The Lunacy Of Federal High-Speed Rail

A take-down by Robert Samuelson.

[Update while later]

Florida Governor Rick Scott has turned down funding for it.

* My decision to reject the project comes down to three main economic realities:

o First – capital cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook for an additional $3 billion.

o Second – ridership and revenue projections are historically overly-optimistic and would likely result in ongoing subsidies that state taxpayers would have to incur. (from $300 million – $575 million over 10 years) – Note: The state subsidizes Tri-Rail $34.6 million a year while passenger revenues covers only $10.4 million of the $64 million annual operating budget.

o Finally – if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and is shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion in federal funds to D.C.

That last “if” should be a “when.” Good for him. Too bad we don’t have as much sense in Sacramento.

[Update a couple minutes later]

This seems to have been influenced by my friend (and fellow member of the Competitive Space Task Force) Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation:

the Reason Foundation issued its report nearly two weeks ago. Using estimates for a proposed rail line in California, it projects the Tampa-to-Orlando link could cost $3 billion more than estimated.

Research by the Reason Foundation and the study’s main author, Wendell Cox, regularly offers a skeptical view of rail, so the findings are not particularly surprising. What’s notable is the work was overseen by Robert Poole, a foundation director who served on Scott’s transition team for transportation issues.

“It’s understandable that some are dreaming of flashy high-speed rail trains carrying tourists and residents between the two cities,” Poole said in a news release. “When you look at realistic construction costs and operating expenses you see these trains are likely to turn into a very expensive nightmare for taxpayers.”

Hey, Jerry, I’m sure Bob’s available for a similar analysis for CA. In case you haven’t noticed, you have budget problems, too.

84 thoughts on “The Lunacy Of Federal High-Speed Rail”

  1. George Turner:
    I don’t know whether you mistook my comment for someone else’s, but you seem to think I was actually advocating all that. I wasn’t.

  2. I see in B. Lewis last comment, he raised the white flag of surrender. Shame on Ed for carrying on the volley, although a very effect barrage it was.

  3. Sorry for the misunderstanding, Rickl, I was trying to take your argument and run with it but wasn’t at all clear about that in my opening.

  4. Channeling actor William Shatner on the TV program Boston Legal, who played a character who would blurt out his own name “Denny Crane” at inappropriate moments to “remind people they are in the presence of greatness”, I have only one remark to make on this thread.

    High speed trains!

  5. In Washington State, 52% of all gas taxes and tolls collected on roads go towards transit. 48% goes towards roads – and ferries are considered “roads.”

    Even with more than half of the cash (long-term, this-year, last-year, any way you want to slice the numbers) transit accounts for less than 3% of daily trips.

  6. Yeah, well, Paul, some of us seem to want high-speed trains because we lack high-speed brains. The country is sinking in hyperinflationary debt and feckless jobless misery — and Dear Leader and his mindless army of O-bots respond by suggesting we take out a HELOC against the Republic of Jefferson and Madison to build a Great Pyramid, Nazca lines, and/or landing strip for flying saucers.

    Hurry up with those private rockets, pleez. I want to emigrate to a planet with intelligent life. Or perhaps I am just having a Win The Future moment, and need only a stiff whiskey to recover.

  7. “Channeling actor William Shatner on the TV program Boston Legal, who played a character who would blurt out his own name “Denny Crane” at inappropriate moments to “remind people they are in the presence of greatness”, I have only one remark to make on this thread.

    High speed trains!”

    An even better example is……..


    (horses neighing)

  8. Wow, well, I must say it was very big of Bruce Lewis to step-in and take the heat for Chris like that — Gerrib’s usually the one who must declare himself the winner and ragequit.

  9. Besides the fact that the demand and need for high-speed rail is questionable, at best, there’s also the economic situation. As Gov. Scott noted, we simply can’t afford billions in liability when we’re in a down economy. We’re supposed to be tightening our belts, not buying Ferraris.

  10. Another thought – the current rail system didn’t get built without subsidies. Federal and State governments spend millions of dollars (back when that was a lot of money) subsidizing railroads.

