10 Mar 2011: Opinion

U.S. High-Speed Rail: Time to
Hop Aboard or Be Left Behind

In recent months, several conservative governors have rejected federal funds to begin constructing high-speed rail lines in their states. But a high-speed rail advocate argues that such ideologically driven actions are folly, as other U.S. states and countries around the world are moving swiftly to embrace a technology that is essential for competitive 21st-century economies.

by andy kunz

China has committed to investing $360 billion to vastly expand its showcase network of high-speed trains, which already carry passengers at more than 200 miles per hour between some of the country’s largest cities.

Spain, despite its economic woes, is investing $170 billion to extend its acclaimed high-speed rail system, which now makes the 386-mile Madrid-Barcelona run in just 2 hours, 38 minutes — compared to six hours by car. A similar boom in high-speed rail construction is taking place throughout Europe, from the boot of Italy to the Baltic Sea.

Worldwide, nations not normally associated with the bullet train revolution — India, Brazil, Argentina, and Morocco, among others — are making plans to build high-speed rail networks. They understand that rapid, inter-city rail systems will be essential to developing competitive 21st-century economies as oil supplies dwindle, highways and airports face increasing congestion, and pressure to reduce carbon emissions rises.

And the United States? For the past several months the news on the high-speed rail front has been dominated by several governors, swept into power by the Tea Party movement, proudly proclaiming that they will have nothing to do with high-speed rail projects, which they contend are boondoggles. Indeed, the governors of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio have collectively rejected $3.6 billion in federal funds that would have covered nearly all of the cost of building rail lines on such routes as Orlando to
The actions of the three governors undermine the job creation that they tout as central to their administrations.
Tampa, Milwaukee to Madison, and Cleveland to Columbus.

Fortunately, the foresight of the Obama administration and various states will ensure that the foundation of a national high-speed rail network will be laid in the coming years, with $8 billion in federal stimulus funds going to construct the first links in a high-speed rail network that is envisioned to stretch 17,000 miles by 2030. Bullet trains would eventually whisk people between all major U.S. cities — Los Angeles to Seattle, Dallas to Albuquerque, and Boston to Washington, at 220 miles per hour. The cost of such a network would be significant — $600 billion — but a combination of public and private funds would build the system, which would eventually yield benefits that far exceed the original investment.

For now, the U.S. funds rejected by governors Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio, will be distributed to other states such as California and Illinois, which will benefit for years to come from the job creation and economic stimulus that will accompany the establishment of high-speed rail networks. In the future, the actions by these three governors will be viewed as folly, decisions that were made on ideological rather than rational grounds and that undermine the job creation that the three governors tout as central to their administrations.

Click to enlarge
High-speed Rail U.S. Map

U.S. High Speed Rail Association
U.S. high-speed rail advocates envision a 17,000-mile national rail system connecting all major cities and corridors by 2030.
The decisions of the three Republican governors were not isolated acts, but rather a coordinated effort by the Tea Party and its allies to attempt to kill high-speed rail across America. Fortunately, 35 other governors — Republicans and Democrats alike — whose states were eligible for federal high-speed rail funding did accept U.S. grants for rail projects.

Last month’s decision by Governor Scott of Florida to reject federal funding for high-speed rail reflects the combination of bad information and partisan thinking that motivated all three governors to turn their backs on the future. In making his decision, Scott says he relied heavily on a January report by the libertarian Reason Foundation, which is funded by major conservative organizations, oil companies, and companies involved in highway construction.

The Reason Foundation report was riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and distortions, such as a claim that the construction of the Orlando-Tampa line could cost Florida taxpayers $3 billion in capital cost overruns. That figure was arrived at by comparing the project in Florida to California, which faces far tougher right-of-way and land-use issues. The Tampa-Orlando line already has a long-established right of way on the Interstate 4 median, making it much cheaper to build. In addition, the eight international rail consortia seeking to construct the Florida line have guaranteed that they will cover operation, maintenance, and subsidy costs for 30 years.

