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A 10-point reality check for the Cato Institute

March 17, 2021

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Why high-speed rail is the future: A 10-point reality check for the Cato Institute

The Cato Institute’s new diatribe about high-speed rail repeats many of the fictions that skeptics of HSR frequently use to distort the truth, deceive the public, and lobby legislators. The result is that the U.S. pours massive amounts of money into bloated highway budgets and subsidies for the airline industry—at the expense of sustainable transportation investments. So here’s a reality check:

  1. High-speed trains are marvels of precision engineering and high-tech innovation. Cato claims that HSR became “obsolete” in 1958, when Boeing built the first 707 jetliner. The claim makes no sense; Cato is either clueless, deceitful, or both. High-speed trains didn’t begin operating until 1964. And new high-speed trains are at the cutting edge of transportation tech. As with high-end cars, design breakthroughs are continually pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. State-of the-art electric trains run on renewable energy and provide a ride that’s so quiet and smooth—at speeds of 200+ mph—that you have to experience it to believe it. And modern trains deliver something that we’ve been conditioned to not demand from travel—a pleasant, productive experience, with comfortable seats and spacious lounges for eating, socializing, and working.
  2. Trains are high-return investments that spur economic growth and connectivity across entire regions. Trains link small and mid-sized cities to each other—and to bigger cities—because people board and leave at intermediate stops. So it’s not just that people can get from one major city to another major city quickly and conveniently. They can get to lots of different destinations within a region quickly and conveniently. And trains deliver passengers right to heart of urban areas—which promotes density, encourages walkability, boosts land values, and builds thriving downtowns. Trains add value to cities. Highways and airports hollow them out.
  3. HSR is faster than flying for all short trips and many longer ones. Planes are twice the speed of  today’s fastest trains, according to Cato. But with airport travel time, check-in, and runway delays factored in, the speed advantage of airplanes is minimal (or nil) for trips under 1,000 miles. And high-speed trains are easily the fastest travel mode for trips under 500 miles—even without factoring in the frequent weather delays that make flying such a headache. The average passenger trip length for regional airline carriers is under 500 miles.
  4. New highways only create more gridlock. An analysis of 100 urban areas from 1993 to 2017 found that the rate of growth in new freeway-lane miles exceeded population growth. But rather than declining, congestion increased by 144 percent. This is “a counterintuitive but well-documented phenomenon,” the report notes. New roads and new lanes don’t solve congestion problems. They only create more gridlock. Period. The common definition of insanity applies here: We keep pumping massive amounts of money into a system that always fails to deliver on the big promises. And we keep expecting a different result. 
  5. Texas is a cautionary tale. The state spent $2.8 billion to widen Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, bragging about it as the “world’s widest highway.” Morning commute times were soon 30 percent longer, and afternoon commute times were 50 percent longer. As Bloomberg observes, “given that expanding highways at great public cost doesn’t improve rush-hour traffic, there are better ways to spend this money.”
  6. Travelers overwhelmingly prefer trains when they have a choice. In Amtrak’s Acela corridor—the most densely populated megaregion in the U.S., with multitudes of flight options—Amtrak’s share of the air-flight market for travel between New York and Washington, D.C., increased from 37 to 75 percent from 2000 to 2012. “On both ease of travel and potential productivity, rail holds a large competitive advantage over the plane,” Bloomberg noted. “And that's on mobility alone, without factoring in other benefits to city economies or transport sustainability.” That’s why Amtrak had its best year ever In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, with more than 32 million passenger trips and a year-on-year increase of 800,000 passengers. It will soon begin the process of rolling out a new fleet of high-speed Acela trains—made in the U.S.—in the Northeast Corridor. There will be more of them—and 25 percent more seat capacity per train—to meet the growing demand.
  7. Private-sector money is flowing into HSR. This is a fact that the libertarian Cato Institute should appreciate and celebrate. Texas Central Railroad, for example, is building a line from Dallas to Houston. And Brightline is extending its Miami-West Palm Beach line to Orlando/Walt Disney. It’s also close to breaking ground on a HSR line from Las Vegas to the L.A. region. Both companies expect to make a profit on the projects. And Microsoft is leading a coalition that’s looking to bring HSR to the Pacific Northwest. Wes Edens, one of the key investors behind the Brightline projects, recently called the lack of passenger rail in the U.S. both a “travesty” and “a gigantic opportunity.” People who actually have skin in the game can’t afford to ignore reality: HSR is a great investment.
  8. Demand for HSR is surging worldwide. China has added more than 35,000 miles of high-speed lines in the past few years. But it’s not just China. More than 10,000 miles of high-speed line are in operation in Europe. Worldwide, there were more than 52,000 miles of line in operation, with another 12,000 miles under construction and about 11,000 miles planned as of early 2020. Does that sound like an obsolete technology?
  9. Trains are safe. Driving is dangerous. Overall, the fatality risk of driving is 17 times greater than taking a train. And the safest, most advanced HSR systems in the world have reduced the risk to effectively zero. The Japanese system that Texas Central is modeling its line on, for example, has had no fatalities or injuries since it began operation in 1964. In the U.S., roughly 38,000 people die each year in roadway accidents, which are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 55. More than 4 million people are injured each year in road crashes, and the direct medical costs are nearly $400 million.
  10. Massive airline subsidies skew Cato’s data. “Aside from speed,” Cato claims, “what makes high-speed rail obsolete is its high cost.” By this account, airlines “don’t require much infrastructure other than landing fields.” That’s news to Chicago, which is currently pouring $8.5 billion into expanding O’Hare Airport. Cato’s broader point is that high infrastructure costs drive ticket costs: “Airfares averaged just 14 cents per passenger-mile in 2019, whereas fares on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela averaged more than 90 cents per passenger-mile.” But airlines are massively subsidized by taxpayers in all kinds of ways, many of them under the radar. Airport construction and upgrades, for example, are often subsidized with government funds. And the airlines have received a series of pandemic-related bailouts that add up to roughly $79 billion, which doesn’t even include relief for the airports and for airline contractors. At the same time, the Acela’s costs are artificially inflated by limits imposed by Congress: The current trains are too short and too infrequent to fully leverage the surging demand for the service. That problem will be partially addressed by Amtrak’s new, higher-capacity trains.

What do taxpayers get for the billions of dollars that we spend each year to expand our road systems and subsidize the airlines? We get gridlock, death, maiming, medical bills, and spiraling greenhouse gas emissions. So, there are great reasons to chart a new, sustainable course. And this is the right moment. As Harvard scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes in her book about mobility, Move, “It’s time to think differently. It’s time to shape new expectations about who we are and what we can become.” Reimagined for the twenty-first century—and funded properly—modern train and transit systems will not only transform the ways we move around. They’ll transport us to a much better place.

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