    The first transcontinental line got both land grants on the right-of-way and loans per mile laid. See Pacific Railroad Act for details.

  11. Maybe the feds will give IL the train dollars FL, WI & OH reject and we can build high speed rail linking Chicago to St. Louis via Springfield.

    Then lets see how it works out.

    In the meantime, thanks for the jobs.

  12. Another thought – the current rail system didn’t get built without subsidies. Federal and State governments spend millions of dollars (back when that was a lot of money) subsidizing railroads.

    Yes Gerrib, I mentioned that in my very first comment. Your response was that GM sold buses in San Francisco. That was exactly 24 hours ago. Way to keep up.

    Maybe tonight or tomorrow you can tell us how GE is fleecing the American taxpayer by pushing high speed rail on us by buying off high level politicians in the federal government.

  13. Chris Gerrib thinks his few years (weeks, whatever) living in Florida qualify him to state high speed rail will be a great thing for that state. Well, I was born and raised in Florida and lived there most of my life (1963 to 1999 in Miami, ’99 to 2009 in Orlando), and I can tell you right now that no one in Florida wants high speed rail. (The small number of Europhile train fans in Fla = “no one.”) No one will take his fancy train from Orlando to Jacksonville. No one wants to go to Jacksonville unless they have to, and if they have to they already have 1) a nice highway that goes there (I-4 to I-95), and 2) Amtrak — a train!!! One that serves booze, by the way, and has comfy seats, and still on my one and only Amtrak trip (from Orlando to Raleigh, NC) there weren’t that many people who got off at Jacksonville.

    Let me tell you about Florida and public transportation. Florida residents prefer cars because this is America, not Thirdworldistan. I took the bus on and off for years in Miami and Metro-Dade Transit sucks. Traffic in Miami sucks but it is worse with buses because of all the stops to pick up people. You know? Your own car, you don’t have to stop every other block to let on fifty Hispanic immigrants going to their jobs cleaning houses in Coral Gables. Anyway, they decided to build Metrorail. That was going to be the Transportation Of The Future. At first they wanted a monorail like in Disney World but that didn’t pan out. So we got elevated trains. I used to take it. All the stops before downtown are along Dixie Highway which runs near the coast (because Metrorail uses the route of the old railroad line). Most of Miami has spread inland west as far as it could go and thats where most of the working class (the class that is supposedly what all these public transportation schemes are for) lives now. Most of the neighborhoods along the south-of-downtown part of Metrorail’s run are either filthy rich (so they don’t need public transportation) or welfare/crack neighborhoods (so they have no jobs and use Metrorail as a kind of mugging smorgasboard/place to chillax). To use it most people had to drive (!) or take the bus to the stations. And parking wasn’t free — you had to use your Metro pass or pay. Anyway, I had to take a very long bus ride to get to my nearest Metrorail station. Sometimes I’d skip that part and just take the bus all the way downtown. It depended on my mood. And after downtown Metrorail runs through the lovely borough of Overtown (Google it for fun crime tales), Liberty City (Google it for stories of the riots that ruined my high school graduation year, and more fun crime tails) and north Dade County. Excuse me, Miami-Dade County.

    Anyway, Metrorail was real convenient for the lawyers and government workers who worked downtown, for hobos, and for the young and aimless denizens of welfare neighborhoods. It wasn’t exactly convenient for me but I had no car so I had to use it. But it hemorrhages money — Google it — and always will.

    Then Chris G mentioned the Tri-Rail. Oh what a boondoggle that was. I took it once, to Palm Beach where my fiancé picked me up (he lived in Orlando). It was maybe me and five other people on the train, on a weekday. No one uses it because no one needs or wants to. I could have taken a bus but I was curious. No one wants high speed rail in Florida because what we do have is underused and there is no place to put more.

  14. Larry J – if you look at the population distribution, you’ll find that your particular part of the country is one of the least-densely populated areas in the US. I suspect that we could have high-speed rail serving 80% of the population without a single mile of track in the entire Mountain Time Zone.

    Unless you just want to have isolated pockets of rail service, you actually need to cross the Mountain Time Zone to connect places like California to the East Coast. Of what practical use are isolated pockets of “high speed” rail service?

  15. Michael Kent – I actually haven’t opined on European retirement systems and I don’t, as a general rule, approve of European defense or foreign policy. I also think that their labor laws are too restrictive and their welfare system too generous. If you’re going to criticize me, please try to get your facts straight.

    Larry J – if you look at the actual proposals for high-speed rail, “isolated pockets” is exactly what you’ll see. The rail advocates do in fact understand that for trips over 500 miles flying is faster door-to-door. So the California to East Coast trains will be either low-speed or not at all.

    See, one of the things that the rail advocates understand is that Amtrak as currently configured is non-optimal. The practical use of passenger rail is to reduce short-haul air flights and moderate-distance drives.

  16. Amtrak as currently configured is non-optimal.

    So, privatize it. It will self-optimize or go out of business, either way the American taxpayer is off the hook.

    And, realize that any high-speed rail service in the US is going to be non-optimal just like Amtrak – and rather than saddling future generations with EVEN MORE unnecessary debt, for yet another boondoggle, just stop now.

  17. if you look at the actual proposals for high-speed rail, “isolated pockets” is exactly what you’ll see. The rail advocates do in fact understand that for trips over 500 miles flying is faster door-to-door. So the California to East Coast trains will be either low-speed or not at all.

    Sounds like rail advocates don’t understand the real benefit then of rail. There are lots of people who fear flying. And if done right, rail should be a little cheaper than flying (trains don’t need to carry an extra engine to avoid crashing if one goes out).

    And as mentioned previously (24 hours again), travel over distance allows “high-speed” rail to actually average high speeds. Distances of 55 miles (California), 75 miles (Wisconsin), and 95 miles (Florida) don’t really allow much opportunity for trains to travel at peak performance. Certainly those distances make air travel unreasonable, but the distance is easily handled by cars. Hell, I know bicyclist that will go those distances just for weekend exercise.

    Just reading the wiki on Florida high speed rail. They planned to use trains with speeds approach 180mph. That means a 500 mile trip at average top speed would be about 3 hours. Most people will forego the 1.5 hour wait at the airport to ride 3 hours in a train. Especially those people who fear flying. Add internet access during that 3 hours (which should be easy to implement), and I think you have a reasonable system for travel. Well, except the cost per track mile will still be outrageous making the price per ticket unaffordable.

    Having travelled many times to Colorado, there’s a great place for rail. The views are awesome, and when you get to the slopes, you don’t need a car. The swamps in Florida are not as inspiring and the city sprawl means you need a car. Then there is California’s high desert. I can’t say much about Wisconsin.

  18. Larry J – if you look at the actual proposals for high-speed rail, “isolated pockets” is exactly what you’ll see.

    So, they’ll waste hundreds of billions of dollars to build little fantasy railroads that’ll actually service very few people but expect all of us to pay for it? What’s not to love in a deal like that?

    Sorry, but this is a stupid half-trillion dollar (and counting) boondoggle.

  19. Leland: I’ve been on trains in Florida, like I said. Not enough people will ride that fancy high speed rail everyone is talking about to make it pay, and people already live in Florida because it has low taxes (no state income tax, for one thing). Every time one of the municipalities raises the sales tax (Miami is bad for this) for something or other or even talks about it the shrieks go up to heaven. There aren’t enough people who are afraid of flying to make a train pay. I’m one of the few people I know who refuses to fly — everyone else puts up with the airport shit because you’re up in the air for a few hours and that’s that. Most people don’t want to see the ugly views outside a train window (Florida’s are particularly hideous — you will think you’re in a Third World country if you ride one of the trains down there; we don’t all live in Colorado).

    Hey, I like trains. But I also realize everyone isn’t like me, and that this isn’t Europe.