After rejecting the federal funds, Scott’s office issued a statement that he “is now focused on moving forward with infrastructure projects that create long-term jobs and turn Florida’s economy around.” Those new projects will require far more Florida tax dollars than would ever have been spent on the Tampa to Orlando line, prompting former Republican Governor Jeb Bush to express surprise at Scott’s decision. Fifteen Republican and 11 Democratic state senators in Florida also signed a letter to U.S.
The Florida line would connect Tampa and Orlando with Walt Disney World, one of the world’s top tourist attractions.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking him to ignore Scott and allow the legislature to work with the consortia to revive the Tampa to Orlando project.

In addition, a group of Florida mayors is speaking with LaHood about bypassing the governor and allowing an organization formed by the mayors to receive the federal funds and oversee the building of the Tampa-Orlando line. This effort underscores the broad, bipartisan backing for the project, as evidenced by the fact that eight business associations from 11 counties in central Florida are staunch supporters of the proposed rail line. One key reason: The line would connect Tampa and Orlando with Walt Disney World, one of the world’s top tourist attractions.

The reasons that so many disparate interests support the creation of a national high-speed rail network are glaringly obvious, and are becoming more so by the day. The United States has become far too dependent on foreign oil, with Americans consuming six times more oil per capita than Europeans, who enjoy better, faster, and cheaper mobility. The U.S now spends up to $700 billion a year to import foreign oil, 70 percent of which is consumed by cars, trucks, and airplanes.

China high speed rail Beijing
AFP/Gou Yige
Passengers board a high-speed train at a railway station in Beijing in 2011.
Now, for the second time in less than three years, the price of oil has shot up past $100 a barrel, threatening the fragile economic recovery. And most experts agree that the world has passed the point of peak oil, which means that as demand soars and supplies dwindle, oil prices could hit $300 per barrel this decade.

Enhancing U.S. energy security is just one reason the country needs a state-of-the-art high-speed rail system, which by 2030 could transport millions of people each day between America’s cities. A national high-speed rail system would generate millions of jobs; help revive the country’s manufacturing sector by creating a new industry producing the trains, steel, and related components; alleviate pressure on a crumbling transportation infrastructure; and lessen the ever-worsening congestion on America’s highways and at its airports, where delays cause an estimated $156 billion in losses to the U.S. economy annually. And then there is climate change and the large-scale reduction of CO2 emissions that would result from the creation of an interstate high-speed rail system and the expansion of regional commuter rail systems.

As a high-speed rail network spreads across the U.S. in the coming decades, the costs of operating the national transportation system will decline each year to the point where the savings will eventually exceed the estimated $600 billion cost of building the rail system. Although public funds will be used to cover much of the construction costs, the network will perform best if operated by private companies.


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The U.S. must build a national high-speed rail network if it hopes to maintain its competitiveness in the world economy. China and Europe are now moving ahead with their high-speed rail networks at breakneck speed, which means that in a decade or two they will have significantly reduced their dependence on imported oil, created tens of millions of new jobs, and saved their countries trillions of dollars by vastly improving the productivity of their economies thanks to a low-carbon transportation sector that moves people and goods at speeds that could one day hit 300 miles per hour, or more.

The U.S. can be part of that future. But if more states follow the example of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, the country will remain shackled by 19th- and 20th-century forms of transportation in a 21st-century world. Contemplate this image: China, Europe, Russia, South America, and other parts of the globe are streaking by at 250 miles per hour while the likes of Governor Scott are stuck in a traffic jam on an interstate, watching the trains whiz past.

POSTED ON 10 Mar 2011 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Urbanization North America North America 


HSR may work in the NEC, but I don't see how it would be affordable in FL.

I think some basic math suggests that operating at a surplus with suggested fares would be unlikely. I think the most recent 3,300,000 ridership is way too high and not everyone would pay $30, But, let’s split the difference with the old 2.4M and use 2.85M. to see if we’re likely to see a big operating surplus.

