Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama's boondoggle of "fast rail"

The Obama Administration is pouring US$13 billion of money into developing a high speed passenger rail system. Sounds great doesn't it? Obama talked of how countries like Japan and France have been doing it for decades, but the US hasn't, and it is about time that it did.

Sadly this money is going to be wasted, and it isn't going to deliver anything remotely like a high speed rail system for the USA. Why?

The USA is vastly different from France, Japan, Italy, South Korea and other countries with high speed rail systems for one obvious point - size! Japan has profitably developed high speed rail because it has tens of millions of people living very short distances down densely packed corridors. With the exception of the Boston-New York-Washington DC Northeast Corridor, the distances in the US are too vast for rail to begin to compete with aviation for travel time. That rail route in itself is profitable, but sadly under the Federal Government owned AMTRAK is milked to cross subsidise other politically driven routes.

Obama's money will be bad money after bad. It wont build any high speed rail routes because it isn't enough money. The money will go to improve existing lines, at best upgrading lines as fast as the Northeast Corridor, which is nothing like lines in Japan and France. Speeds in Japan and France are In the US it is 145 km/h, in France it is 320 km/h, in Japan 300km/h. High speed rail in the US is slower than most main lines in the UK, which are at least at 160 km/h and typically faster.

Obama has basically lied that this money will deliver the US high speed rail like in those countries. A country that is far bigger will get trains less than half the speed of the countries where high speed rail works. It isn't enough money, and what it will do is next to nothing.

More importantly, rail can never be competitive with aviation over medium to long distances, and the diversity of origin/destination patterns means it wont be useful over short distances in most cases. Obama wont set it free to be profitable and slash all of the politically driven loss making routes that excite far too many members of Congress.

In short, he's wasting money on a feel good project, lying about what it will deliver and pretending it will make any noticeable change in the US economy or the environmental impacts of transport.

It's not change - it's the same failed policy of the Carter Administration on transport.

I'll leave to Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation to explain further. As Randall O'Toole says "Taxpayers and politicians should be wary of any transportation projects that cannot be paid for out of user fees."

Aucklanders are about to get something just like that.

1 comment:

jb said...

Yes, but Europe and France were not built in one go, and what the US is looking at are regional links such as Florida or Chicago and or LA / San Fran. Not LA / NY yet. Need to start somewhere, make it acceptable to travel by rail, start now and get acceptance regionally, prove the concept in that country. In years to come 600 km an hour will be the norm when fuel costs rise and shortages mean air travel is reserved for international only. It may be something that humans have to accept in the future that no longer travel from NY to LA is 6 hours, or maybe it will be faster with mag lev, but either way, still need to plant the seed, and the US needs that.