Most of you know that I really like trains. Model railroading is a hobby of mine, and I grew up consistently riding trains in China as alternative transport options either didn’t exist or were really unsafe (read: 80’s era Chinese airlines). We generally travel by train in Europe when we visit. However, most people are usually surprised that I don’t support any plans for high speed rail in the US and don’t envy the extensive passenger networks that exist overseas.Passenger service requires the presence of several factors which are almost never available in the United States:
- Relatively short distances (less than 4 hours).
- High population density.
- Good local public transport one you’ve reached your destination.
- High schedule density (a lot of trains providing lots of schedule options).
Passenger rail is incredibly expensive to operate by itself even with the presence of those four factors. The last requirement of sufficient schedule density imposes a lot of constraints on the rail network that aren’t readily apparent to observers too. As an example, The Wife and I often choose to ride the Amtrak from South Florida to Orlando instead of making the drive. It’s more expensive at roughly 100 bucks for both of us round trip compared with a tank of gas at 40 bucks, but the 27 dollar toll for the turnpike makes things a little closer. It’s roughly an hour longer too, but it’s nice to be able to read or watch movies on the train instead of driving. Most importantly, and what prevents us from using it a lot more is the schedule: you can depart at 9:30 AM from South Florida, or 1:30PM from Orlando, and that’s it. Compare this to Europe where most cities have an hourly service and you can see the difference. There are several points in this little anecdote: the schedule, the cost, the need for pickup upon arrival in Orlando (thanks Sara’s family!) and the time all conspire to eliminate huge swaths of potential customers.A more insidious issue: once you’re at sufficient schedule density, you basically invalidate your rail network for freight traffic. Here’s something you may not have known: the United States has the world’s most efficient railway system (See here, and here: the US enjoys the cheapest freight rates in the world). This is because it’s entirely freight based which allows the railroads to maximize what trains are really good at: moving huge amount of cargo extremely cheaply and efficiently. Adding in passenger traffic (particularly dense traffic) with its priority trains would essentially destroy the efficiency we have or require incredibly expensive infrastructure investments. Even with those investments it’s generally not feasible to run freight and intense passenger service on the same trackage. Most freight in Europe travels by truck in case you didn’t know.Passenger rail, even where it’s “successful” in Europe and Asia is still a chronic money loser requiring subsidy support. In a wholly unsurprising development, China’s extensive new (and darling of the media) high speed passenger network is essentially insolvent. This is the ideal which Friedman and other breathless watchers of China and India have been prescribing for the United States for years. Says Chinese professor Zhao Jian:
“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”
I’d rather have the railroad system the US currently has, thank you very much. A privately funded, operated, and most importantly, wildly efficient transportation system that’s designed to move big bulky stuff. As gas prices fluctuate and we continue to import a huge percentage of our manufactured goods, we’re sitting pretty.