High-Speed Trains: Overview from the report on May 1, 2009

By Thomas J. Billitteri

It's the dream of grounded airline passengers and aggravated drivers everywhere: Hop a sleek, futuristic train that whisks you in living-room comfort to your destination hundreds of miles away at speeds two, three or even four times that of an auto.

Outside the United States, the idea is hardly new. “Bullet trains” first appeared in Japan 45 years ago, and countries as diverse as France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Taiwan and South Korea have high-speed systems running or under construction.

In America, supertrain development has long been stalled — but maybe not for long. President Barack Obama, seeking to make 21st-century train travel a signature issue of his administration, added $8 billion to this year's economic stimulus package for high-speed and other rail projects — the most ever allotted for rail at once. In addition, Obama's 2010 budget proposes state grants for high-speed rail totaling $5 billion over five years.

The money is aimed at two very different versions of what in the United States is defined as high-speed rail: conventional electric- or diesel-powered trains that can move at 110 miles an hour, or about 40 percent faster than most Amtrak trains travel today; and European-style high-speed trains that require special tracks and sophisticated locomotives to speed passengers at hundreds of miles an hour toward their destinations.

Right now, Amtrak's Washington-New York-Boston Acela Express counts as the closest thing to high-speed rail in the United States. It is capable of reaching 150 mph but averages roughly 80 mph on its Washington-New York route over tracks shared with freight and commuter trains.

Experts say the $8 billion in stimulus money isn't enough to pay for even one high-speed system. Much of the money, they say, will be used to improve existing tracks shared by passenger and freight trains, to help traditional passenger trains run faster in key corridors, such as one linking Chicago with other Midwest cities. But some of the money will likely be used for real bullet trains proposed in California, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. The government has identified 10 intercity corridors, plus the Northeast Corridor linking Washington and Boston, as potential recipients of federal money.

Obama said the nation requires “a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls high-speed rail a “transformational initiative” for the economy. In April the president issued a strategic plan for high-speed rail, and by June the Transportation Department must explain how groups can seek grants. The competition for money “is going to be pretty severe,” said Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest high-speed rail effort.

However the stimulus money is used, rail advocates say it marks an historic shift in federal transportation policy, which for decades has favored highways and airports over trains.

“It is laying the groundwork for a high-speed rail system, and it's setting the tone that we're going to have one,” says James P. RePass, founder and CEO of the National Corridors Initiative, a group that advocates transportation-infrastructure development, with an emphasis on rail. While both government and private money will be required to develop high-speed trains, RePass says, the federal stimulus money signals “a sea change in the attitude of the national administration about rail.”

Ross B. Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, calls the stimulus money “a serious beginning.”

“Eight billion dollars is not going to fulfill the dreams of people who see a [French-style 200 mph] TGV going everywhere,” he says, “but it can lay the groundwork for that if it's the first installment on a serious commitment.”

But high-speed trains face huge obstacles in the United States. Beyond massive infrastructure outlays, experts say they require a distinct set of geographic and demographic circumstances to make them worthwhile. They must serve cities within a few hundred miles of each other — otherwise it's faster for passengers to fly. Population densities along the route must be high — otherwise trains can't generate adequate revenue. Passengers must have an easy, cheap way to get from a train station to their final destination — requiring integrated public-transit systems in urban areas. And with gasoline far cheaper in the United States than in Europe, consumers must have an incentive to ditch their cars in favor of trains.

“Unlike Europe, we've been wedded to the auto in so many ways,” says Carlos Schwantes, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Our cities are very diffuse, very spread out. Urban sprawl goes on for hundreds of miles. If we put in high-speed trains, where would we site the stations that would benefit many Americans? People don't live downtown, and they would have to secure space to park their autos. We don't have a support network of trolleys, trams and so on.”

Efforts to build true high-speed systems have faltered in the past. In Florida, where a Tampa-Orlando-Miami route has long been contemplated, voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2000 directing the legislature to develop a system capable of going faster than 120 mph. But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush helped quash the project. Efforts to build systems in Texas and California also failed in the past.

Today a renewed effort in California has come closest to achieving a true high-speed system. In November voters approved the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds to help pay for a 220-mph system between San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim and eventually Sacramento and San Diego. However, the state — mired in a fiscal crisis — faces a challenge in raising the money.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says the 800-mile system will cost $45 billion in government and private funds to build. Once in operation, the system will generate more than $1 billion in annual profits and need no operating subsidies, the authority claims. It also says the system will create thousands of jobs, have huge environmental benefits and draw as many as 117 million riders a year by 2030.

“By building this system, California will retain its rightful place as America's premier economic, transportation and environmental leader,” declared Quentin Kopp, chairman of the state rail authority.

But critics say California's claims are grossly exaggerated. A study by the Reason Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank, and two other groups — Citizens Against Government Waste and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — concluded that the system would cost tens of billions more than the authority's estimate and that ridership and greenhouse-gas reductions would be much lower.

“My bottom line: It is a terrible financial loser,” says Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant and coauthor of the study.

As rail backers begin vying for federal stimulus money, a fundamental question remains: How much funding should be allocated for true high-speed systems and how much for incremental improvements in existing rail systems to make traditional trains run faster.

Joseph Vranich, coauthor of the Reason Foundation study and former president of the High Speed Rail Association, said he would “focus all this money where it's needed”: on a true high-speed rail system in the New York-Washington corridor, “by far the No. 1 market” for high-speed rail.

“Population density in the corridor is high, distances are short enough to make trains a viable alternative to airplanes, rights-of-way for new track already exist and construction of a new airport in the New York area to accommodate future travel demand would be difficult,” he says. “Once the country — public agencies and private companies — are smarter about how to build a high-speed system, then we can evaluate some other lines.”

But Capon of the rail passengers group argues that concentrating stimulus money in a single rail market would simply discourage others from moving ahead with projects that he contends are vitally needed. “If we say to 49 states, this is not your money, states may just give up.”

The Issues:

  • Do high-speed trains make economic sense?
  • Would high-speed trains relieve highway and airport congestion?
  • Is high-speed rail good for the environment?
To view the entire report, login to CQ Researcher Online [subscription required], or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF