Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

High-Speed Rail in Europe and Asia: Lessons for the United States

The evidence suggests that high-speed railā??s limited success in Europe and Asia is not transferrable to the U.S.

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 30, 2013

This report studies the prospects for high-speed rail in the U.S., examining how well high-speed rail works in countries like France, Germany and Japan, and how this country differs from Europe and Asia in travel patterns, spatial structure, car ownership and other factors.

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. The evidence suggests that high-speed rail can only be competitive on routes that are between 200 and 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. And while operating costs vary, the cheapest European rail line costs more than $50,000 per seat to operate annually. This means that a U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of between 6 million and 9 million people per year to break even. Compare that to the high-speed Acela service, which despite operating in the busy Northeast Corridor averages only 3.4 million passengers per year.

Advocates cite other advantages in support of high-speed rail, but most of these fall apart under close examination:

Finally, there are several factors that suggest high-speed rail’s limited success in Europe and Asia may not be transferrable to the U.S.:

As a result, high-speed rail is best regarded as a luxury this country cannot afford. For far less money, the U.S. could create a world-class highway and aviation system with first-rate bus and airplane service. Now is not the time to experiment with more expensive modes of transportation.

Note: In the initial version of this report, Tables 4 and 6 contained both metric and standard units. Some readers found the presentation confusing, so we have issued an updated version using standard units throughout.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy

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