The Case for Higher Speed Rail

amtrakby James A. Bacon

Yes, it is possible to be a conservative and support high-speed rail in the United States. Indeed, in a paper prepared for the American Public Transportation Association, “High-Speed Rail: A Conservative Appraisal,” conservatives William S. Lind and Glen D. Bottoms have outlined a practical, disciplined approach to build a better passenger rail system. 

Rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars to build a national, high-speed rail system and gamble that someone uses it, Lind and Bottoms urge an incrementalist approach that minimizes public investment. Instead of attempting to replicate Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen (top speed 180 mph) or France’s Train a Grande Vitesse (top speed 200 mph) from scratch, they would make small, targeted investments to address rail bottlenecks with the goal of raising the average speed rather than the top speed. Higher average speeds and more reliable service will bring in more passengers and revenue, they argue, laying the groundwork for upgraded service and, eventually, for genuine high-speed rail in markets like the northeastern U.S. where existing (not hoped-for) rail traffic would support the investment.

“We face a choice,” they write, “a choice between ‘best’ and ‘good enough,” between true high-speed rail and higher speed rail. … We would choose the latter, restoring passenger rail to its former glory in a deliberate, incremental fashion.”

President Barack Obama’s ambition is to build a rail system serving 80% of the public — a project similar in magnitude to building the interstate highway network. As fiscal conservatives, Lind and Bottoms say that a nation hefting a $17 trillion national debt and running massive deficits cannot afford such a dream. They compare building such a system as top-down, cost-be-damned monument building worthy of a pharoah.

While some people look to high-speed service in Japan and Europe for inspiration, Lind and Bottoms look to the business models of the successful high-speed trains. The high-speed rail line between Paris and Lyon took only 12 years to pay for itself. The original forecast showed a 12% rate of return; the line ultimately posted at 15% rate of return. Likewise, the Tokaido Shinkansen, which connects Tokyo and Osaka, not only operates at a profit, it has earned enough to pay back its original construction costs in full. 

As those cases demonstrate, high-speed rail can operate profitably. They can even pay their up-front capital costs, a hurdle that seems  impossibly high in the United States. What many people forget is that those high-speed lines served existing markets that had arisen around slower trains. High-speed rail was not summoned by imperial decree from the desert.

The conservative way forward is to build incrementally on what already exists, gradually (and affordably) creating higher-speed rail.  As ridership grows on a corridor, more trains are added and average speeds, but not necessarily top speeds, are raised.  It costs far less, both in capital and for maintenance, to raise slow sections of track to the initial [Federal Railway Administration] speed limit of 79 mph than to try for “gee whiz” top speeds.  The objective should be to make travel times competitive with the automobile, not to compete with airplanes.  As business builds further, it may justify raising top speeds on some sections to the next notches on the FRA scale, first 90 mph, then 110.  But speed increases should follow the market.

Lind and Bottoms point to three examples where the U.S. has done it right — the Cascades corridor connecting Portland, Oregon, and Seattle; the Hiawathas route between Chicago and Milwaukee; and the Downeasters between Portland, Maine, and Boston. The story in each case was one of making incremental improvements, shaving a few minutes off the travel time each each project. “All three of these corridors, as they continue to build ridership and offer more frequent trains, will at some point justify raising top speeds, from 79 mph to 90 or 110.  That is how higher-speed rail works.  It builds on success, not on oversold plans handed down by Pharaoh. ”

Lind and Bottoms concede that none of those routes fully covers its operating costs. The Downeasters does best, with a take of 86.7%. But the authors note that user fees, including the gas tax, cover only 51% of the cost of building and maintaining highways.

“As in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins race,” they conclude. “The prudent, conservative way to true high-speed rail is through higher-speed rail.”

Bacon’s bottom line:  Two points. First, it’s true that roads and highways are subsidized. However, rather than subsidizing both transportation modes, which makes it impossible to tell which is truly the most cost-efficient, we should try to create a level playing field in which each mode pays its own way. Only then can we allocate capital rationally.

