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High-Speed Rail is a Luxury the U.S. Cannot Afford

Baruch Feigenbaum
June 11, 2013, 8:30am

In an Op-Ed in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I detail why high-speed rail is a luxury the U.S. particularly the southeast cannot afford. 

The entire Op-Ed is available here.

Discussions are resuming in the Southeast about a high-speed rail corridor. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that high-speed rail’s limited success in Europe and Asia is not transferable to the U.S. 

From a financial standpoint, things don’t look good. The majority of high-speed rail lines require large government subsidies from both general taxpayers and drivers. Even with generous subsidies, traveling by high-speed rail is still more expensive than flying for 12 of the 23 most popular high-speed rail routes in the world. Evidence suggests it can only be competitive on routes that are 200 to 500 miles in length. 

High-speed rail is also very expensive to build. Most new routes cost at least $10 million per mile to construct. The cheapest European rail line costs more than $50,000 per seat to operate annually. A U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of 6 million to 9 million people per year to break even. The high-speed Acela service, despite operating in the busy Northeast Corridor, averages only 3.4 million passengers per year. 

Advocates cite other advantages for high-speed rail, but most fall apart under close examination: 

Environment: High-speed rail creates more pollution than it prevents because building a high-speed rail line is very energy-intensive. 

Economic development: High-speed rail does not create much new development; it merely redirects development from one area to another.

The entire Op-ed is available here.

This Op-ed is based on the High-Speed Rail in Europe and Asia: Lessons for the United States available here. 

Reason recently released a due diligence study on the California high-speed rail line. That study is available here.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy

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