  20. Andrea, I’ve done several trips to Florida, and particularly Orlando. If I were to put a train in Florida, it would be in the panhandle. I’ve never driven LA to LV, but the drive from Mobile to Tallahassee is absolutely boring as hell. The drive from Tampa to Orlando is no big deal, neither is the drive to Orlando to Cocoa. In fact, I wish my commute was like the drive from MCO to Cocoa. There’s very little traffic (unless there is a launch) and very little stress.

  21. I’m not sure how a train ride from Mobile to Tallahassee would be any more interesting than the drive. True, at least in a train you get to sleep. Sort of. (I didn’t get a sleeper car for the 12 hour trip from Orlando to Raleigh, so I ended up pretty stiff, and didn’t exactly sleep well.)

  22. There is already a service for people who hate to fly, and it gets used a lot. It’s called Greyhound. Even if this high speed rail system were to magically appear tomorrow, would their prices undercut either Greyhound or a regional airline?

  23. It’s not just greyhound. Here’s there’s a lady that started with one van providing a shuttle service between Phoenix and Tucson years ago. Now she has a fleet of vans and I can imagine other entrepreneurs around the country doing something similar. Their are many modes of transportation. The good ones pay for themselves.

  24. High-speed rail will require new routes and thus new land – and some of that land will have to be taken involuntarily. Does that make Obama the new William J. LePetomane? And who is his Hedley Lamar? And who are our Sheriff Bart and Waco Kid?

  25. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe; my family is from there (And all of it still is, except for my parents). So, ever since infancy, I’ve visited about once a year on average.

    As a result, I’m very familiar with their train systems. (the ones in the UK, France, and Germany especially).

    When I was too young to drive, trains were handy, as were buses. The high speed trains were a thrill the first time, but that wore off quick.

    Now, I avoid train and buses (including in Europe) when I can. Car rentals aren’t that bad if you shop around, and they are a far better way to see Europe. By train, you’re probably going to end up staying in hotels in the cities, in the city centers. A factor so many don’t seem to know is that’s expensive in Europe. Me? I stay on the outskirts or, better, in the country. Last year I spent a few weeks in Italy that way, spending far less per night to stay at a wonderful converted farm, which even had a tiny gourmet restaurant. It was heaven, and guess what: what it saved me over having mediocre accommodations in a city more than paid for my car rental.

    I saw a lot more of Italy than I would have by train; driving to and then exploring (on foot) Tuscan hill towns, spending a day in Florence, etc, etc.

    I’ve found this same situation all over Europe, and in much of the rest of the world as well. The savings resulting from having a car (in accommodations, and time) sometimes pay for it and the fuel when compared to going by train (and buying tickets). Even when they don’t, I still go by car. (even with Europe’s preposterous fuel prices).
    Cars make even more economic sense if you aren’t traveling alone. For a couple, you’d often save money (and have fun doing it) and for a family with kids, you may well save a lot.

    Sometimes I’ll drive to the outskirts and take a train in if I’m going into a large city, such as Rome (where parking is the issue) and they are good for that, but beyond that, I have no use for trains or buses. They are far too limiting.

  26. I am interested in George Turner’s story about riding Amtrak from Louisville. When was that exactly? Amtrak hasn’t stopped there in almost a decade and hasn’t allowed smoking on trains for even longer than that. I would at least expect to hear a person’s reasonably recent experience.

    Most of what has been posted, pro and con, is hardly worth reading. Very few opinions being supported by facts, with most of the opinions being more or less just regurgitated talking points from various special interests. One side claims the other wants to get rid of cars in favor of trains, while that other side claims big oil is in control. There are probably some bits of truth to both arguments, but neither one, as presented here (or just about anywhere else on the Internet) is particularly intelligent.

    My personal opinion is that there is a place for rail transit in the public transportation system. We spend an awful lot of $$ subsidizing air service to small cities that could be better served by using existing rail corridors to connect those cities to existing larger airports, with more frequent and less expensive service. That’s just one area where rail service makes sense. Rather than a competing transportation mode to air, it should be a complimentary form that is part of a overall transportation system. That’s too left wing for some.

