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Honk if you'd pay $1,000 for high-speed rail

"Would you pay $1,000 so that someone – probably not you – can ride high-speed trains less than 60 miles a year?”
I’m going to guess you answered “no way” to that question. I certainly did, and I’m an Amtrak rider.
In a new report released by the Illinois Policy Institute on the false promises of high-speed rail, transit expert Randal O’Toole explains how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is preparing to roll out a high-speed rail network across the country. At a cost of $90 billion, this is like asking each federal income taxpayer to hand over $1,000 for expanded rail.
Illinois’s portion of the FRA plan will cost more than $1.2 billion. Bump that up to $3.6 billion if you include proposed lines to Rock Island, Quincy, and Carbondale.
So will most Illinoisans use high-speed rail enough to get our money’s worth? Nope.
Ridership projections estimate we’ll ride 20 billion passenger miles on high-speed rail in 2025. Accounting for population growth, that means the average use will be only 58 miles per person. Compare that to the 15,000 passenger miles you and I each ride in a car each year.
O’Toole points out that “the average Illinoisan will take a round trip on high-speed rail once every 8.7 years. For every Illinoisan who rides high-speed rail once a month, more than 100 residents will never ride it.” This is a stunning – some would say damning – statistic.
Even though we’re being asked to shell out billions of tax dollars, Illinois isn’t even slated to get “real” high-speed rail under the FRA blueprint. The plan only calls for upgrading tracks to allow trains running up to 110 miles per hour (with average speeds of 55 to 75 miles per hour). Trains on the Milwaukee Road line were running that fast over seventy years ago.
Rolling out “true” high-speed rail (which calls for trains running up to 220 miles per hour) from Chicago to St. Louis would come with a price tag of $11.5 billion. Ouch. That’s like doubling the amount of Illinois’s budget deficit! And that’s not including the cost of new trains or inevitable maintenance.
Along with fiscal troubles, it turns out there are serious problems with rail’s energy- and traffic-reduction claims.
Rail advocates like to paint rail as “green,” but it can be an inefficient energy user and even a big polluter. Pushing diesel train engines to go faster increases their energy consumption. The Department of Energy notes that average inter-city car travel is currently as energy efficient as trips taken on Amtrak.
Don’t forget that cars and planes have a shorter lifespan than trains. O’Toole notes that the American auto fleet turns over every 18 years, and the airline fleet turns over every 21 years. However, we’re stuck with railroad technology for at least 30-40 years. Turnover allows new energy-saving technologies to be introduced into a fleet at a faster pace. If America over-commits to rail while cars and planes become more efficient, we could actually end up wasting energy.
High-speed rail won’t get us out of heavy traffic, either. Rail lines take just a small percentage of traffic off parallel roads (a high-speed rail plan in California is only promising a 4 percent reduction in parallel traffic). If traffic grows at a few percentage points each year (which it does), any gains from rail will soon be diminished.
Rail boosters like to point to Europe and Japan as rail nirvanas, but it turns out that isn’t the case. Europeans drive 50 times as many miles as they ride on high-speed rail, and the Japanese prefer to travel by car over high-speed rail by a factor of ten.
People like the convenience of cars, plain and simple. As humorist P.J. O’Rourke puts it, “There's something romantic about the train, but try getting the tracks to come to your house. When it comes time to unload the groceries, the romance with the train disappears immediately.
Yes, the federal government is dangling stimulus dollars in front of Illinois for rail development. But that doesn’t mean we have to bite, especially if it puts us on the hook for higher taxes, inefficient energy consumption, and clogged roads.
There is another way. “If Illinois wants to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it should concentrate on improving the form of travel Illinoisans use most: automobiles,” argues O’Toole. “Simple techniques like traffic signal coordination can do more to save energy, at a far lower cost, than high-speed rail.”
I’ll honk for that.


  • Mike P 5 years ago

    What creative statistics! Sorry Randy, but using your same algorithm, we shouldn't have built the Kennedy Expressway, either; by 2025 the average American will only travel 11.5 miles a year on it. It sounds even more dramatic if I say 167 feet per day!

