Is America Behind in Not Having High Speed Rail?

With the State of the Union Address and President Obama’s chat with the Republicans there is an ocean of … well, call it stuff to sort through. In the mix is the idea of building a high speed rail system to both create jobs and strengthen the country’s infrastructure. The pundits who have been feasting on Obama’s pronouncements have largely come up short on this subject. In my view, high speed rail is (1) a wondrous thing, (b) expensive, © best suited to densely populated countries, and (d) perhaps impossible to implement here. If it can be done at all, jobs would probably be a decade away.

A Wondrous Thing

I have been an enthusiastic user of the Japanese high speed rail system. It is reliable, comfortable, and hassle-free. Air travel was once pleasant, but is now an ordeal of long lines, intrusive searches, and horrendous service. Airplanes have no room, no food, and no ventilation. Terrorists cannot be forced to hold uncomfortable postures, but air travelers can. As air travel deteriorates, the calm space of a high speed train is more appealing than ever. One sips tea as the landscape whooshes by, and you end up in the heart of your destination city, not at a remote airport where another hassle awaits. It is a grand vision.

Alas, it is not a cheap vision. Rail fares for any reasonable distance are slightly more expensive than air. Even that does not cover the costs. High speed rail systems are almost always built with government funds that are never repaid. Roads are built with public monies, but users pay gasoline taxes and license fees in compensation. Air travelers pay ticket taxes that more than repay airport costs. Airlines and highway users have to buy their own vehicles. The high prices for rail tickets only keep up with operating costs and do not pay the capital costs.

Rail Is Economic For Dense Populations

In Europe and Japan, high speed rail connects to local mass transit systems. Mass transit then takes travelers to their ultimate destination. In the U.S., the more common model is to rent a car at an airport to complete travel. There are a few U.S. cities that have useful urban mass transportation systems, but most do not. The reason is that most of our urban centers are too thinly populated.

To be effective, there must be a transit stop within walking distance of the ultimate destination. If a neighborhood is mostly ten story buildings, then there will be many more destinations within walking distance of station that if there are two or three story buildings. If each building has a large parking lot around it, then the number of destinations within walking distance from a station drops further. As density drops, the number of transit stations must increase and the transit lines must stretch to cover the thin landscape.

Urban areas of the U.S. are thinly populated in comparison to Europe or Asia. Sure, New York and Chicago are well-suited, but they are exceptions. Most of Silicon Valley has a law against four-story buildings. Even Los Angeles has only a small city center amid a vast sprawl. that’s the rule for American cities.

One of the more-discussed rail projects is to link Orlando with Tampa. Both have small city centers. The model for travel would be driving to the train station, taking the high speed rail link, then renting a car. The trip by car alone takes about an hour-and-a-half. The rail link itself might take only half an hour, but with the termination car rental, the prospect is to pay something like a hundred dollars for a trip that is no faster.

One may find viable routes, like San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the obvious Washington to Boston corridor that already has a form of high speed rail. These are exceptions.

American Exceptionalism in Transit Systems

As the rail links become longer, high speed rail becomes less attractive. The drive-fly-drive paradigm allows for cross-country travel between suburban locations in perhaps twelve hours. By high speed rail, it might be done in thirty hours, and it could be expected to cost whole lot more. That’s not a realistic alternative, yet advocates say we cannot have mere isolated rail links, but rather a whole country wide system.

My point is that America is not like other countries in important aspects related to transit. Long distances and sprawling cities limit prospects. It’s no more reasonable to suppose that America is behind the rest of the world in rail systems than to suppose that the rest of the world is behind us in domestic air transportation. The goal is to find what best suits the situation.

The Steps to Completion

There is another bit of American exceptionalism that may rule out high speed rail altogether. That would be the legal system. The time sequence for building a rail link comprises: (1) pick the route, (2) perform an environmental study, (3) fight lawsuits over the politics of the route, (4) fight lawsuits over the environmental impact, and, if the legal barriers are overcome, (5) lay tracks.

Route planning involves legislators who demand that the link go through their district as a condition for supporting it and, at the same time, cities and towns who do not want their tranquility shattered by a whooshing train. These factors seem to about double or triple the cost over what it might be. The cheapest way to get from A to B is through empty land, but empty land has no voters. The train from San Francisco to Los Angeles will probably have to be routed through Fresno to get political support, but that will at the same time make it likely to raise someone else’s objections along the populated route.

Rail lines cover lots of ground. That increases the chances that the line will cross the habitat of a listed endangered species. Anyone can sue to stop a project and the Courts are empowered, indeed required, to stop any project that threatens. A massive flood gate that might have saved New Orleans was funded for construction when a court order killed the project. Closing the gates during a hurricane might have interfered with the breeding habits of certain fish, and that was pre-emptive. Too bad for New Orleans, but no tradeoffs are allowed.

I wonder if it is possible to build any large construction project like a rail line. It seems doubtful. Anything large is bound to cross paths with an endangered moth or lizard. If construction is possible at all, figure a decade to settle the legalities. If there were no legal obstacles the ordinary surveying and engineering of a few hundred miles of rail line would take at least two years, but the politics of routing and the legal challenges will not vanish, so figure a good decade.

Why are we discussing high speed rail right now? Because, we are told, it would create jobs to lift us out of recession. The business cycle is roughly a decade, so if we jump on this thing, the jobs might appear in time for the next recession.

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