  27. I don’t see how a train makes any sense there. I think I have a situation similar to what you’re describing–a few times a year I fly into a small airport (this involves a plane change from a city about 300 miles away). If the small airport was shut down I wouldn’t take a train, I’d rent a car and drive. Trains are no faster than cars, and you have to get from the train station to your final destination anyway.

  28. Warren, my train trip was over a decade ago, but hearing you say that Amtrak has gone non-smoking has just reduced my chance of ever riding one of their trains again from 5% to 0%.

    What smoker would ever hop on a 70-hour non-smoking journey from hell? The smoking car was were half the people on the train hung out all day.

    You have to have a really strong sense of adventure just to try it. On the ride back I shared the journey with two cute Australian twins of Asian ethnicity. They wanted to see America and said that without doing any research they assumed it would involve riding trains around the country. We shared a good laugh over that one.

    All Americans used to ride trains. It’s part of our national experience, history, folklore, and songs. All Americans also decided to quit riding trains as soon as they could afford a car. For a long period passenger rail only survived in large cities where people could afford a car but hadn’t the slimmest chance of ever finding a parking spot.

    Using a train instead of a car to get to the airport is never going to work out very well because the trains would have to run constantly. For very short distances that job is currently handled by shuttle buses that take you from your hotel to the airport and back, leaving about every 30 or 40 minutes. A shuttle bus can turn a profit with three or four passengers a trip. A train is going to need a hundred. If the train stops at all the hotels it’ll be a four hour journey and everybody either wastes a huge part of their day or misses their flights.

    So trains will be limited to long distance journeys to the airport. But they’d still need to make the journey fairly constantly or the same problem with infrequently scheduled departure times occurs. So you need a whole bunch of people in one place who always want to get to an airport that’s in some far off other place. But if there’s a constant supply of frequent airline passengers someplace like that, we’ve already built them an airport.

    Or, to put things in a simple business perspective, we shouldn’t build more passenger trains until we fill up the ones we’ve got.

  29. Or to put things another way, look at Americans. Most go through the drive-thru window because it saves a couple minutes. We drive like maniacs to shave 5 minutes off a trip. We eat in our cars. We microwave our meals. We are the reason a Walmart has 30 check-out lines. Our blood boils when we have to wait 10 minutes in a TSA screening line, and we’re only putting up with it because we’d rather go 600 miles and hour than 80.

    A train ride will have to save us time and convenience, and that convenience will have to include a car waiting for us at both ends of most journeys.

    Anybody who can add even a smidgen of extra convenience (like a 48-ounce slurpy from a drive-thru window) or shave 5 minutes off our day makes a fortune, starts a trend, and franchises spring up all over the country.

    We don’t live at a laid-back European pace, spending hours over lunch in a cafe, or strolling down the train station to contentedly read the newspaper till one arrives. It’s just not who we are, and if we make a European style train system we will have to import Europeans to ride it because we sure won’t. We’re too busy.

    In closing, “Time is money” and nobody values a person’s time more than the person whose time it is. That’s why 124 million people choose cars every morning, and only 96,000 take the train.

  30. My wife takes the train in to work fairly often. As it happens, she does have a car at either end–she drives to the station and her company has a shuttle bus pick her up at the other end. It takes her about twice as long as it would to drive, but she doesn’t have to deal with traffic or pay for gas. Her company subsidizes the shuttle, the parking, and the train tickets (I’m pretty sure they get some money from the state for that). It’s pretty nice of our neighbors to pay for my wife’s ride to work; I suppose I should send them a thank-you card.

  31. One problem with high-speed rail is that high speed is possible only in spurts. Imagine a rail trip from Shreveport to Abilene. Right in the middle is Dallas/Fort Worth. train has to slow down for at least 60 miles of travel (the rough-approximate east-west span of Tarrant and Dallas counties). Only way to avoid this is to elevate the track. You think Texas voters will pay for 60 miles of elevated track? And that’s not counting the north-south trunk.

    This is why airplanes exist.

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