The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Rail Fail The Obama Administration’s Epic Rail Fail

The Obama Administration has poured $11 billion into high-speed rail projects since 2009, but has virtually nothing to show for it. The goal was to match the speeds of European and Asian rail (they reach 220 miles per hour) but trains are still stuck at their status quo speeds and no notable improvements have come to the U.S. rail system. To take just one example: it will take an additional $150 billion and 26 more years to raise the speed of regional DC-NYC trains from their current speed of 80 m.p.h to Euro speeds. Many experts say the effort was unrealistic from the start, as the New York Times reports:

“The idea that we would have a high-speed system that 80 percent of Americans could access in that short period of time was unadulterated hype, and it didn’t take an expert to see though it,” said Kenneth Orski, the editor and publisher of an influential transportation newsletter who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. [...]

C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said countries with successful high-speed rail projects had higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership. “So it wouldn’t make any sense to have a high-speed rail train in most areas of the United States,” he said. “The geography is different and other factors are just too different.”

Of course, it didn’t help that the administration’s handling of the funding allocated to high speed rail was “as clumsy as its superintending of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout,” as another expert put it. But even under impeccable management, the project would still be a waste of time and money. Ibbs is right about the factors that limit the promise of high speed rail in the United States, and such projects tend to become obsolete by the time they are built.

Published on August 6, 2014 3:47 pm
  • Andrew Allison

    Ibbs’s point applies not just to high-speed rail, but to mass transit in general. BART is but one example of the failure of suburban mass transit.

    • ShadrachSmith

      But, like Pete said, the goal is redistribution of wealth, not transportation.

      • Boritz

        Agreed, and a an important component (to its implementers) of ACA is more power over the people and less power to the people.

      • Andrew Allison

        Perhaps, but the only hope that “We the People” have of stopping it is to loudly proclaim it’s lack of utility and call those who promote such schemes the crooks that they are.

  • Pete

    Sure, in objective terms Obama squandered $11 billion on the rails ….. but ah, his cronies and the contributors to the Democrat Party sure benefited from the spending, just like they did with the solar and wind boondoggles. .

  • Josephbleau

    I think the real goal of high speed rail is to limit the ability of people to wander around where they want. The government wnats to be in charge of where and when everyone travels, its better if they can ask for your papers and have a record of where you are. When we have google cars there will be a day when your car tells you, I’m not taking you to work today, we are going to the police station to have a long chat about your taxes.

  • Whitehall

    What the country needs in not “high speed rail” but just higher speed rail. That $11B could have been well spent on removing just bottlenecks in the system although that would have benefit freight traffic most by far by lowering costs and increasing speeds.
    Amtrak does have its value to the traveling public but it is captured by both its unions and Northeast liberal politicians who get disproportionate shares of the tax dollars.
    Not all mass transit is a waste, In many places it has been a foundation around which whole communities and economies have been built. BART in San Francisco, Caltrain down the Peninsula, the Main Line in Philly, the Long Island RR are examples. Others have proven mismanaged sinks for public funds. The worst tendency is to over-generalize; it really is about specifics on the ground.

  • stefanstackhouse

    When you count the total travel time from downtown to downtown between just about any large US city and its nearest neighboring large city, then even conventional passenger rail looks pretty competitive with air, IF the trains are available at frequent and convenient times. Make it high speed, and rail becomes potentially the much faster alternative.

    High speed rail can work in the US, but only for such inter-urban pairings. We are such a vast and spread-out nation that long-distance HSR will never come out ahead of air.

    Note that even in Europe and Asia, HSR is pretty much confined to routes between pairs of major cities. In France, for example, the TGV consists of a number of routes from Paris to various cities on the periphery of the nation. While it is possible in theory to travel from one part of the country to another entirely by TGV by exchanging trains in Paris, not very many people actually do this.

  • stevewfromford

    So all the criticisms raised at the time by Republicans were correct and only now does the NY Times admit it. Par for the course.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    $11 Billion dollars could have developed aircars,
    http://moller.com/dev/

    which would relieve traffic congestion, reduced wear and tear on the nation’s roads, reduced commute times and travel distances (300+ mph as the crow flies), and WE WOULD BE FLYING!