Viewpoint: High-speed rails are too good to be true in the US

By Danny Huizinga
Guest Columnist

Imagine yourself on a futuristic bullet train, blazing through the countryside at 200 miles per hour. On the inside, you’re relaxing in a comfortable seat with Wi-Fi and a cold drink. The ticket was quite cheap, and the train isn’t very crowded. Sounds too good to be true?

That’s because it is.

High-speed rail is the dream that never gets fulfilled, yet never manages to die either. Every time it’s brought up, it promises grandeur and beauty. It’s the “cool way to travel.” Besides that, it saves the environment, reduces congestion, and saves consumers money!

There’s only one problem. It just keeps failing.

California has long been the symbolic example of America’s high-speed rail ambitions as a whole. But setbacks in funding have continued to hinder the project. Advocates of the new rail initially expected the project to cost $33 billion. But according to the 2012 Business Plan, the cost has risen to over $91 billion.

That cost is exceptionally high, especially after considering the California government was also counting on $12-16 billion of federal money and $10 billion from local governments. With a federal budget crisis, is sending $10 billion to a rail project in one of 50 states really the most efficient use of funds? Florida was also set to receive over $2 billion in federal funds for a similar project in 2011, until Gov. Rick Scott rejected the money. The proposed route in Florida would allegedly have only beat a car by 30 minutes. As a result, people are not interested, and the projects end up falling apart.

Which takes us back to Texas. In our case, however, the government has wisely avoided getting involved. But though Central Texas Railway is putting on the facade of a high-speed rail project as a “private enterprise,” their real intentions will undoubtedly involve government funding. “It’s my hope that, through the cooperation of public and private sectors, we can one day link Texas’ major cities with state-of-the-art passenger rail,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx this past January.

The Dallas Observer reports Texas Central Railway expects the $10 billion project to pay for itself. But if that were really true, the government wouldn’t need to be involved. Instead, the government is the one funding these environmental impact and feasibility studies. No doubt that the rail system will soon beg for subsidies and additional grants as it runs into similar problems that the California line continues to face.

According to the Waco-Tribune Herald, Texas Department of Transportation officials said the high-speed rail would cost about 80 percent of a flight at a public meeting in Waco. This is certainly not a cheap mode of transportation, especially for such a short trip. The new rail will hardly benefit the least fortunate among us.

Europe is usually touted as the prime example of high-speed rail success. But consider an anecdotal example of a train I’ll be taking this weekend. From Cologne to Frankfurt in Germany, the ticket will cost $110 for a one-hour ride. It would only be a 2-hour drive if I had a car. As long as gas prices in Europe are astronomically high, the train is economically feasible. But I find it hard to believe anyone will advocate for quadrupling gas prices in America just to make high-speed trains the preferred method of travel.

Anyone who has been to a major American city has also faced the broken escalators, malfunctioning subways, and dirty terminals of existing public transportation systems. The billions of federal money wasted on a shiny, new high-speed train would be better served rehabilitating the transit systems we already have.

True, it may not be as flashy. But it’s much more practical.
Danny Huizinga is a junior Business Fellow from Chicago. He is a guest columnist for The Lariat. Follow him @HuizingaDanny on Twitter.