High-speed rail’s broken promises

Published on Monday, 11 August 2014 21:28 - Written by

Nothing seems as eternally optimistic as government’s faith in high-speed rail, despite its many broken promises, expensive over-runs and its negligible effect on the transit habits of Americans.

President Barack Obama is one of the true believers.

“The Obama administration has spent almost $11 billion to build a high-speed rail system that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,” the Fiscal Times reported last week. “Since 2009, the president has been pushing for the United States to have a bullet-train-like system similar to those found in Europe and Asia, but a combination of setbacks and dwindling support from states and Congress has slowed the project to a halt.”

The administration has hoped that California would “prove” the viability of high-speed rail projects. But it’s been sorely disappointed with the start-and-stop projects in the Golden State.

“For the past year, the state’s proposed project was embroiled in legal drama after a Sacramento Superior Court sided with farmers and residents who filed a suit to stop the bullet train,” the Times explained. “But just last week, the 3rd District Court of Appeals in California struck down that ruling, paving the way for California to move forward with the project and sell $8.6 billion in bonds to pay for the high-speed rail, The San Jose Mercury News reported.”

Sure, high-speed rail sounds wonderful, and many Americans have had positive experiences with rail travel in Europe and Asia. But there are insurmountable reasons why high-speed rail won’t work here, at least the way it does at its best in other countries.

One such reason is the obvious misnomer: high-speed rail usually isn’t. To be convenient to most passengers, trains must make lots of stops — they must pick up passengers near where they live, and disgorge them near where they work.

But that means the trains can never build up much speed.

Even park-and-ride schemes only address half that problem. If a city’s downtown area is large, then travel to work from a central train depot means slow and smelly bus rides or lengthy walks.

Then there’s cost. High-speed rail projects are terribly expensive. So who pays? If users are asked to foot the bill through fares, they naturally opt for cheaper ways to get to work. If taxpayers are asked to fund projects they won’t personally use, they tend to get cranky.

Many Republican governors are dashing the Obama administration’s high-speed rail dreams. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker turned down $823 million of federal high-speed rail funds because he said his state’s residents don’t want the project it was supposed to fund.

“Typically the reason people take mass transit is because it saves them time and/or money,” he told the Washington Post. “This did neither.”

President Obama insists on referring to high-speed rail as “the transportation of the future.” His faith is undeterred.

“We want to start looking deep into the 21st century, and we want to say to ourselves, ‘There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can’t,’” he says.

Sure there is. Americans don’t want them.