Friday, April 17, 2009

High-Speed Rail? Curb Your Enthusiasm!

Reading of Obama's proposal of the day, to fund high-speed rail all over our Republic's share of the continent, we find ourself of two minds.

On the one hand, we prefer public conveyances to private ones. The idea that someone will operate a machine to take our SWNIDish self from where we are to where we want to be delights us. It renders the world like a huge theme park for our personal enjoyment.

And we find modern trains to be the most pleasant of public conveyances. The ride is smooth, the cabin spacious, the noise negligible, and the view intriguing if not always beautiful.

On the other hand is grim economic reality, which we grimly enumerate as bullet points:
  • Obama's proposed funding won't pay for more than a tiny fraction of what he proposes.
  • Americans complain that if they take the train, they still need a car when they get to their destination. This seems true for all but that tiny fraction of the population that is willing to brave municipal public conveyances. Hence, Americans will generally drive even when they have attractive public transportation options.
  • Rail is a more comfortable experience, and at its modern peak faster, but buses are still marvelously cheaper, more flexible and just as effective in getting cars off crowded highways. Case in point: the cost to take the esteemed Megabus from Cincinnati to Chicago is today about the same cost as taking the train over the same route fifty years ago. We speak not in inflation-adjusted dollars but plain dollars: $15 would get you a ticket on the B&O in 1959, and it'll get you on the Megabus today. And the bus trip takes less time than rail did then, hardly longer than a trip in a private car today and at less than the cost to gas the car for the same distance.
  • And the truth is that Obama won't have the money to finish what he's proposing as the barest start. See the esteemed Charles Krauthammer today if you doubt this patent truism.
So, we fight the battle within as we read of a high-speed link between Our Fair City and its larger cousins on Lakes Michigan and Erie. On the one hand, we would love to be the first to get a Ticket to Ride. On the other hand, we doubt that anyone will ever find the money to invest in a new infrastructure that will only do what could be done right away with a few more buses.


Christine said...

They are proposing a link between Chicago and St. Louis as well. We are all asking why since there is no great demand to go to St. Louis in the first place.

It's an example of a stupid make-work project that is guaranteed to give business to political cronies.

Tim R said...

I'm a bit curious about any previous examples of these types of projects that would apply here.

Every single example I've seen cited involves much smaller distances and much higher population densities.

Micah said...

The AntiPlanner blog is really into this kind of stuff, and consistently points out a familiar strategy.

If you want to build a rail line at huge expense but don't have the money for it, you:

1. Forget how much money it takes to finish the entire project. Just raise enough to get it started.
2. Spend it right away. Build (or at least design) a beautiful station, and a couple miles of track.
3. Go back to taxpayers and talk about how we won't be able to get the real benefit from the project until we spend the rest of the money (that hasn't yet been raised).

Voters (and in fact most people) consistently misjudge sunk costs. Politicians frequently use this to get stuff built that nobody really wants (or at least they don't want enough to pay for)

So, about this downtown trolley system....

JB in CA said...

I imagine that high-speed rail (between, say, Cincinnati and Chicago) was originally conceived of as an alternative to air travel. If the trains are fast enough, they could get you from one place to another in about the same amount of time that it would take you to drive to the airport, hang around for a couple of hours in baggage and security lines, fly to your destination, and wait around for your baggage to be unloaded once you get there. Given how nice the accommodations are on such trains—much nicer, I might add, than on buses—I think there's a good chance that people might opt for them over airplanes. If so, that would help de-congest the overly crowded airports and let the airlines concentrate on what they do best: transport people over very long distances.

Corrie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...


People will only opt for high-speed rail travel over airplanes if the cost is not too high. Since train travel on the regular lines is often more expensive than flying, I don't see how high-speed trains will ever be able to compete, even if the government subsidizes them. (especially if the government runs them)

JB in CA said...

Christine: I checked and found that the lowest round-trip airline ticket from Cincinnati to Chicago (May 19 to 27) is $213. If you want to check a bag it's an extra $15. The lowest price for the same ticket on Amtrak (including your bag) is $82. So why don't people opt for Amtrak? It can't be the cost. It must be the inconvenience. The Amtrak trip takes an average of 9 1/2 hours each way. If a high-speed train could cut that travel time in half, I would certainly opt for it over air travel, even if the price were doubled (in which case I'd save $64).

Christine said...


Cincinnati to Chicago is not a big seller. But I compared Chicago to Minneapolis/St.Paul and Southwest has a fare for $92. (no bag fees) Amtrak with AAA discount is about 100.00. In that case, I wouldn't hesitate to take Southwest. Even at a higher fare, the saved time greater flexibilty makes flying worthwhile.

Obviously, it's not just price that is the problem with train travel. Lack of convenience is a big factor. But high speed rail will not be able to overcome its lack of flexibility. And I suspect the cost will be much greater than double an amtrak ticket.

JB in CA said...

Hmm. I thought we were talking about Cincinnati to Chicago. My bad.

Christine said...


You missed my point. Cincinnati to Chicago has high airfare because it's not that popular a route. But You could look at any number of other destinations (I picked Chicago to Minneapolis because the distance is comparable) and find lower fares because more airlines fly there.

But Amtrak can barely compete on price for those routes. For the more popular/useful routes, high speed rail will be much more expensive than flying.

But how much sense would a highspeed line between Cincinnati and Chicago really make? I imagine the trains would look like most of the Pace buses in my suburb. (empty)

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Hey, JB and Christine, y'all are missing a key point: buses beat trains and planes.

From Cincy to Chi, Megabus is not much slower than flying if one accounts for transfer and check-in times, especially as it connects from city center to city center. And it's extremely cheap.

For high speed rail, could the huge capital cost of new rights of way, grade improvements and tracks, let alone rolling stock, ever be recovered if fares are competitive? [Insert obvious answer here.]

Presently most travel under 500 miles is cheaper and faster by private car than by air, per studies perused by SWNID.

Christine, Chi to Cincy is an expensive flight not because it is unpopular but because Cincy's domination by Delta's hub operation has made it the most expensive airport in the Republic.

We affirm Tim R and Micah: rail only works with very high population densities, which most of this country doesn't have.

We add this at the end: whatever else the trip between Cincy and Chi is, it is very boring, regardless of the mode of transportation. We made it again today and managed to stay alert only by eating cashews and dried apricots, drinking vegetable juice and listening to very hip, very loud jazz.

Christine said...


I agree with your point about buses. However, much of the country does not have Megabus and Greyhound is like the third world (or often worse).

I also agree that travel by car is cheaper, although flying Southwest can be almost as cheap and faster if only one person is making the trip.

I didn't know about the reason Cincy was so expensive. I guess that's why I've only been through that airport one time.

Anonymous said...

uhh...folks - infrastructure for trains is WAY to expensive to make sense...we already have an interstate system that is quite impressive. It would be different if we were starting from scratch in a bombed out US with no infrastructure and a "less independent" population. Pie in the sky WPA stuff to keep politicos(good call Micah) happy.

Now everyone shut up and get in line for your solar panels.......