You’ve Been on a Fast Train, and It’s Going Off the Rail
Transportation expert (and sometimes Show-Me Institute author) Randal O’Toole wrote an editorial for USA Today about the folly of huge government subsidies for high-speed rail. O’Toole’s basic point is that we get very little transportation benefits from high-speed rail in comparison to its massive costs:
At an inflation-adjusted cost of about $450 billion paid out of highway user fees, the Interstate Highway System, to which high-speed rail is sometimes compared, provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. By comparison, a $600 billion expenditure on high-speed rail will provide, at best, around 300 miles of travel per person.
[…] Amtrak brags that its high-speed Acela between Boston and Washington covers its operating costs, though not its capital costs. It does so, however, only by collecting fares of about 75 cents per passenger mile. By comparison, airline fares average only 13 cents a passenger mile, and intercity buses (which, Amtrak doesn’t want you to know, carry about three times as many passengers between Boston and Washington as the Acela) are even less expensive.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Americans spent about $950 billion on driving in 2008. This allowed us to travel, says the Federal Highway Administration, more than 2.7 trillion vehicle miles, for an average cost of about 35 cents per vehicle mile. Since the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates cars in intercity travel carry an average of 2.4 people, the average cost is less than 15 cents a passenger mile.
O’Toole also points out that urban elites are the ones most likely to benefit from high-speed rail travel, because they are more likely to live in the downtown areas where train stations are typically located. The construction of high-speed rail has little to do with the costs and benefits of different modes of travel, and almost everything to do with aesthetic preferences. Unfortunately, aesthetics usually trump economics in the political world.
(Blog entry title reference here.)