    The grocery argument is pretty ridiculous, too. Most Chicagoans I know buy their groceries down the street, not in St. Louis. Which is more convenient for getting to a meeting 250 miles away - go to an airport a couple dozen miles outside of downtown and going through checkpoints for an hour or more; sit behind the wheel on the interstate for several hours unable to do anything but drive; or have a seat on a train right from downtown and get work done the whole way there?

    As for energy efficiency, which do you think burns more fuel - a HSR diesel locomotive, or a 737 carrying one tenth as many people?

    Randy also needs to update his playbook for Illinois, because IDOT already coordinates almost all its signals. What now, more lan

  • Charles 5 years ago

    Is this new rail system going to be as magically efficient as Amsham is today? Sure, Mike, you can get work done on the way, because you'll have a 14 hour trainride to St. Louis on your "high speed" train when a cow lays down on the tracks ahead of you (yes, I've had this happen on the current rails). Furthermore, the Kennedy has outlets to numerous locations, a rail is confined to 1. This isn't Europe, European ideas will not work here because the country is too large and our peoples too spread out. Besides, really, what business is there in St. Louis that demands this kind of back and forth transit? How will the money ever be generated to cover this cost? Lots of questions there for something that'll break the bank. Why are some folks so willing to keep pushing the government to print money to spend on bogus programs that will do us little to no good, all the while stoking the inflation machine?

  • duh 5 years ago

    that was probably the most flat-earth piece I've read in months. thanks for that. i feel dumber having read it. The market is intercity travel. high speed rail works very well with a good transit system. much like access roads to an interstate. i don't mind getting off my fat arse and walking a few blocks to a train station--i would love to have that option. When you visit the mall, look around and you'll agree with me that more of the country should be making this daily walk. $90 billion is only 2 years worth of what federal taxpayers spend on highways. and i'll bet you don't even use 1 percent of the 4 million miles of public roadway your tax dollars go to. I would rather travel 110 on a train than 20 on the road during rush hour. And even today's Amtrak trains are 20% fuel efficient than cars, according to DOE. As far as turnover of technology-- you think we should keep trusting the auto industry's innovative judgment? It's time to try something else.

  • Charles 5 years ago

    As I mentioned before, the author here is dead on. This is NOT Europe, folks. Have any of you ever visited St. Louis? Mass transit doesn't exist there. Your walk on the St. Louis arrival side will turn your "fat arse" into an Ethopian emaciation look when you get wherever it is you plan on going once you get downtown St. Louis (that is unless you plan on going to a stadium or one of the many fine ghettos that inhabit the northern and immediately southern portions of St. Louis upon your arrival downtown. Trains are the pipedreams of those that wished they were "on holiday" in France. I guess if everyone lived the sheltered life of an elite politician that never uses things like trains, the option has that romantic appeal. Romance does not belong in government budgets.

  • Jim Brewer 5 years ago

    Randal O'Toole is from the Cato Institute, aka GOP front organization for untaxing the well to do.
    "every American taxpayer pays $1,000." Well, except that HSR has a lifespan of conservatively 70 years, and by your own article, the trainsets alone have a lifespan of 30 years. That's like saying the average American homeowner will pay $250K next year, just for housing. True, but it will also be housing the year after and the year after. Some economists they have there at Cato.

    "average Illinoisan will use system once every X years" True. As a matter of fact, I haven't been to the airport in over a year. Most Americans haven't. Guess its a government boondoggle to have airports.

    "High Speed Rail is dirty" In fact, they are electric trains. They pull a little over 10MW per hour. Trainset pulling moderately loaded consist two hours to St. Loo burns maybe $1K of juice, or a couple of bucks of juice per passenger.

    High speed rail is competition for short-haul air, not

  • Mike P 5 years ago

    Charles - have you ever been to St. Louis? There are 46 miles of light rail, and and extensive bus system that's being expanded in two weeks. Looks like you can get within walking distance of anywhere from downtown (or the airport, for that matter) without a car.

    If worrying about a "cow laying down on the tracks" (the possibility of which would be mitigated in the track upgrade, BTW) is enough to sway you away from HSR, what about the much more frequent occurrence of a truck rolling over and shutting down the highway, or foul weather that affects cars but not trains?

