President Joe Biden recently released plans for a $2.3 trillion dollar “infrastructure” bill that wants taxpayer dollars for all manner of things—regional innovation hubs, climate change research, workforce training programs, home care services for the elderly, and public housing. If you squint, you can see some money for what most people think of when they hear infrastructure—$115 billion to repair roads and bridges.
Yet despite the fact that over 75% of Americans drive alone to get to work, Biden wants to spend 43% more on public transit ($165 billion) than roads and bridges, including $80 billion alone on trains. This is the latest iteration of elaborate, top-down attempts to make passenger trains relevant in the United States even though they do not make sense.
High-speed rail (HSR) has been discussed as a transportation solution in America since the 1960s. HSR proponents typically claim that rail will increase productivity and make America’s economy more competitive, as in this presidential quote “…we need to ensure that we possess a [HSR] transportation system that boosts American productivity and international competitiveness.” But this is not President Biden talking, or even former President Obama. It is Bill Clinton back in 1992.
Rail was losing market share to cars prior to World War II and its market share fell throughout the 20th century. By the 1990s, the economics of HSR did not make sense and they make even less sense today. In 1994, Louis Thompson wrote a special feature in Japan Railway & Transport Review titled High-Speed Rail in the United States—Why Isn’t There More? In it, he points out all the things working against a U.S. HSR system—geography, relatively low population density, and greater competition from cars and planes than in other countries. These factors still present issues for HSR.
Thompson notes that “HSR does not perform well where population density is low or construction costs are exceptionally high.” At 87 people per square mile, America’s current population density is low compared to countries with extensive rail systems. According to recent estimates, Japan’s population density is 863 per square mile, the U.K.’s is 725, Germany’s is 603, Switzerland’s is 539, China’s is 378, and France’s is 319.
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Some will argue that national population density is not the appropriate statistic to consider since HSR is designed to connect dense cities to one another. But U.S. cities are not very dense, either. New York is America’s densest big city at 27,000 people per square mile. San Francisco is second at just over 17,000 people per square mile. These cities are comparable to Beijing (almost 30,000 per square mile) or Tokyo (12,000 per square mile) but are well below Seoul (43,000 per square mile) Shanghai (35,000 per square mile) or Paris (53,000 per square mile).
Once you get outside New York and San Francisco, U.S. city population densities fall fast. Proposed rail hubs Denver, Nashville, and Atlanta have population densities of 4,700; 1,300; and 3,700 people per square mile, respectively.
America also has more competitive substitutes for trains. Air travel is much cheaper in America than in other countries with extensive rail systems. A 2017 analysis of air travel costs found that the average cost of short-haul low-cost flights (flights less than 800 miles or three hours, so many domestic flights) is $5.41 per 100 kilometers in America. Similar flights in France cost $6.58, or 18% more. The cost difference is even higher in Sweden (+37%), Japan (+73%), Finland (+222%), Germany (+39%), Canada (+108%), South Korea (+630%), Spain (+59%), and many other countries.
America also has a more extensive network of airports than most countries. America has more airports per million people (43) than many European and Asian countries, including Germany (7), France (7), the U.K. (7), Japan (1.4), and South Korea (2). Compared to many countries, it is easy to get to any metro area in America via a plane, and many of the flights between big metro areas are direct.
Planes are also much faster than trains. The fastest passenger train in the world is China’s Beijing to Nanjing line that travels at nearly 200 mph. The average commercial jet speed in America is more than double that at 500 mph, but it is possible to go much faster. As economist Eli Dourado points out, with better technology and the right regulation, we could have planes that regularly travel over 750 mph in the not-so-distant future. No train is going that fast.
In addition to U.S. air travel being more convenient, faster, and relatively cheap by world standards, Americans also have cars and an extensive highway system for shorter trips. In Thompson’s 1994 article, he notes that America had 0.57 cars per person. By 2014, the number of motor vehicles per person had increased to 0.8. For comparison, the U.K. had 0.52 vehicles per person in 2014, while Canada had 0.61, Japan had 0.59, and Germany had 0.57.
For most people, riding a train with other people that only departs at certain times is less appealing for short to medium-length trips than driving a car that leaves according to your schedule, especially if you need a car at your destination anyway. This is the case in most U.S. cities since they are not built for pedestrian or other car-less modes of travel.
Moreover, travelling by car is only going to get better as autonomous vehicle (AV) technology improves. AV’s will mitigate congestion, improve traffic safety, decrease the cost of car ownership, and, if all goes according to plan, even allow people to do other things while traveling, just like trains. And given the time it takes to build rail in America—right California? —we will probably have AVs before the first HSR leg is complete.
Finally, the cost of HSR is outrageous. Current estimates for California’s HSR system come in at $80 billion for 520 miles, or $154 million per mile. Amtrak estimates that it would cost $500 million per mile to turn its Northeast Corridor route into a true high-speed system. At these prices, it would cost at least $1 trillion to build a national HSR system, and likely much more.
High-speed rail is the “fetch” of transportation ideas. Politicians and rail proponents keep trying to make it happen, yet 60 years and billions of dollars later we have nothing to show for it. Based on the economics, this is the way it should be. Americans have planes for long trips, cars for short trips, and some combination of the two for everything in between. HSR is an expensive, outdated solution looking for a problem.