, it was not designed for a train that accelerates to hundreds of mph, and second, there are other trains on it that don't go hundreds of mph, which slows everything down.

So we're not going to get true high speed rail in one of the two areas of the country where it stands a decent chance of working.  Instead, we're going to get high speed rail in between Dallas and Houston or some other likely location--at least if the HSR part of the stimulus actually has its intended effect.

Ryan Avent defends these sorts of rail links on the grounds that if you view intercity rail as a substitute for air travel rather than car travel, they make sense.    And I think that's fair.  But I think that Avent underestimates the difficulties in doing this.  The northeast corridor is the only place where people use trains as a substitute for cars for relatively short distances (sub 4-5 hours), because you don't need a car when you get there--and also, because road congestion makes car travel dicey, schedule-wise.  This generally isn't much of a problem in flyover country.

Ah, but what about all the people who do fly between Houston and Dallas?  Surely they might be persuaded to take a train if it existed? 

Maybe.  But I think there are a number of problems with this.  First of all, many of the people flying between Dallas and Houston are not actually ending up in those cities; they're going somewhere else, because Dallas is a major hub.   When I want to fly up to see my family in upstate New York, I don't take Amtrak to Penn Station and then trek out to LaGuardia, even though I much prefer rail travel to air travel.  So high speed rail doesn't readily substitute for air travel unless you have a lot of connections running out of Dallas.  I don't think it's an accident that the two places in America where rail kind of works--the northeast corridor, and the LA-San Diego route--are coastal runs where the regional links run down a basically straight line.  And the reason that they are conveniently in a straight line is that both regions happen to be sandwiched on a narrow strip between the coastline and a big mountain range that limited inland development during the formative years. In the middle of the country, where you need to add an east-west axis to your planning, things rapidly get more expensive.

The other reason I don't think that rail is going to compete with air in most places is the very thing that makes air travel so environmentally problematic:  frequency of service.  For high speed rail--or any sort of rail, really--to be an environmental boon, the trains have to run pretty full. 

During peak times, by my count a flight leaves Dallas for Houston every half hour, the better to allow people to tailor their flights to their schedule and their connections.  But most of these flights are tiny regional jets that carry perhaps 60 passengers when full.  An Acela, by contrast, carries 300.  If every single one of those planes was full, and every single one of the passengers switched to rail, you'd have a peak schedule of once every hour and a half to run the train at 80% capacity. But of course, those planes aren't all full, and not all of the passengers will switch to rail, because as I mentioned above, many of them are connecting to other flights.

Maybe you could put the train station in the airport, but that doesn't encourage dense urban development, and also, even then I doubt people would use it.  Once you have to clear security, you're going to fly, because for all but the shortest trips, it's faster.

More realistically, moderately cost effective and environmentally friendly trains are going to run, in most places, at best once every several hours. This multiplies the already large disadvantages of trains over air travel, because it means long layovers in a (usually) small train station.

None of this is exactly original insight to most rail professionals, which is why I don't understand why so many rail advocates get so angry at Ed Glaeser for pointing out some of the difficulties.

I'm not particularly opposed to the high-speed rail stimulus, though I do have a strong opinion that the money ought to all go to the LA-SF line, which is the only one I can see that has any probability at all of working.  But I think that Ryan, and other high speed rail advocates, are guilty of severely downplaying the obstacles to ever having a European-style system.  Yes, America is dense in many parts, but our areas of densest population are several thousand miles away from each other.  The distance between New York and LA is greater than the distance between Paris and Istanbul--a trip that in my experience, most Europeans would hop on a plane for.

Like Will, I think that a lot of libertarians underestimate both the charms of urban density, and the role of the state in creating our current built environment.  (Though I do sort of notice that the most avid mass transit advocates I know have one or none children, while the suburban ethusiasts tend to have more than that.  So Will and I may be missing something.) 

On the other hand, I think that liberals underestimate the role of people's preferences in the decisions the state makes.  Yes, there are political failures and market failures, but the fact remains that people voluntarily move to suburbs with large lawns and no train service, which means that some of them must like to live there.  They also underestimate the role of geography.  It is true that most Americans live near relatively dense cities.   But that is still very different from the European situation, where virtually every town is basically a suburb of one of a handful of major national cities.  (Before the various regionalists start stoning me, I mean this geographically; almost every town in Europe is close enough to a major city that in America, it would be considered to be a suburb.)  This enables them to build rail networks on a scale that I just don't see us being able to match here.

That's not a total argument against high speed rail; I think it does have a shot at succeeding on the coasts, where even conservatives should love its ability to relieve the congestion at airports and on highways.  But as I see it, the primary obstacle to high speed rail in those locations is not conservatives of any stripe--it's community activists, environmental groups, and various other sorts of lawsuit-happy left-wing institutions.  They tie up the projects in so much procedural nonsense that by the time they're built, they're way over budget, and crippled by the various compromises that had to be made along the way.  The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, established in 1992, is expected to finish its final environmental impact statement sometime in 2011.  Some unspecified time after that, it will begin building out the links between Washington DC and Charlotte, North Carolina.  For somewhere between 2-5 billion dollars, and three or more decades, we will finally be able to travel from Washington to Charlotte in 6 hours and 50 minutes--just 30 minutes more than it takes to drive the same route.  On the plus side, you can read while you travel.  On the minus side, it will cost at least three times as much, and you'll still have to rent a car when you get there.

People who are really serious about rail should probably spend less time yelling at Ed Glaeser, and more time trying to herd the obstructionists among their own ranks into some sort of agreement.  Because whether or not high speed rail theoretically could succeed in America, if the process of building it keeps going on like this, it definitely won't.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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