High speed rail has more problems than you think

(Flickr / Jon Curnow)

(Flickr / Jon Curnow)

Imagine yourself on a futuristic bullet train, blazing through the countryside at 200 miles per hour. On the inside, you’re relaxing in a comfortable seat with Wi-Fi and a cold drink. The ticket was quite cheap, and the train isn’t very crowded. Sounds too good to be true?

That’s because it is.

High-speed rail is the dream that never gets fulfilled, yet never manages to die either. Every time it’s brought up, it promises grandeur and beauty. It’s the “cool way to travel.” Besides that, it saves the environment, reduces congestion, and saves consumers money!

There’s only one problem. It just keeps failing.

California has long been the symbolic example of America’s high-speed rail ambitions as a whole. But setbacks in funding have continued to hinder the project. Advocates of the new rail initially expected the project to cost $33 billion. But according to the 2012 Business Plan, the cost has risen to over $91 billion.

That cost is exceptionally high, especially after considering that the California government was also counting on $12-16 billion of federal money and $10 billion from local governments. With a federal budget crisis, is sending $10 billion to a rail project in one of 50 states really the most efficient use of funds? Florida was also set to receive over $2 billion in federal funds for a similar project in 2011, until Gov. Rick Scott rejected the money. The proposed route in Florida would allegedly have only beat a car by 30 minutes. As a result, people are not interested, and the projects end up falling apart.

Which takes us back to Texas. In our case, however, the government has wisely avoided getting involved. But though Central Texas Railway is putting on the facade of a high-speed rail project as a “private enterprise,” their real intentions will undoubtedly involve government funding. “It’s my hope that, through the cooperation of public and private sectors, we can one day link Texas’ major cities with state-of-the-art passenger rail,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx last January.

The Dallas Observer reports that Texas Central Railway expects the $10 billion project to pay for itself. But if that were really true, the government wouldn’t need to be involved. Instead, the government is the one funding these environmental impact and feasibility studies. No doubt that the rail system will soon beg for subsidies and additional grants as it runs into similar problems that the California line continues to face.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reported from a public presentation in Waco that the high-speed rail would cost about 80 percent of a flight. This is certainly not a cheap mode of transportation, especially for such a short trip. The new rail will hardly benefit the least fortunate among us.

Europe is usually touted as the prime example of high-speed rail success. But consider an anecdotal example of a train I’ll be taking this weekend. From Cologne to Frankfurt in Germany, the ticket will cost $110 for one-hour ride. It would only be a 2-hour drive if I had a car. As long as gas prices in Europe are astronomically high, the train is economically feasible. But I find it hard to believe anyone will advocate for quadrupling gas prices in America just to make high-speed trains the preferred method of travel.

Anyone who has been to a major American city has also faced the broken escalators, malfunctioning subways, and dirty terminals of existing public transportation systems. The billions of federal money wasted on a shiny, new high-speed train would be better served rehabilitating the transit systems we already have.

True, it may not be as flashy. But it’s much more practical.

5 responses to “High speed rail has more problems than you think

    • Mr. Huizinga,
      Thank you for your February 4 article, “High speed rail has more problems than you think”.
      Please realize that there are two facets of “high speed rail”: the 186 mph bullet train and the 310 mph maglev train. Both are considered high speed.
      The bullet train that you refer to in the article has many problems:
      1. As it functions in Europe, it does not generate enough revenue to pay for the operations and must be subsidized up to 50%. In Spain, it has not paid one Euro toward the construction of the system.

      2. It does not go 220 mph as advertized by many. In Germany, the bullet train wheels came apart and killed 100 passengers. Therefore, the manufacturers require the trains to have a maximum operating speed of 186 mph.

      3. Since the bullet train is at ground level, many people and animals have been killed by the trains.

      4. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (I talked with them last week), currently no European or Japanese bullet trains meet the U.S. Crash Worthiness standards. They are making changes which may allow European equipment, but would not allow Japanese equipment.

      In 2009, the Japanese government offered to build a bullet train from Dallas to Houston, using their money and their bullet train technology, of course. They set up Lone Star High Speed Rail LLC and named Judge Robert Eckels as President. But when they found out about the crash worthiness restrictions, they paid lobbyists $110,000 to change the regulations to allow their train to be imported into the U.S. They were unsuccessful and abandoned the project. Well, here they are again offering the exact same project, although nothing has changed.

      5. Purchasing equipment from Europe or Japan would not conform to the “Buy America” policy. Therefore, federal funding would not be available, as the XpressWest project found out. So the Texas Central Railway is not qualified to “beg for subsidies”.

      6. According to the Los Alamos National Laboratory website, “The modern conventional train is no faster (~110 mph) than those of the late 1890s. So conventional trains have reached the end phase of their development. However, this [bullet train] technology has also reached the end phase of its development… So it is the mechanical friction between train wheels and metal tracks that limit this technology. This leads us to the development of the magnetically levitated (no friction) trains”. Why should we invest in obsolete technology?

      We are a promoter of an American engineered Maglev system. It is safer, quieter, faster, and cheaper than any bullet train system or other maglev system. American must “think outside the box”.


      Rick Canine, President
      Federal Maglev, Inc.

  1. Just a thought from someone who lived in Japan:

    They are very convenient, but there are a number of reasons they make more sense in Japan than in the US. First, gas prices are about 1.5x (sometimes more, sometimes less). Secondly, many families only own one car if at all, especially in the cities. Lastly, the road systems all have very high tolls (except for golden week).

    I do love trains and they are a great way to get around but for America, with its cheap gas, car culture, and government maintained roads, they are hard to justify outside of extremely densely populated areas (NYC, DC, LA).

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