Second, the Lind-Bottoms approach appears to be similar to that pursued in Virginia, where the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) has cobbled together some of the most cost-effective passenger service outside the profitable Northeast corridor. I have not studied the matter closely, but DRPT appears to favor the incrementalist strategy of building routes step by step and making modest, affordable improvements on the Richmond-Washington route with a focus on reducing average travel time, not goosing top train speeds. It may be worth taking a fresh look at Virginia’s approach through a Lind-Bottoms lens.

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14 responses to “The Case for Higher Speed Rail”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Interesting but the old Atlantic Coast Line that ran from DC (part of the RFP) to Miami used to move express passenger trains at sustained speeds of 95 mph and this was back in the 1930s to the 1950s. Going to south Florida was about a day and a half in luxury.

    So, if you get to 90 plus that would be a huge help. That’s hard to do on even the Northeast Corridor with dedicated tracks these days.

  2. you know when you ask “conservatives” about the “benefit” of GPS … and how it was developed and deployed by a wasteful, corrupt, incompetent Federal Govt – they say that “eventually” GPS would have been done by the private sector and it would have been done far cheaper…..

    but would it?

    where did most of our rail infrastructure come from to start with?

    did it come from the private sector?

    did the private sector develop the nation’s rail system purely as a free market effort?

    in truth, much of the nations commerce infrastructure – rail, road, water and pipeline was obtained either directly from the govt or through the govt use of eminent domain.

    the interstate highway system was a Federal, not a private sector endeavor.

    the navigation locks and port facilities in most of the US were done by govt.

    pipelines – almost always use the govt-provided right of eminent domain to route their pipelines.

    the original railroads had a lot of trouble finding private investors because the infrastructure and right of way had a huge up front cost – and it was questionable how long it would take to get a return on investment.

    what’s the point here?

    the point is that some things.. are of a scope and scale – take GPS or interstates highways that they’re not likely ever going to be developed by the private sector – and they may never operate at profit levels comparable to what other investments may return.

    I doubt seriously that we’d have 1/3 of the rail infrastructure that we have today if the govt did not provide the right-of-way.

    I will fully admit – that using that logic to build any/all transport infrastructure is a very bad idea – aka Pocahontas Parkway…but an opposing example is the CBBT .. would it have ever been built by a private entity?

    there is a role for govt on some things and on high speed rail… I doubt that it’s ever going to get done without some level of govt involvement.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      You can make valid national defense claims for GPS, the federal highway system and canals, locks and ports. It is much more difficult to make those claims for high speed passenger rail.

      The Constitution calls for the “common defense” and for the right of government to take private property with fair recompense.

      The question, as always, revolves around the depth to which the government should catalyze the economy (if you are a progressive) or interfere in private enterprise (if you are a conservative).

      Personally, I’d like to see the government do more to catalyze the economy. However, our government (at all levels) is so corrupt and incompetent that I see no reasonable way for it to actually catalyze the economy.

      If we want to spend as much on government as progressives would like then we need better politicians.

  3. None of the 3 named were private sector initiatives. ALL 3 were funded by government.

    I’m trying to understand how that fits the current narrative of what “conservative” means.

    Most “conservatives” now days would NOT support ANY government funding of ANY rail operation.

    basically this report comes across as an advocacy that the govt fund rail but do so “incrementally”…

    what I see is 3 rail lines that have heavy ridership – that are not private sector operations.

    that seems fundamentally at odds with the basic premise between ‘conservative’ and public funding these days.

    All of these are also AMTRAK – with local/state supplemental funding.

    If Congress had it’s way – AMTRAK would be dissolved.

    How about an article that defends the rationale for the existence of Amtrak itself? there would be no “incremental” approach to high speed or any other kind of rail if the majority of “conservatives” in Congress had their way.

    this is similar to the GOP approach to health care. They have “ideas” but fundamentally, they oppose the govt being involved in health care or Amtrak.

    over and over, I’ve heard that conservatives want to dismantle Amtrak and sell off the most profitable segments to the private sector.

