High-speed Railways: Worth Their Hefty Price Tag?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Passengers exit an Amtrak Acela train from New York Penn Station as it arrives on a platform at South Station train and bus station in Boston, Mass., Aug. 7, 2012.

Imagine riding from Philadelphia to New York in only 37 minutes, or from Boston to Washington, D.C., in just three hours on a cutting-edge, high-speed transportation network linking every major city in the Northeast — essentially, a rail-centric economic “mega-region.”

Those are just some of the promises behind Amtrak’s ambitious new high-speed rail proposal for the Northeast Corridor — the railway stretch between Boston and Washington D.C. Under the plan, the aging, crowded infrastructure of the region’s existing rail system would be replaced by a network on par with the most advanced systems in the world. According to Amtrak, the project — which would be completed by 2040 — would ensure the economic viability of the region for decades to come, cementing its status as one of the most important business districts in the United States.

To many observers, that sounds wonderful in theory. But there’s just one problem: The cost. Amtrak — which for years has drawn criticism for its inability to turn a profit — has admitted that its newest vision would cost a staggering $151 billion, most of which would come from government funding. That’s a massive price to pay at a time when the federal government is struggling to find ways to deliver on such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare.

(MORE: Should Mitt Romney Embrace his Inner Rich-Guy?)

Yet Amtrak executives say that the investment, like investments that have been made in high-speed rail elsewhere in the world, would prove to be well worth it. According to experts at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania, the massive project does in fact hold vast economic potential, and could, over the long haul, help revive local economies, improve employment numbers and generate greater productivity up and down the Corridor, while at the same time alleviating congested roadways and airspace. Those exact same arguments, they note, have been borne out by recent high-speed rail successes in the United Kingdom, and were also used by high-speed rail backers in California to win approval in early July for a multibillion-dollar line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

At the same time, these experts add, there’s no easy way to predict the economic benefits of these projects. That’s because, when it comes to high-speed rail, “economic benefits” are apparently difficult to define — making the sales pitch for any high-speed rail project almost as difficult as building one.

“The benefits [of the Amtrak] project are pretty diverse,” says Robert Yaro, a practice professor in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. “We wouldn’t be the first country to do this, as basically every other major industrialized country is already moving along with improvements of this kind. But yes, the economics are hard to get at. They are fairly long-range and fairly diffuse.”

“It’s tough to convince people that just because you have a positive cost-benefit ratio, a project is worthwhile. Most people have a hard time seeing that,” notes W. Bruce Allen, an emeritus professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton. For example, “if you try to tell [someone] that so-called ‘time benefits’ are worth so much money, they’ll ask you, ‘Well, can I see that? Is that real money?’” Although high speed rails shorten commuter times considerably, such factors as “time saved” and “increased productivity” are not necessarily “real” money to the average citizen, Allen points out — and as a result, not to the politicians holding the purse strings, either.

An ‘Enabler’

But Allen, who has spent years studying rail systems worldwide, says he’s convinced that Amtrak’s proposed high-speed rail project could — like the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line proposal has promised — truly revolutionize the way business is done along the Corridor. He adds, however, that most Americans probably have their doubts, and many politicians have legitimate concerns about the enormous outlay of public funding. Furthermore, well-publicized accidents, such as a 2011 high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, China, have shown that these advanced rail systems are not immune to tragedy.

MORE: Unlimited Data Plans: Are they Coming Back From the Dead?

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
11 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
doctor_umesh
doctor_umesh

Once you think the train is inferior to  plane in timing.  But remember you had poor people , plus the fuel.:its cost and adding the debt on your  pocket. Allow the people to survive if they wish to be poor.  Dont try to make plane running on plain.

davidrsmithdvm
davidrsmithdvm

What is the hurry to go see grandma?  As for business it can be done on the internet even faster.  So the only thing that needs or may benefit from speed is cargo but  that wont be much faster in the short plans envisioned as by the time it gets to the loading area,  on the train, than in the train configuration and so on down the line to New York or or some such and than the reverse unloading,  a truck could do it just as fast. Oh did we forget planes?  Now that is speedy.  

Daniel Eng
Daniel Eng

High speed rail might provide an alternative to air and highway travel, but only for those who can afford the ticket prices, which will likely come at a premium to offset construction costs.  When I spent time in Germany, the high speed ICE trains were outside my budget, so I ended up not using them. Unless ticket prices are also subsidized, I don't think such a network would get much use from working-class individuals and families, students, or indebted graduates. I still support a high speed system, but this is another point I wanted to bring up.

-Daniel, Tufts '12

JohnNFlorida
JohnNFlorida

High speed passenger rail makes sense in certain areas of the country - not everywhere. The Northeast corridor is a prime example. Maybe a California Corridor - San Francisco to San Diego?For the rest of the country, high speed rail makes sense for freight. A train can move a ton at 1/10th the cost of a truck. If that train went from New York to Los Angeles in 10 hours, a not unachievable goal, NO truck could match that for speed or safety.

BUILD the road beds with Federal money. Then let CSX and the rest of the freight companies lease the lines.

You'd see the greatest explosion of the rail roads since the 1800s. You'd see far fewer trucks on our Interstates alleviating the need for 4 - 5 - and 6 lanes in one direction.

This is the High Speed Rail that makes cents for America.

Guest
Guest

..."Furthermore, well-publicized accidents, such as a 2011 high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, China, have shown that these advanced rail systems are not immune to tragedy" ...

This just shows the importance of building a high quality system, and running it properly. Japan's Shinkansen has been around since the 60's and never had a fatality.

Garzhad
Garzhad

Seriously, why not start with baby steps? Start by connecting a handful of cities, or even just two, for a massively reduced cost, and once concrete benefits arise from just that short connection, people will be more willing to connect everything else.

6Cobra
6Cobra

What would they see that can't already be seen from successful high speed rail throughout the world?  The naysayers would simply deny that any of the benefits came into existance at all, and would trot out the usual arguments they always use anyway.  Look at the difficulties expanding the DC Metro into Loudon County, VA if you want to see where your course of action would end up. 

valente347
valente347

It's probably cheaper and has greater immediate rewards to do it all at once. The sooner the rewards appear, the sooner it begins to pay back the cost. 

You wouldn't have a developer build a house in a new suburb, and then wait till it was sold to start building the house next door - the economy of scale and the excitement that comes from the big picture keep the project going.

Theresekwv
Theresekwv

like Clara replied I'm surprised that a mother can profit $6025 in four weeks on the network. did you look this (Click on menu Home)