NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 21, 2009

President Obama has promised an $8-billion federal investment in high-speed rail, plus $5 billion more over the next five years.  That's just $13 billion in all, and for that, Obama promises to start building ten different rail corridors, each between 100 and 600 miles long.

"What we're talking about," he says, "is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."

It sounds lovely, but before you go to sleep with visions of bullet trains dancing in your head, it's worth examining the numbers more closely, says the National Review Online (NRO):

  • Any real-life high-speed rail system on the scale Obama is promising would be vastly more expensive than the $13 billion he has committed.
  • In fact, it would require close to half of the $787 billion contained in his recently passed stimulus package.

We know this because high-speed rail systems in other nations were not built, and are not operated, anywhere near so cheaply as Obama suggests, says NRO:

  • In the past decade, Taiwan built a single 215-mile high-speed passenger route for $15 billion.
  • Germany, France, and Italy, often cited as advanced railroad nations, subsidize their rail systems heavily: Between 1995 and 2003, Germany spent $104 billion on subsidies, France spent $75 billion, and Italy spent $64 billion, according to a 2008 study by Amtrak's inspector general.
  • Rail ridership in Europe far outpaces that in the United States, but in spite of these huge subsidies, trains have lost a significant portion of their market share to automobiles and planes since 1980.

Source: David Freddoso, "High Speed Rail Going Nowhere Fast; Obama's Promises For High Speed Trains Would Cost A Lot More Than He Is Allocating," National Review Online, April 20, 2009.

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