July 21, 2009
"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.