Trains Are For Tourists

Randal O'Toole

Randal O'Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land and transportation issues. Courtesy of the Cato Institute hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Cato Institute

When I went to Europe, I loved to ride the trains, especially the French TGV and other high-speed trains. So President Obama's goal of building high-speed rail in the United States sounded good at first.

But when I looked at the details, I discovered that — while high-speed rail may be good for tourists — it isn't working very well in Europe or Japan.

Japan and France have each spent as much per capita on high-speed rail as we spent on our Interstate Highway System. The average American travels 4,000 miles and ships 2,000 ton-miles per year on the interstates. Yet the average resident of Japan travels only 400 miles per year on bullet trains, while the average resident of France goes less than 300 miles per year on the TGV — and these rail lines carry virtually no freight.

Throughout the world and throughout history, passenger trains have been used mainly by a wealthy elite and have never given the average people of any nation as much mobility as our interstate highways.

Moreover, the interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, while high-speed rail requires huge subsidies from general taxpayers.

Personally, I would much rather ride a train than drive anywhere. But I have to admit that automobiles are the most egalitarian form of travel ever invented. Throughout the developed world, people of all income levels regularly travel by car, while only a small number of people regularly ride trains. For example, the average American drives for 85 percent of their travel; the average European 79 percent — not much difference.

The environmental benefits of high-speed rail are also questionable.

President Obama's plan actually calls for moderate-speed rail: 110-mph passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains. These moderate-speed trains will mostly be diesel-powered, and for safety purposes they will be heavy. By the time these trains start operating, both cars and airplanes will use less energy and emit far less greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the moderate-speed trains.

True high-speed rail — trains moving at 200 mph or faster — requires costly dedicated tracks: a national network would easily cost more than a half-trillion dollars. Considering that both airplanes and cars are getting more fuel-efficient all the time, the environmental costs of constructing these lines will never be recovered in any operational savings.

True high-speed trains are electrically powered, but if that electricity comes from fossil fuels, it will produce as much greenhouse gas, per passenger mile, as autos or planes. As we develop more renewable electricity, we would do better to dedicate that power to plug-in hybrids than to build expensive but little-used train lines.

We have a choice between a transportation system that everyone uses and that pays for itself, or one that requires everyone to pay through their taxes but that is used by only a small elite. Which is the better symbol for the America that President Obama wants to rebuild?

Randal O'Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land and transportation issues.

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