Sunday, August 22, 2010

High Speed Rail in America? I'll Believe It When I See It

Today CNN has an article on high speed rail in the United States. Reading it, one can become very excited at the prospect of riding trains going over 100 mph to your destination in a timely and cheap manner. However, anyone who has had any experience on Amtrak and its infamous inefficiency and high prices knows that the dream of cost-efficient high speed rail in the United States may be just that: a dream.

To begin with, I want to look at a few quotes from the article:

  1. "For generations, much of the nation has been forced to use cars, buses or pricey aircraft to travel to nearby cities."
  2. "Panyanouvong said he loves the idea of jumping on a train, turning on his computer and getting some work done on his way to Tampa, 'without having to worry about traffic or driving.'"
  3. "Soon, Americans might find themselves rocketing along ribbons of rails at 200 mph in sleek, painted passenger cars -- never stopping until they arrive at destinations awake and refreshed."
  4. "'The $8 billion investment in high-speed rail for America is just the beginning.'"
Quote 1 is accurate, but the adjective describing aircraft as "pricey" is a bit misleading. If I wanted to get to Boston leaving tomorrow morning, I would actually pay more to go by train than by plane. Despite the train taking 3-4 times as long the train is just as expensive, if not more expensive, than traveling by plane. The Acela, Amtrak's "high speed" train to Boston from Washington, DC would cost $111 for a 3.5 hour trip. The Northeast Regional would cost $92 for a 4 hour ride. A JetBlue flight would cost $93.

So flying is pricey, but just as pricey (if not cheaper) than taking a train. Keep in mind that Amtrak is a government-owned entity and receives government subsidies. So without those subsidies their prices would be even higher. And it is worse during holidays, when prices get jacked up to the $200 range.

As for doing work on the train: this is a great idea, but not really practical. First of all, you need the internet to do any type of work nowadays. The only thing in the Northeast that offers internet is the Acela, and the speed of said internet is nothing to brag about. Even if you do get good internet service, chances are you'll be in a car with someone on the phone the entire train ride. Even if you get in the quiet car, there's always someone who believes that the rules do not apply to them, and the train staff will rarely enforce said rules. In my humble opinion, getting work done on the train is not that feasible.

The third quote, if government-subsidized rail is any indication, is a pipe dream, plain and simple. Amtrak's Acela was supposed to be a 150 mph rocket that saved time for passengers going between Washington, New York, and Boston. In reality, the train spends the overwhelming majority of its trip under 100 mph and saves passengers 30 minutes between New York and Boston (for comparison: fifty years ago the New Haven Railroad made the trip in four hours as opposed to the Acela's 3.5.) Going from Washington to New York? Expect to save 15 minutes by opting for the more-expensive Acela. And the only reason you're saving that much time is that there are less stops.

Finally the fourth quote. It's accurate, but in a regrettable way. Amtrak (read: the government) invested $1.7 billion in the Acela. The Acela's lack of proper testing before being rolled out resulted in a major brake problem, causing the entire service to be shut down (at the cost of $1 million per week.) The Acela was out for months. There were other issues with the train that cause it to be taken out of service, as well. Add this to the crumbling infrastructure that Amtrak runs on, and it is clear that the government will undoubtedly continue to shell out taxpayer monies to run train systems.

I hate to sound like a Negative Nancy with this post, and there is no one in this country who would be more excited to ditch the bus for affordable high-speed rail than me, but the stark reality of government-subsidized rail in this country shows what a mess it is. It is a worthy investment, but it has to be done correctly. Amtrak, in a word, is a huge mess. High prices and average service are great components for mediocrity, which Amtrak does well. If the new generation of rail service is going to be anything like Amtrak, the government might as well save your and my money and not even attempt it because its current rail system is a money pit.


  1. Mr. Kane states that Amtrak receives a subsidy, which it true, and if they didn't the cost of the trip to Boston would be more expensive than the plane.
    Hmmm....does Mr. Kane not think that the FAA control of the airways and billions poured into airports and service considered by the gov't to be "essential" is a "subsidy"?
    If you want to compare at least be fair about it and not just give your opinion without doing the research required of a journalist.

  2. Lance:

    The government pours billions into the upkeep of the rails and rail stations, just as they do to control airways and maintain airports. On top of this, Amtrak receives additional money to keep it operating and wasting at its current rate. The reason airline prices are around what rail tickets are is the competition in the air travel marketplace, not direct government subsidies, as you suggest.

    Additionally, don't take my saying rail costs too much as a defense of airlines. They're both horrendously disorganized industries whose treatment of their customers is closer to that of cattle than of paying charges. While both receive help from the government in maintenance of their respective routes and terminals, it is Amtrak that is run and funded by the government.

  3. It's important to point out that although Europe has a very good high speed rail system that is cheaper than the US, the rail industry in Europe is also highly subsidized. High speed rail is not feasible in the United States. If we had started doing it 30 years ago and had an infrastructure in place then it would be a smart thing to invest in. Any alternative public or efficient transportation method in the United States will be something new. Passenger rail in the United States would cost too much to overcome its inherent problems (infrastructure, public stigma, poor business model, lack of private funding, Environmental regulations etc.). It is a 20th century solution that the passed by the US.