High-Speed Rail Skeptic Outlines Position

The Obama administration has pledged billions of dollars to jump-start a new, high-speed rail system in the U.S. Supporters tout the potential savings, but the program has many skeptics. Eric Morris, a researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, says the benefits don't outweigh the costs of high-speed rail.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As we've just heard from Ina and as we've heard all week in our high-speed rail series, there is much enthusiasm for building high-speed rail, and there's also much skepticism. Eric Morris is a doctoral candidate in urban planning and a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. He has been writing about high-speed rail for the New York Times blog "Freakonomics." And he joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ERIC MORRIS (Researcher, UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: When you hear the rail boosters talk about high-speed intercity rail service, what do you think of the likely benefits? Do they outweigh the costs?

Mr. MORRIS: Obviously, there conceivably would be a lot of benefits. It would probably save on greenhouse emissions. It would provide better service for people who currently use trains. And it would also probably attract a number of people from air and from auto, and give them a better trip. Everyone thinks high-speed rail is cool. And I think it's cool if we can make it appear by a magic wand. However, the costs are pretty substantial. That $45 billion estimate for California we just heard about is - oh, I don't know - $1,200 or $1,300 per every resident of California. And in my opinion, the benefits just don't outweigh the costs.

SIEGEL: A definition here: how is it that the working U.S. definition of high-speed is a lot slower than it is elsewhere in the world?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, right now, there's one project on the drawing board that's true high-speed rail the way we think of it: electric trains, 230-mile-an-hour top speeds, and that's being planned for California. But actually, right now, the current plans for the rest of the nation are a lot more modest. And generally, what they're looking at doing is upgrading existing freight rail with improvements like improving track and signaling and crossings, with the idea of improving the speeds of existing Amtrak trains. And they're hoping to get those up to about 110 miles an hour top speed, which would equal about 70 to 75 miles an hour average speed. So this would be a big improvement over the speeds currently on Amtrak service. But at the same time, it probably wouldn't be game-changing as far as competing with auto and air travel.

SIEGEL: That's actually slower than U.S. passenger trains were doing 50 years ago.

Mr. MORRIS: Exactly. History sort of shows that big transportation investments, that they can be a huge success and have a lot of impact if they're a big improvement in mobility over what came before. High-speed rail backers often compare high-speed rail to the transcontinental railway. However, that was a tremendous improvement in mobility, going from, you know, three miles an hour on roads to 50 miles an hour on trains. And I just don't see this having the same, you know, revolutionary transformation of American travel that a system like that did or the interstates as well.

SIEGEL: Let's take the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., where you have big cities fairly close together from Boston to Washington, all with local mass transit systems. Why shouldn't high-speed rail work there and compete successfully, if not with the family car, at least with the airlines?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, it certainly has a great chance of working there as far as American high-speed rail routes go. Rail currently captures a lot of the traffic. I think it's around 15 percent of the mode split are currently in the northeast goes by rail.

So a great way to look at whether rail improvements at work is to look at whether people are riding rail there currently. So I think, clearly, the Northeast Corridor is the best place to look at. And I should say, as much as I'm skeptical about the general idea of high-speed rail, you always have to look at specific corridors of the transportation investments. And the Northeast Corridor is definitely a place that does bear looking at seriously.

SIEGEL: Eric Morris, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Eric Morris who is a doctoral candidate in urban planning and also a researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

Tomorrow, in the last part of our series on high-speed trains, our reporter takes a ride from Chicago to Milwaukee on a line that will have to change if it's going to accommodate the fastest trains. And at the new npr.org, you can find an interactive map of proposed lines for high-speed rail.

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