NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Calif. Rail Project Is High-Speed Pork

November 4, 2010

High-speed trains connecting major cities are a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause.  In reality, they would further burden already overburdened governments and drain dollars from worthier programs, says Robert Samuelson.

Let's suppose that the Obama administration gets its wish to build high-speed rail systems in 13 urban corridors.

  • The administration has already committed $10.5 billion, and that's just a token down payment.
  • California wants about $19 billion for an 800-mile track from Anaheim to San Francisco.
  • Constructing all 13 corridors could easily approach $200 billion.
  • Most (or all) of that would have to come from government at some level.

What would we get for this huge investment?  Not much.  Here's what we wouldn't get: any meaningful reduction in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, air travel, oil consumption or imports, says Samuelson.

  • High-speed intercity trains (not commuter lines) travel at up to 250 miles per hour and are most competitive with planes and cars over distances of fewer than 500 miles.
  • In a report on high-speed rail, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examined the 12 corridors of 500 miles or fewer with the most daily air traffic in 2007.
  • Los Angeles to San Francisco led the list with 13,838 passengers; altogether, daily air passengers in these 12 corridors totaled 52,934.
  • If all of them switched to trains, the total number of daily airline passengers (about 2 million) would drop only 2.5 percent, and any fuel savings would be less than that.

High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else.  With governments everywhere pressed for funds, how can anyone justify a program whose main effect will simply be to make matters worse?

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "Calif. Rail Project Is High-Speed Pork," Washington Post, November 1, 2010.

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