Skeptics say rail has bad track record

An Amtrak Acela high-speed train at South Station in Boston.


Bill Radke: Before the president leaves Washington today, he will announce the government's plan to build new high-speed passenger rail lines. This is part of his economic stimulus package: $8 billion this year for high-speed and intercity rail. The goals are admirable -- connecting cities, creating jobs,
saving energy. So why are there so many skeptics? Here's Marketplace's John Dimsdale.

John Dimsdale: High gas prices sparked an 18 percent increase in Amtrak riders over the past two years. California voters have approved $10 billion in bonds for high-speed lines, and governors from Ohio to Missouri are asking for billions more for fast-track lines in the Midwest.

But Ross Capon, the president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, says only so much can be done right now.

Ross Capon: What you're going to mainly see is incremental improvements to existing services, even though it's far more than the U.S. has ever put into this business before.

Randal O'Toole: I think it's $8 billion down the drain.

The Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole says existing high-speed rail lines in the Northeast, as well as in Europe and Japan, have yet to prove cost-effective.

O'Toole: There's not been a high-speed rail system anywhere in the world that has relieved traffic congestion on adjacent highways, because so few people use them.

The administration is said to be looking at subsidies for as many as six high-speed lines throughout the country.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Seconding a point by Owen E -- O'Toole, perhaps deliberately, confuses traffic congestion relief with congestion reduction.

A well-developed mass transit line will generally not _reduce_ traffic congestion on an important parallel regional highway. But the transit line will _relieve_ traffic congestion by giving trip-makers an alternative -- to get on the train and read the newspaper while riding to their destinations, rather than hopping in the car and join the crowd on the road.

Traffic congestion on the road cannot be reduced unless it costs the drivers more -- because of tolls or high gas prices -- or because drivers have nowhere to go -- because the economy's bad. That's just a reality, and it does not negate the benefits of public transit.

This has been demonstrated extensively in my region, the San Francisco Bay Area. The SF–Oakland Bay Bridge has been overcrowded for decades, despite the parallel BART Transbay Tube, transbay buses, and ferries. Nevertheless, the bay-crossing public has a choice, and those who choose public transit experience traffic congestion _relief_. Meanwhile, regional traffic congestion has only gone down when the economy has declined or during the days of the nearly five-dollar gallon of gasoline.

Remember that some people have agenda against high speed rails.

It is possible they career is funded, directly or indirectly, by anti-High speed rail organizations. Or they may just have a disdain for public transportation.

O'Toole is a tool. The Cato Institute is nothing more than a democrat basher. If Obama was against high speed rails, Cato will be on NPR saying how much benefits high speed rails produce and how much people ride it around the world.

"There's not been a high-speed rail system anywhere in the world that has relieved traffic congestion on adjacent highways, because so few people use them"
One-word rebuttel: Japan.

I think Mr. O'Toole should look into the statistics of Indian Railways and then comment on how much trains help. But it is not just for road traffic, if high speed trains are shorter than a drive but a bit longer than flight journey I would definitely opt for a train for it cheaper fare (if it is cheap that is).

"John Dimsdale reports rail has not been a popular, cost-effective option worldwide"

But this is not the pupose of public transpotation, and any politician that tells you our army, police, trash collection engineers, or bussing systems should turn profits is a wacky right-winger

Public transportation costs us money, but it offsets the negative externalities of those who choose to drive thier Escalade or Tundra or F2500 to thier desk job. This in turn creates posistive externalities like a decrease in crime and localized pollution. So people who dont use puplic transpotation still must pay for it, but they still reap the benefits (though they would never admit it).

Mr. O'Toole's fallacy is that the only real purpose of high speed rail is to relieve congestion on roads. "Get everyone ELSE on those trains so I can have the roads to myself." The truth is, roads will be congested no matter what. The cost of building significant new road capacity through urban areas will be astronomical, and it will only encourage sprawl and be just as congested in 10 years. Go to Japan. Do they have road congestion? Heck yes. But, for example, the line between Osaka and Tokyo caries 360,000 people per day. Imagine how those roads would look with 360,000 more cars on them. How can you possibly call 360,000 people per day, a small number of people? The idea of HSR is to provide a superior alternative to driving.

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