NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High Speed Railways Are Not Realistic in the United States

June 5, 2013

Evidence suggests that high-speed rail's limited success in Europe and Asia is not transferrable to the United States, says Baruch Feignbaum, a transportation policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

  • The majority of high-speed rail lines require large government subsidies from both general taxpayers and drivers.
  • Even with generous subsidies, traveling by high-speed rail is still more expensive than flying for 12 of the 23 most popular high-speed rail routes in the world.
  • The evidence suggests that high-speed rail can only be competitive on routes that are between 200 miles and 500 miles in length.

High-speed rail is also very expensive to build.

  • Most new routes cost at least $10 million per mile to construct. And while operating costs vary, the cheapest European rail line costs more than $50,000 per seat to operate annually.
  • This means that a U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of between 6 million and 9 million people per year to break even.

Advocates cite other advantages in support of high-speed rail, but most of these fall apart under close examination:

  • Environment: High-speed rail creates more pollution than it prevents because building a high-speed rail line is very energy-intensive.
  • Economic Development: High-speed rail does not create much new development; it merely redirects development from one area to another.
  • Mobility: High-speed rail is also unlikely to improve mobility since most of its potential passengers already travel by air.

Finally, there are several factors that suggest high-speed rail's limited success in Europe and Asia may not be transferrable to the United States:

  • Most countries have built high-speed rail to relieve overcrowding on their existing lines. The United States lacks this overcrowding, which suggests consumer demand for high-speed rail may not be there. Furthermore, freight rail dominates track usage.
  • The United States has far higher rates of car ownership than most other countries. Gas taxes are lower, road tolls are less common, and many cities, especially in the South and West, have grown up around the automobile. This also serves to limit demand for high-speed rail travel.
  • Railways are subject to outdated labor laws that were enacted when railroads did not face competition. Operating a passenger railroad in the existing U.S. regulatory environment is not a profitable proposition.

Source: Baruch Feignbaum, "High-Speed Rail in Europe and Asia: Lessons for the United States," Reason Foundation, May 30, 2013.


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