Here are the basics:
2,8500,000 annual passengers $30 fare = $85,500,000 annual revenue
1100--FL state estimate of permanent jobs to run the HSR
$91,000--avg Amtrak salary and benefits
$100,000,000 annual cost of salary and benefits
Annual loss (just for labor, never mind electricity, maintenance, etc.) =$15,500,000
The individual economics just don’t make sense either. Thinking on a much more expensive gas future, it still doesn’t work.

With gas at $6/gallon and 25mpg, you will spend $39 for the 82 mile round trip by car. That’s less than a projected one person round trip of $60 on the HSR train. With 2,3 or 4 people traveling, train is really prohibitive, but car travel doesn’t cost a nickel more. And, at each end, you’ll have parking, taxi or bus expenses, too.

Moreover, with millions of us driving EV’s and hybrids in the coming years (figure 50mpg for the awesome, Prius), you’ll pay only $20 or so for a car RT. Another potential benefit would be to reduce cars on I-4, which can get pretty congested. Using the 2.85M annual passengers, that translates to an hourly car reduction of 217, assuming 1.5 people/car. I don’t think that’s going to make much of a dent. I may be all wrong and am ready to stand corrected. In the end, it can’t be all about partisan rhetoric. It needs to be about the economics.

Posted by EV Fan on 10 Mar 2011

A long awaited industry study on the Florida HSR ridership numbers came out yesterday saying the system would have an operating surplus of $10.2 million in the first year alone, and a $28.6 million surplus in the 10th year. I think even these numbers are low. There are 50 million tourists pouring into Orlando airport every year, and at least half of them would ride the train at least to Disney World - giving the line 25 million tourists per year. At least a quarter of the them would also ride to the Tampa Bay area to enjoy the gulf beaches. Then add all the business travel between the two cities, the horrible congestion on I-4, and the millions who would travel to the other cities for sporting events, day/weekend trips to Disney, the beaches, etc. The system would in fact be a busy one.

Gas prices will be rising rapidly over the next 5 years, so driving and flying will quickly get far more expensive than the train which is not powered by oil, and therefore not subject o oil price fluctuations.

Keep in mind just because a car is electricly powered, doesn't mean that congestion will suddenly disappear. Even if all the cars in central Florida were suddenly made into electric, they would still be stuck in horrendous traffic moving slowly. The trains can wisk up to 10,000 people per hour in each direction without delay or waste even at the height of rush hour!

Posted by Mike B on 10 Mar 2011

Walker, Kasich and Scott are smart enough to know what they were elected to do: cut spending.

High speed rail is the poster child for wasteful spending.

Posted by John Dough on 10 Mar 2011

Would have been great if you could have found a journalist, rather than a lobbyist, to write this article.

Posted by Jen on 10 Mar 2011

Unfortunately, high speed trains are not exactly good for the environment. As speed goes up, so does fuel consumption, and this applies to trains also. So, the Eurostar at 313 km/h use 10 times the energy as a normal train at 120 km/h, or almost 25% of a Boeing 747 (1,000 km/h). Better approach might be to spend the same money on train schedule reliability, amenities like work desks and internet access, etc.

Posted by Bruce Berry on 10 Mar 2011

This puts the whole website in a suspicious light.
The idea is patently idiotic and appears as an
Posted by jimkell on 10 Mar 2011

Congress has no intention to give more money to support high-speed rail. Recent statements to this effect by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller and House Budget Committee Paul Ryan should put an end to these false hopes. The Administration's obsession about high-speed rail in the face of congressional and public skepticism borders on irrationality.

Posted by Kenneth Orski on 10 Mar 2011

Oh Please leave me behind!

My first job out of college I worked for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway so I have some knowledge here, we paid MILLIONS of dollars to get out of the passenger rail business. Do a little research, it's how Amtrack was formed.

