Why America Lacks High Speed Rail

Jul 13, 2013 by

Over the past year, I’ve visited China, Japan, and Taiwan. During each visit, I had the delightful opportunity to use high speed rail. Living on the Northeast Corridor in Boston, I am no stranger to sitting on a train. Nonetheless, the experience is remarkably different. To put things in perspective, the trip from Boston to Washington DC is roughly 725 kilometers, and takes 6.5 hours on the “high speed” Acela train and 8 hours on the regular train. Thus, the fastest available train travels at about 110km/hour. In contrast, China’s high speed trains have been designed to operate at between 200-350km/hour, depending on the line. Taiwan’s trains run at up to 300km/hour, and the aging Shinkansen runs at between 240-320km/hour. If the train ride from Boston to Washington DC was reduced to under 2.5 hours, it would be a game changer, and a serious competitor to flight.

So, why am I always stuck taking the slow train whenever I leave Back Bay Station? Building a high speed rail system requires both investing in new infrastructure and acquiring the land necessary to build it. Other nations are more comfortable with using eminent domain to build better railroads to their city centers. (The advantage of rail diminishes if people have to commute to a remote station, as they do when traveling by air.) Secondly, building the lines is costly. Amtrak has estimated that it could bring the Northeast Corridor up to speed by 2040 (yes, 2040) for the cost of $117 billion. The proposed plan would bring the journey from Boston to Washington down to 3 hours.

One of the arguments commonly used against high speed rail is that the systems rarely can directly pay for themselves, and must be subsidized by governments.  The main arguments for the construction of rail are that it links labor markets, reduces road congestion, and promotes energy independence (as the trains run on electricity, rather than a particular fuel source like petroleum). A number of historically distant Chinese cities (e.g. Beijing and Tianjin; Shanghai and Hangzhou) have become commutable as a result of the high speed rail network. As a result, people can seek out new employment opportunities without relocating, and talent can more easily diffuse through the region. Rail passengers are also able to be more productive than air or road passengers, as the spend the vast majority of their journeys seated with both power and Internet access.

Unlike many other forms of government spending, which could be potentially be accomplished by private citizens or corporations, rail development cannot easily be achieved privately. Building well-placed railroads requires the judicious use of eminent domain – the forced purchase of land for the public good. If such a task were accomplished within the market, holdouts would demand substantially above-market prices for their land, as they would have the power to block the development of a track. Thus, the process would ultimately end up becoming impractical or infeasible (if some holdouts were unwilling to sell at any price). This same sort of logic has been used to justify government sponsorship of roads and airports. As we slowly roll down the track towards upgrading the Northeast Corridor, it may make sense to consider the role that rail has played in the development and enhancement of other nations. Given the historically low cost of labor, it is unfortunate that we currently have a 30 year plan for upgrading this durable infrastructure.

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