High-speed rail: not much in other continent-sized countries 

I’ve long been fascinated by high-speed rail lines and I have written about them before in this space. I would like to see high-speed rail service (higher than the current Acela speed) in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, which seems well adapted to it. But I think proposals for high-speed rail in almost every other part of the country are crazy—likely to be hugely expensive and unlikely to attract substantial ridership.

Take the proposed line between Orlando and Tampa. Who would ride? Locals can drive the distance in 90 minutes; it would take longer to drive to the station, wait for the train, ride on it for a little less than an hour. And then, what would you do to get to your final destination? Tampa and Orlando are sprawling metro areas, with few destinations within walking distance or reasonably priced taxi service of any possible train station. As for tourists, don’t they all rent cars, for exactly these reasons? They rent cars at the airport (Orlando and Tampa airports have pretty nifty setups, much more convenient than, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles or Detroit). Why would they want to get on a train and then rent a car? An Orlando-Tampa train would like nice of the map, paralleling Interstate 4, but I think it would be useful only for people looking for a quite place for an hour’s meditation.

Or consider the proposed Los Angeles-San Francisco metro area line. These are even huger metro areas and travelers between them have a wide variety of destinations. There are multiple major airports in each of these metro areas—LAX, Burbank, Orange County, Ontario in southern California; SFO, San Jose and Oakland in northern California. High-speed rail is not going to beat planes for travel times, and it seems unlikely that there will be as many choices between different destinations in each metro areas as planes currently provide.

We’re often told that the United States is backward because it does not have the kind high-speed rail service you can find in France, Spain, Germany or even Britain (where people complain a lot about the trains, but they have worked pretty well for me on recent trips). Today, as  I was reading this article on high-speed rail, the question occurred to me: what other countries with the geographic size and demographic characteristics of the United States have high-speed rails?

 The answer, from the folks at Wikipedia, is none—at least none that can operate with speeds higher than our current Acela.  

 Canada: some proposals, but no trains faster than 125mph—less than the Acela’s top speed. In February 2009 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government expressed support for a high-speed rail line between Toronto and Montreal, the nation’s two largest metro areas, which are about 360 miles apart. That’s a distance at which rail could conceivably be competitive with airplanes. But it doesn’t sound like Canada is doing much about it.

 Brazil: The government is building a high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the nation’s two largest metro areas, which was supposed to be completed by 2014, in time for the World Cup. But last month it was announced it would not be ready until 2016. It’s about 270 miles between the two city centers—a little farther than the 220 miles between New York and Washington.

 Australia: There are trains operating at speeds up to 100mph, much less than the Acela’s top speed, between eastern Australia’s metro areas, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. About half of Australia’s population is near these routes, but Australian governments of either party have rejected proposals for high-speed rail as economically unviable.

 Russia: A Moscow-St. Petersburg-Helsinki high-speed rail is supposed to open next year, with a top speed of 125mph (slightly higher in a short stretch in Finland). The following paragraph is priceless:

“Russia plans to build a network of trans-eurasian high-speed railways connecting from Russia to Europe, Iran, China, India via Central Asia and Afghanistan, North America via Bering Strait Rail Tunnel, GCC via Syria, and Japan via Sakhalin-Hokkaido Tunnel.[23][24][25][26] India plans to build a network of trans-eurasian high-speed railways connecting from India to Russia via Afghanistan and Central Asia, South Africa via Syria and Egypt, Europe, Iran, and China.” Before World War I the British talked of building a Cape-to-Cairo railroad linking South Africa and Egypt. A pipe dream that never happened. Now the Russians are contemplating a high-speed rail junction in Afghanistan. I don’t think so.

The bottom line is that other continent-sized countries have not deemed high-speed rail to be economically viable, except on relatively short-distance (250-350 miles) routes between very large major metro areas–similar to the distance between New York and Washington or New York and Boston. But the Obama administration has deferred spending the $8 billion of stimulus money on those two corridors for an extensive environmental review and is instead touting obviously uneconomic lines like Tampa-Orlando. Many commentators sneer at the United States for being backward on high-speed rail. I think they’re right, but not for the reasons they think.

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Michael Barone

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