American infatuation with the dream of high-speed rail doesn’t match its needs.
Why can’t America build high-speed passenger rail systems? If the Chinese can do it, we can do it, as President Barack Obama reportedly declared to his economic advisory team. But should we?
China can do it. China has built more than 1,000 miles of high-speed rail lines since 2005 and has more under construction. The national rail plan calls for spending $300 billion by 2020 to construct 10,000 miles of dedicated routes for service faster than 200 mph.
America’s one modern intercity rail service, the Acela service from Boston to Washington, is not in the same league. Capable of 165 mph, Acela trains travel on a right-of-way built to the standards of the mid-1930s and aren’t allowed to hit that top speed because of federal safety regulations. They average just 80 mph in real life, which includes station stops—not quite as fast as the Metroliners that went into service on the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1969. Under “Buy American” procurement laws, Acela trains were assembled in the U.S. by affiliates of Bombardier of Canada and Alstom of France.
Amtrak does have a plan to upgrade service in the Northeast Corridor to 220 mph after 2030; in fact it publishes a new high-speed plan at least once a decade. These are like NASA’s plans for missions to Mars: They employ designers and artists, not engineers and builders. They never reach the goal, unless the goal is creating a new plan.
To borrow a term popularized by Walt Disney, high-speed rail systems in the U.S. are imagineering, not engineering.
Full of Promise
Fans of high-speed rail in the U.S. cheered the California legislature’s recent passage of an imagineering bill that allows the state to borrow money for construction of a long-heralded high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a route of 432 miles, at an estimated cost of $68 billion. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill twice last week, first in Los Angeles and then in San Francisco. Unfortunately for all concerned, the bill appropriates only $2.6 billion of state borrowing, only for the 130-mile first phase, from Bakersfield to Madera in the flat terrain of the Central Valley. That state investment is supposed to justify $3.2 billion of federal money from the 2009 economic stimulus.
Even the advocates do not pretend this leg is a viable market for passenger service. As Henry David Thoreau questioned the utility of a telegraph link by doubting that Maine had anything important to say to Texas, so skeptics cannot imagine that Madera and Bakersfield have much to exchange in the way of business travelers.
If the first stage is ever built, it will cost a lot more than $5.8 billion. Boosters do not deny that; they say the money will come somehow. Then comes the next stage, which will face bigger obstacles and higher costs per mile—engineering challenges for construction through the Diablo Range and the Tehachapi Mountains and social challenges for construction through heavily populated, politically powerful suburbs. “Not in my backyard” is the unofficial state slogan, and high-speed rail will have to go through a lot of backyards.
Anyway, the fiscal challenge of California high-speed rail is likely to trump the other two. California barely clings to a single-A bond rating through annual budget gaps. Just because the voters and the legislature want to borrow does not mean that investors will lend, or risk their capital to join the state in public-private partnerships.
Gov. Brown, however, is building for posterity, the way his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, built freeways and state universities during two terms from 1959 to 1967. “I’ve been around long enough to know the difference between the skeptics, the fraidy-cats and the builders,” the not-so-young-anymore governor said. “And we will create jobs, not by hiding out, not by saying no, but by saying yes to the future.”
Getting to Yes
China says yes to the future. All too easily.
China is a police-state dictatorship—a top-down, command-and-control economy if we are being polite. The central government drew lines on the map and ordered everyone and everything to get out of its way. This made life easier for the railway engineers, so much so that the 817-mile high-speed line from Beijing to Shanghai ordered up in 2008 was able to open to traffic in 2011.
The advantages for railway engineers are balanced by the pressure imposed on them to complete the work as quickly as possible. The signaling system is not quite ready for revenue service; there have been episodes of erosion under the tracks; the Minister of Railways has been accused of personal graft and managing a system of widespread corruption.
China is also a poor country—which is an advantage of a sort if all you want to do is build high-speed rail lines. The central government commands a huge oversupply of labor—six million people working on railway construction, by one estimate in 2011. More people were building the Beijing-Shanghai line than built iPads in the same period.
Unlike the U.S., which built its transportation infrastructure over a century-long railroad boom and a half-century of federal highway largesse, China had to build something. Its intercity highways were scarce. Its travelling population overmatched its airlines and airports. Its railroads were suitable for freight, but passenger trains were choking the network. It made sense to move millions of people on new passenger-rail networks because there were no acceptable alternatives.
The U.S., however, is a wealthy country, and much of its wealth is in real estate. It is a powerful country, and much of its people’s power is embedded in the political process.
It was hard enough to build highways in cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Between the expense and the political repercussions, few have been built since then. Boston’s Big Dig stands as a warning to those who would try. Running a new railway through a downtown is going to be even harder and more expensive. Using existing tracks defeats the high-speed purpose; drilling new tunnels raises the price beyond imagining.
The answer is paradoxical but true: America cannot build high-speed rail because it’s too rich already.
By THOMAS G. DONLAN