    I think the thing I’m most reactive to is labeling something like this as a “conservative” approach to something when the reality is that today – the “conservative” approach is not at all what these guys are proposing. Amtrak, incremental funding or not, would be history tomorrow if “conservatives” had their way.

    at some point folks like Jim Bacon have to fess up that they cannot associate themselves with “conservatives” and at the same time favor things like Amtrak.

    pick your party Jim B… you’re no longer allowed to choose “RINO”.

    1. It’s my understanding Amtrak is profitable only in the Northeast Corridor – WDC to BOS and, perhaps, on a couple of other routes. I like riding the train, but have largely stopped pleasure trips because of Amtrak’s prices. Mega Bus and its competitors are much more cost effective and only a hour or so slower in the DC to NYC trip. In March, my wife and I went to and from NYC for a grand total of $96 on Mega Bus. Amtrak fare was over $400 as I recall.

      Does Amtrak provide public benefits outside its profitable routes? If so, what beyond keeping union workers employed?

      If the feds operated and maintained tracks, could specific routes be profitable? If not, why have them? Where is the public benefit?

  4. Trains are good for overnight travel. After that the seats get hard and the travel tedious. Pick routes that planes don’t go to, then work on the schedule and speed. Airlines are cutting service, fill the need with trains.

  5. Agree. It makes sense to connect Hampton to Lynchburg to Roanoke to Charlottesville to Harrisonburg to Fairfax to Richmond.

    most everyone likes the idea except when it comes to how to pay for.


    What I’m hoping is that after our fling with Tea Party Mania – enough folks will realize that there really is a legitimate purpose for govt on some things – like national and regional transport infrastructure and do it.

    Every other OECD country on the planet – sees a role for govt and rail while this country keeps insisting that we are “different” and we refuse to be “socialist” although we do seem fine with “socialist” roads……

    1. Rail works well where there is high density – Europe and the Northeast Corridor in the United States. But where is the public benefit from having trains run from Chicago to Kansas City? I don’t see how pointing to train service between Rome and Vienna or Tokyo and Osaka has anything to do with Chicago and Kansas City.

      1. How about Chicago to Indianapolis or DC to Hampton Rds or Fairfax to Greensboro?

        it’s not density the entire route… it’s travel time between two dense places, right?

        1. You need significant density at any rail stop to make rail economically feasible. According to data from a Maryland state report, Metrorail’s farebox recovery rate is about 70%. What if we were to say rail routes that could meet or exceed that figure after two years of operation could qualify for continued operation? For my example, I am purposely ignoring capital costs.

          1. I think most places the size of Lynchburg meet density thresholds.

            the problem with rail is the same problem electricity … or even roads …

            if you tried to measure – say Interstate I-40 between Asheville NC and Statesville, NC – would it pass the 70% “farebox”?

          2. Lynchburg to wherever depends on wherever, the number of trains, passengers and costs. If Metrorail riders in Virginia pay, on average, 70% of the costs for their rail trips, is it unfair to ask residents of Lynchburg to pay 70% of the costs of trips to Roanoke, Richmond or Washington?

          3. re: 70%. why the top tier, why not an average?

            don’t you have the same situation with interstate highways?

            who pays for the long stretches between towns? Do you think the gas taxes of the people who travel those long stretches is enough to pay for the initial construction plus maintenance and operations?

            70% worth?

            remember – Eisenhower wanted all the interstates tolled but was told that it would kill the rural sections because they would never “pay for themselves” .

            same problem with rural electricity and internet, right?

  6. What IF: we adopted the point systems used by airlines and credit cards for road and rail via toll transponders (or smartphones?).

    what if – when you paid a toll, you accumulated mobility “points” and you could use them in the future for both road or rail – any road or rail that could link to your EZ-pass account via transponder or smartphone?

    or if you bought a rail ticket – it also gave you points that you could then use on a toll road or perhaps a taxi you took from the rail station or METRO.

    what if points earned could be used to pay for parking or vice versa….???

    in other words:

    1. – link road, rail and parking (perhaps car rental) into one personal mobility account that moves us from a road-centric mentality to a all-modes mobility mentality.

    2. – incentivize using roads outside of rush hour. Use tolls and bonus points to manage congestion, utilize different modes and incentivize/reward behaviors that reduce/mitigate congestion. Dynamically vary the tolls and the points.

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