Moving people via rail makes no sense either economically or environmentally, diesel locomotives are DIRTY, there is no rail in the US save maybe a couple of miles between DC and NYC that can handle high speed, it would all need to be relaid costing trillions of dollars. Right of ways would have to be negotiated, new stations built etc and for what, to move a couple of hundred people from point A to point B if you are lucky.

Think of it this way, the capital expenditure for a train is rather large. Between NYC and say Chicago it would take about 8 hours via high speed rail (but remember, there is no track yet that can handle that speed). How many people can you move in a day? Say you have 200 people on a train and say you can spin it 3 times, that's 600 people. No how many times can a 757 do the same trip, for less fuel, with more efficient Turbine Jet engines, moving more people with no infrastructure upgrades.

What a disaster this would be, how can anyone in their right mind support this?
Posted by DRT on 10 Mar 2011

The Tea Party movement and 3 soon-to-be-forgotten 1-term Governors don't rate a mention anywhere but in Letterman's monologue and in badly written Comic Books. The reality is that the US has been behind the 8-ball for 40 years about transportation infrastructure improvements and that has to change if we are to be globally competitive. High Speed Rail isn't rocket science and it's more than "economics". HSR is necessary in the US, despite the fact some groups dependent upon oil, gasoline engines, and car sales don't want to see change. Just like the Hartford-New Britain Busway, another foolish idea that should be scrapped in favor of passenger and freight rail service.
Posted by HSR for US economic growth or Tea Party foolishness? on 10 Mar 2011

Kunz throws a bouquet to China's high-speed rail system, but there are reports that they've over-built a system that's too expensive for most Chinese, not exactly an example the US should emulate.

Kunz also glides over the real reasons those three governors rejected federal HSR money: their states would have been responsible for the inevitable cost overruns and paying to operate the systems once they were built.
Posted by Rob Anderson on 10 Mar 2011

I always enjoy the facts that are conveniently omitted in many of the comments to these HSR stories - or in the HSR article if it is anti-rail.

First - in considering the $20/$39 dollars per round trip, has the writer estimated the cost of
damage to the highway and/or the cost of depreciating the vehicle. At present the IRS allows something like $.50/mile as a driving reimbursement. Thus, as a basis the cost should be considered $41/round trip. In addition, I suppose that the writer has unlimited free time, otherwise he would be working on the train and billing clients. Lets assume that he has good traffic and the trip only takes 1 hour each way. On the train one could bill say $50 each way, thus resulting in a cost of $141 for the round trip before the cost of parking and the like.

The next issue - which is ignored by the proponents of hybrids and electric vehicles, is that the highway is paid for with a very low gas tax at present. This will have to be changed to a usage fee in the very near future with vehicles being powered by sources other than easily
taxable gas.

Finally - For all those saying that HSR estimates are overdone and ridership will not be created, I ask you to compare the number of flights and drives between cities which have been connected by HSR before and after HSR was introduced - Paris-Lyon, Paris-London, Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Vallencia, etc. To my knowledge, the new Chinese HSR is one of the few not running near or at full and this is because it is prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population who have incomes far below those in the USA.

Posted by Willis on 10 Mar 2011

Unfortunately the ongoing political trend seems to favor cuts rather than investments, especially in the energy and environmental area.

Whether this is based on sound analysis or old-school PR, it's still early to tell. However, with
several studies pointing out the feasibility of high-speed rail, I come to wonder why the U.S. is still shunning what would be a valuable, greener alternative to the current car-dominated

Perhaps rising oil prices will start a change in the mindset of many Americans...

Luca Semprini

Posted by Luca Semprini on 10 Mar 2011

The car of the future is a railroad car, where we can sit together and have a civilized discourse about many topics, including the wonderful bicycle waiting at the end of the ride.

