Requiem for a Train

High-speed rail is dead in America. Should we mourn it?

High-speed rail design for Mission Beach
High-speed rail design for Mission Beach, Calif.

© 2008-2010 State of California

If you live in Los Angeles, Orlando, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, Raleigh, or any number of other U.S. cities, chances are you’ve read a news story that started something like this: “Imagine stepping on a train in [your city] and stepping off in [another major city] just two-and-a-half hours later. This dream could become a reality in the next [unrealistic number] years, thanks to plans for a national network of high-speed rail lines.”

Well, you can stop imagining it now. High-speed rail isn’t happening in America. Not anytime soon. Probably not ever. The questions now are (1) what killed it, and (2) should we mourn its passing?

There was a brief burst of enthusiasm around the future of high-speed rail in January 2010, when President Obama announced $8 billion in federal stimulus spending to start building “America’s first nationwide program of high-speed intercity passenger rail service.” Since then, however, the project’s chances of success have been heading in one direction: downhill. First, Tea Party conservatives in Florida and wealthy liberal suburbanites in the Bay Area began questioning their states’ plans. Then, just as Joe Biden was calling for $53 billion in high-speed-rail spending over the next six years, a crop of freshly elected Republican governors turned down billions in federal money for lines in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. Finally, Republicans in Congress zeroed out the federal high-speed rail budget last month. (To understand why conservatives hate trains, see my colleague Dave Weigel’s story from earlier this year.)

Though Republicans’ outright rejection of high-speed rail is short-sighted, so were many of the plans themselves. Rather than focus on the few corridors that need high-speed rail lines the most, the Obama administration doled out half a billion here and half a billion there, a strategy better-suited to currying political support than to addressing real infrastructure problems. Spread across 10 corridors, each between 100 and 600 miles long, Obama’s rail system would have been, at best, a disjointed patchwork. The nation’s most gridlocked corridor, along the East Coast between Washington, D.C. and Boston, was left out of the plans entirely. Worse, much of the money was allocated to projects that weren’t high-speed rail at all.

The Europeans define high-speed trains as those that travel at speeds of 155 miles per hour or more (or 125 mph for tracks that are upgraded, rather than newly built). Wisconsin’s proposed $823 million Milwaukee-to-Madison line was to reach 110 mph, at most, in between stops in cities such as Brookfield and Oconomowoc. Ohio’s version was even slower, with trains on an upgraded freight-rail track topping out at 79 mph. With stops, the trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland would have been significantly slower by rail than by car. Who would ride such a thing? Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, bemoaned the jobs that would be lost when his Republican successor killed the project. But at a cost of $400 million, this was job creation of the sort that John Maynard Keynes himself would have eyed skeptically. Florida’s $2.4 billion Tampa-to-Orlando line made more sense, but it was no surprise that Republican Gov. Rick Scott nixed it in February. By that time, high-speed rail had already become a punch line among fiscal conservatives.

For all that, a line in California, connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, still seemed to stand a chance. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the country, the California line would be true, dedicated high-speed rail, with trains running up to 220 mph. It would connect two metropolises of seven-million-plus people that are just far enough apart to make a drive unappetizing (six hours sans traffic) and a plane hop unwieldy. And the plans were already in place; the state had been working on a high-speed rail line for decades and lacked only the money to execute it.

It was, it seemed, the perfect showcase for the Obama stimulus. This was more than just
digging holes in the ground—it was putting people to work building something that the country needed anyway. Not only is California’s Interstate 5 congested and getting worse, but air traffic between San Francisco and Los Angeles is beginning to be a problem as well. Without high-speed trains, the state will need to build more highways, more airports, or both. But for a state that recently passed a law limiting greenhouse gas emissions, electric trains make far more environmental sense. And they’re popular—the state’s voters had approved a $10 billion bond issue for the rail line even before Obama announced his own high-speed plans. So what went wrong?

The project was oversold from the beginning, with projections of 100 million riders per year and healthy operating profits—yes, profits, on a railroad—leading to skepticism even among those inclined to support it. Along with the usual conservative opponents, the wealthy liberals living along the railroad’s proposed path in Palo Alto and neighboring cities—sufficiently motivated by the prospect of trains roaring literally through their backyards—began to uncover holes in the financing scheme as well. Rather than take them seriously, the rail line’s bullheaded backers attempted to steamroll the opposition, branding them NIMBYs and “rotten apples.” Sure, they were NIMBYs, but it didn’t make them wrong. And when they leveraged their connections and media savvy to get state lawmakers, academics, and journalists like me to investigate, the findings that came back damaged the project’s credibility.

Under pressure to come up with more realistic projections, state rail authorities admitted last month that the project would take twice as long to build as they’d originally claimed, attract fewer riders, and cost twice as much. The honesty was welcome, but it came too late: A poll released this week showed the public has turned against high-speed rail altogether, with nearly two-thirds saying they’d like a chance to reconsider.

Some will point out that California’s high-speed rail plan still isn’t dead, exactly. (It’s “more of a zombie,” one blogger quipped.) State officials, backed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, have concentrated their efforts on building just one leg, from agricultural Fresno to dusty Bakersfield, as a sort of desperate foot-in-the-door tactic. They still have the Obama adminstration’s support. “We are not going to be dissuaded by critics,” transportation secretary Ray LaHood said this week. “We are only at the beginning of this multi-generational process—the simple fact is that the transportation challenges that are driving increased demand for rail are not going away.” That’s true, but the chances that California—or the country—will meet those challenges now look dim.

The modern federal government isn’t good at solving long-term problems (if it ever was). Most Republicans don’t believe the government should solve problems. They believe big government, in fact, is the one of the only problems that can’t be solved by the free market. Democrats, as seen in the failures of all of these railroad projects, err by assuming that the government can solve problems more effectively than it realistically can.

Ultimately, high-speed rail’s backers weren’t as staunch as its detractors. Barack Obama and congressional Democrats put their political lives on the line for health care, addressing an immediate problem whose consequences were personal and visceral. The nation’s outdated infrastructure is a major dilemma but one that doesn’t feel as pressing to most voters and legislators. It’s our children’s problem now.

If there’s a silver lining to high-speed rail’s spectacular failure, it’s that these trains were outdated years ago. Even if all went according to the Obama administration’s plans, the nation’s rail network would have remained meager and backward by comparison to those in Japan and China. Those countries are already building trains that run via magnetic levitation. Suspended a few inches above a guideway, maglev trains fly through the air at speeds greater than 300 mph, with minimal wear and tear. At this point in their development, maglev tracks are dauntingly expensive to build. But those costs might well come down by the time America is ready to get serious about its transportation infrastructure. At this rate, there seems to be plenty of time.