NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High-Speed Rail: A Track to Nowhere

February 15, 2013

Dreams of a national high-speed rail system should be promptly discarded. Though trains have long become technologically and economically obsolete, supporters of a high-speed rail system in the United States continue to draw new maps illustrating where the rail system would service and champion the project as a great job producer, says Randal O'Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow.

  • O'Toole criticizes a new map drawn by railway supporter Alfred Twu that imagines major stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, El Paso, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Cleveland, New York and Boston.
  • Economist Megan McAradle points out that it makes little sense for a passenger to opt for an estimated 18 hour trip from Los Angeles to New York when a plane can make the same trip in roughly six hours for less cost.
  • Twu's Los Angeles-Miami line ignores Amtrak's previous failure trying to extend its least popular line, Los Angeles to New Orleans, to Miami.

O'Toole also wonders why routes from Cheyenne to El Paso, Chicago to Montreal and a line from McAllen, Texas, into Mexico are necessary. He notes that the new map violates the conventional wisdom that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not the 2,000- to 3,000-mile markets envisioned by Twu.

Rail is only estimated to attract a maximum of 5 percent to 6 percent of the transportation market.  Because railways are not economically viable, and will always be at least half as slow as airplanes, only the government would be able to cough up the necessary billions of dollars it would take to build such a rail system. Such a rail system would not serve Americans' needs because it only serves select destinations and would thus only serve a small fraction of the total travelers.

If high speed travel is truly the goal, O'Toole recommends streamlining air travel. Air travel requires far less infrastructure and is flexible enough to adjust to demand, unlike a track, which is permanently fixed to the ground.

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Why High-Speed Rail is Ridiculous Fantasy," Cato Institute, February 10, 2013.


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