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Can the U.S. Copy Spain's High-Speed Rail System?

In America, the reality of high-speed rail will fall far short of the hype

Samuel Staley
June 19, 2009

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood traveled to Europe recently to study high-speed trains in Germany, France, and Spain. Spain’s system apparently captivated U.S. transportation officials because of its scope and alleged cost-effectiveness. It’s unclear, however, whether they took away the lessons that count for transportation policy in the U.S.

True enough, Spain may have the most aggressive and advanced high-speed rail plan in the world. Service from Madrid to Seville began in the early 1990s, and the program has been a cornerstone of the governing socialist party’s attempts to forge a sense of national unity.

The current plan calls for the network to have more than 6,000 miles of track by 2020, putting 90 percent of the Spanish population within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station. Trains will hit speeds of 186 mph. Despite lower construction costs than experienced by either France or Germany, the program will likely cost Spanish taxpayers at least $100 billion Euros (or about $140 billion) if completed.

This is truly an impressive plan. And that’s just it. It’s a plan—for Spain.

Touting the Spanish high-speed rail plan as a “national model” for the U.S. is a stretch by most measures. The two countries are simply on different scales. Geographically, Spain is about twice the size of Oregon (or about 20 percent larger than California). Per capita income is lower than California and about equivalent to Oregon. Spain’s economy churns out about $1.4 trillion worth of goods and services every year, a little less than California.

Spain’s “national” rail network would be roughly equivalent to building out a web of rails for a regional system in part of the U.S. And it would be more expensive, probably running more than $300 billion for a six thousand mile network similar to Spain’s on the West Cost, Midwest, or East Coast. The cost of mimicking Spain and building a national high-speed rail system that would put 90 percent of the U.S. population within 30 miles of a high-speed rail station would be truly astronomical.

But no one in the U.S. is seriously proposing anything close to the kind of national network the Spanish claim to be implementing. On the contrary, most analysts recognize that a truly national high-speed rail system in the U.S. doesn’t make sense.

First, high-speed rail can’t compete effectively over long-distances (trips over 500 miles) even under the best of circumstances. Air travel is faster, cheaper, and more cost-effective. For trips under 100 miles, the automobile and existing urban transit almost always provide a superior alternative to high-speed trains. To the extent they can compete, high-speed trains best serve the downtowns of major cities along major corridors, such as Washington, D.C.-Philadelphia-Boston-New York City.

Second, major U.S. metropolitan areas are already linked together through the Interstate Highway System and a well-developed network of air-travel corridors. At best, high-speed rail creates redundancy in the system, not added capacity. Rather than improving mobility, high-speed rail would need steep public subsidies to cannibalize traffic from existing, largely unsubsidized commercial air traffic.

Third, most of the economic drag from travel delays and congestion is metropolitan, not intercity. The core travel problem faced by U.S. cities and regions is how to improve circulation and reduce traffic congestion within urbanized areas, not how to speed up travel from one major city to the next.

Last, but not least, intercity train travel is barely even noticeable in the U.S. travel picture. Amtrak, while taking massive taxpayer subsidies, accounted for just 5.4 million passenger miles in 2006 (the most recent available data).  Meanwhile commercial air travel tallied up 590 million passenger miles, and cars accounted for a whopping 2.7 trillion passenger miles.

A comprehensive and truly European-style high-speed rail plan arguably would attract more riders than Amtrak.  But even if we double intercity passenger rail patronage in year one of a new system, it would barely equal 2 percent of commercial air-traffic volume—even if all the new rail riders were former air travelers.

Moreover, the strategic plan for U.S. high-speed rail suggests nothing more than a marginal improvement to the current transportation network. The plan calls for upgrading 10 rail corridors to accommodate speeds of 110 miles per hour, not the 150 mph or more commonly considered “high speed” in Europe and Asia. These corridors are also in heavily urbanized (and well-serviced) parts of the Midwest, East Coast, and West Coast.

Although each line will be linked to an existing national rail (Amtrak) route, the current plan hardly qualifies as a “national network” of high-speed rail service. That doesn’t stop the rhetoric though.

The Federal Railroad Administration claims high-speed rail could “transform the nation’s transportation system” by upgrading the nation’s rail infrastructure and committing to developing its 10 corridors.

Unfortunately, the reality of high-speed rail will fall far short of the hype. The U.S. is too large, too wealthy, and too complex to be transformed by investments in a single mode of transportation, particularly one that focuses on a very small part of the overall travel market and doesn’t fit with the country’s size or geography.

Policymakers would serve the American public far better by refocusing their efforts on solutions that would help a broad base of travelers such as reducing urban traffic congestion and upgrading freight corridors to increase the flow of goods and people. The U.S. economy will benefit from the lower transportation costs generated by improved mobility, not shifting travelers from a low-cost transportation service to a high-cost one.

Sam Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban growth and land use policy for Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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