    You're right, this isn't Europe. In the U.S., we have businesspeople who frequently travel from city to city. Having ridden a train from Madrid to Paris, I can also assure you that the population density between those cities is far less than downstate Illinois.

  • GXI 5 years ago

    My GOD you're an airhead, lady.

  • Charles 5 years ago

    I lived in St. Louis for 25 years. You cannot walk anywhere from downtown. This is from living there, not looking at a map. The light rail in St. Louis runs through the ghetto and not to the neighborhoods where the working class lives. The airport is not downtown, and a good 5 miles from even the sketchiest of neighborhoods. St. Louis is not a walking or mass transit town. The bus system has had substantial cuts in the last 5-10 years that, even before cuts, often had you waiting an hour between pick-ups.

    Your single train ride through a country does little to sway me considering my initial point is still there. What huge business hub is St. Louis? What massive urban core does St. Louis have? As an expatriated native of the city I can go into depth about how it's a study of suburbs that coalesce together and NOT an urban-core powerhouse. What justifies the expenditure, especially in budget-strapped times? I still don't see it.

  • Henry 5 years ago

    How much am I paying for highways I don't use? The math in the article is utterly ridiculous! Was it written by Alfred Sloan!?!

  • Rick 5 years ago

    Ms. Rasmussen your work shouldn't be published in the Examiner because your critical thinking skills are quite limited if you have to resort to citing an anachronism like Randal O'toole. O'toole is a contrarian ideolog that is only capable of thinking of reasons to continue to do the same thing we have always done. There is no intellect in that. The HSR system is no different that the Interstate. Once it is built people will use it. Yes it is subsidized, but so is the Interstate. Why is it that no one ever mentions the billions of dollars spent every year to maintain it? You should consider writing articles about fashion or movie reviews because you are not up to the challenge of writing intelligibly about a complicated issue such as this one.

  • Charles 5 years ago

    Rick, try attacking the idea and not the person, you can DOOO eet! The Amtrack rails are there and no one uses them, why would this other be any different? The highway system is an open system through which hundreds of millions of people and cargo passes every year. It's vital to the infrastructure of our country (which is NOT EUROPE!) which is spread out upon a large surface area not easily serviced by train, even if there were lines all over, which there are not.

    Henry, if you go to the grocery store, you use the highways. I know it's hard to imagine, but that food was actually shipped there, it didn't just materialize.

  • Marc 5 years ago

    I don't buy the argument that because it isn't "true" High Speed Rail it isn't worth building. That's like refusing to buy any car because you can't afford a Lamborghini.

    High Speed Rail advocates probably just need to rebrand it as "competitive speed" rail. Maybe taking the train from St. Louis to Chicago won't be much faster than driving, but as long as it's competitive people will use it.

    Those of you who still prefer to drive intercity trips: make sure to take into account the TRUE cost of driving. This is not just gas; it also includes wear & tear, and car depreciation. I estimate roughly $.40/mile to drive my car (a fuel-efficient Elantra). 300 miles x $.40/mile = $120. A one-way Amtrak ticket varies from $42-$65. So it's already cheaper to take Amtrak - and with "competitive speed" rail it'd be quicker, too. And that's not even accounting for things like being able to relax on the train, and your increased exposure to more dangerous highways vs. less dangerous rail

  • Matt P 5 years ago

    What a disappointing article. Point by point corrections:

    The $90 billion would be spent if every corridor was built out. Many won't make the cut. Even if they did, $90 billion over how many years? 15? 20? $50 a year is what many Americans spend on hot dogs.

    O'Toole's "point" about Illinoisans using rail is already wrong. From Amtrak's "State Reports" link, we can estimate 2.2 million people boarded or arrived on an Amtrak train in Illinois last year. Assuming most were Illinoisans, that's one round trip for our 12.9 million residents every 6.5 years. Not impressive -- but more than O'Toole claims, and that's with today's lousy service.

    The comparison between driving and train miles in Europe is inadequate at best. What kinds of trips are we comparing? Noone's planning to use Amtrak for grocery shopping.

    Same for signal coordinaton. People stuck a weekend backup on downstate I-55 won't be helped by that.

    I want to think IPI is smart. You aren't helping.