Fast or slow, trains and train stations build better societies, parking garages and overpasses do not.
Posted by Cesar Vergara on 10 Mar 2011

I live in Los Angeles. As of 03/10 the cost of gas is 4.07 per gallon at self serves stations. Fortunately this city has been investing in an expansion of mass transit which includes subways, lightrail trains and express bus lines which allows me to park my car and commute to work, the beach, Hollywood, museums, school and other destinations without paying a small fortune to fill the tank of my car. With the extra funds that my state will receive to expedite the construction of HSR because Gov Scott declined to accept 2.4 billion from the feds, I will be able to travel by train to San Francisco by train at speeds of 220 miles per hour in less than 3 hours as opposed 8 hours by car. Thank you Gov Scott.
Posted by RON JOHNSON on 10 Mar 2011

It's unfortunate that these governors do not have the foresight to see 15-20 years down the road. We can't build 16 lane highways. We will need an alternative form of transportation. This has nothing to do with spending it's about politics, average American ignorance and selfishness, and lack of being able to see anything that isn't 5 years or less in front of you. Wake up! Oh, and you can still keep your car. This isn't a threat. If you don't want to ride it, don't!

Posted by kristen on 10 Mar 2011

@ jen: newsflash! this is an opinion article.

Posted by kristen on 10 Mar 2011

Ron, I really do love trains, but I'm not sure that your Cal HSR dream would work well either.

Although I'm not sure that HSR in Cal would do as well as it does on the Madrid-Barcelona route, I thought a comparison would be useful for discussion. I assume time and costs would be proportional and both would have the same average 115MPH speed--and that the fare would be proportional to the mileage as well to ensure a profit(FWIW--the max allowable speed in Spain is 186MPH, not the 220 talked about for Cal):

LA-SF Mad-Barc
439 miles 313 miles
3H 49M 2H 43M
$237-train $169--train
Air travel comparison
1H 25M 1H 15M
$170-coach $273-coach

In Spain, it's pretty much a no brainer to go by HSR train, especially from a cost standpoint. Why spend an extra $104 to save at best 1 hour +. In California, I don't know that the benefits are so obvious, especially if 2+ people are traveling together.

Anyway, food for thought.

Posted by EV Fan on 10 Mar 2011

Here's a better link to an informed discussion of China's HSR sytem:

Posted by Rob Anderson on 10 Mar 2011

If people argued like they do today - freeways would have never been built either - and maybe that wouldn't have been a bad thing.

Calculations need to reflect elimination of some highways and hopefully reduction in highway maintenance costs.

If all this is going to do is aid in the endless growth paradigm, it is already a failure.

If it were part of a comprehensive conservation plan - I'm for it
Posted by Mz M on 11 Mar 2011

It's the future we're looking at and if you choose to use an antiquated system then by all means go ahead. Sooner or later the real cost of transport will skyrocket as we progress. Short term views or cost analyses now will produce long term problems. The concept is to preserve what little left we have of our blue planet. I'm in favour of anything that reduces global emissions. The planet has been scarred terribly, and perhaps beyond redemption. Wake up, look at what's happening globally.

Posted by Pete on 13 Mar 2011

It's the future we're looking at and if you choose to use an antiquated system then by all means go ahead. Sooner or later the real cost of transport will skyrocket as we progress. Short term views or cost-analyses now will produce long term problems. The concept is to preserve what little left we have of our blue planet. I'm in favour of anything that reduces global emissions. The planet has been scarred terribly, and perhaps beyond redemption. Wake up, look at whats happening globally.

Posted by Pete on 13 Mar 2011

Yeah, who is going to believe this guy? Maybe next Big Pharma can write an article about how great all the psych meds are for you. NOBODY is going to take that Florida train. Why would you? When you get to where you are going you will need to take a cab or rent a car, (good luck with the bus service), so any savings would be obliterated. You have to drive to the train station as well--hope they will have PLENTY of FREE parking! I am a life-long liberal and I am totally against it. Nobody takes the train we already have here in SoFla because of the reasons listed above.

Posted by Pam on 15 Mar 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Andy Kunz is a president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a trade group that focuses on advancing a national network. A longtime high-speed rail promoter, he has more than three decades of experience in projects related to urban planning, community design, and sustainability.



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