Robert Samuelson, the Washington Post columnist, has a spot on column today. But first note that I usually don't much agree with Samuelson because he is often whiny about things. Today, however, he is right on target.
His point is that since 1971, we have spent $35 Billion in subsidies to keep Amtrak going. You can see the operating results for Amtrak in our book, The Great Recession Conspiracy, and they are pretty awful. In the U.S., 140 million people go to work every day and exactly 78,000 of them ride Amtrak, and you pick up $50 of the cost of each and every ticket.
Now the government is proposing spending $11 TRILLION on some high speed rail projects between now and 2019. This money would be "seed" money to build ten high speed rail corridors, i.e., Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Los Angeles to San Franciso/Sacramento, etc.
Estimates are that construction costs could fall between $22 Million a mile to $132 Million a mile, so take $50 Million a mile as a working number and calculate the cost of each corridor for your self. The government says it will take 1 million cars of the road, and even if that were to come true, it is less than 1/2 of 1% of the 254 million registered vehicles.
Proponents of the high speed rail project point to Europe as a model of why it would work in the U.S. I have ridden the high speed trains in France and Spain, and they are quite nice. The country side does go by pretty fast at 200 MPH.
The problem is that Europe ain't America. First thing, population densities are very, very different. That means there are more densely populated metropolitan areas to support rail lines in Europe. In Britain, the 653 persons per square mile, in Germany 611, and 259 in France. In the U.S., it is 86 persons per square mile. And distances in the U.S. are much, much greater in the U.S. than in Europe. When the trip is about 400 miles, air travel is cheaper and, of course, much faster.
As you know, we have a marvelous transportation system called the Interstate Highway System which is in great need of repair, updating, and expansion. That is where our dollars should be going.
Now here is the really troubling thing about the High Speed Rail project. Our government never seems to learn anything from actual events. Amtrak is a horribly expensive boondoogle, but now we should expand it. If you would like more lessons in government "non-learning", see The Great Recession Conspiracy.