High-speed rail: fast-track or slow-down?

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has slammed on the brakes, turning down $2 billion in federal funds for an 84-mile high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando. A lawsuit by a group including several Florida lawmakers failed last week [March 4, 2011], as the Florida Supreme Court ruled  that Gov. Scott’s rejection was legal, and that he was within his rights to turn away the federal funds. In the meantime, the Florida ruling sparked a financial feeding frenzy among other states who would LOVE to have that money and have no problem with the idea of high-speed rail in their territory.

What’s up with that? To contractors who would build it, businesses who would benefit from it,  intercity commuters who would ride on it and  city planners and boosters who would develop around it, high-speed rail sounds like a dream come true.

But apparently, there’s trouble on the line. If you listen to Florida’s Rick Scott, high-speed rail is a risky boondoggle, doomed to failure. Others see high-speed rail as a national necessity and an unstoppable economic engine.  America’s number one high-speed-railroad enthusiast is none other than President Obama. His administration’s 2009 Recovery Act included an $8 billion down-payment toward a 17,000-mile, nationwide high-speed rail network.  Who’s got it right? Here’s a look at some facets of a story that alternates between fast-forward and total derailment:

Positive potential

For a rosy picture of  what, ideally, high-speed trains could mean for the US, look at the extensive list of pluses cited by the US High-Speed Rail Association. [USHSR]. “Faster, more efficient mobility, enormous energy savings, reduced environmental damage – a train system solves many problems,” says USHSR.

According to a 2010 report issued by the US Conference of Mayors,  high-speed rail could be an economic game-changer for cities connected by the 13 corridors envisioned in the nationwide plan:

“The benefits of traveling between 110 and 220 miles per hour will mean better connectivity, shorter travel times and new development around train stations…The changes will create 150,000 new jobs and some $19 billion in new businesses by 2035.”

To see the plan for the proposed high-speed rail network, check out this animated map, courtesy of USHSR.

Lessons from China

The fastest of the [conventional] fast trains are in China. And the whole world is watching to see how China’s mind-bogglingly ambitious, $300 billion move into high-speed rail is progressing.

But the news from China is both good and bad. By 2012, just four years after it began its first high-speed passenger service, China is projected have more high-speed train tracks than the rest of the world combined. It’s pulling ahead in high-speed train production, too, and may soon become the leading exporter of bullet-trains and bullet-train technology.

Recently, though, charges of corruption in the Chinese Rail Ministry have raised concerns about the project. And news reports have focused on safety issues in China’s high-speed rail system. In February, Caixin, a Chinese news service, reported that:

Rapid construction has raised worries among many safety experts. A source working for a foreign company that supplies construction materials for China’s high-speed railways told Caixin that building 300 kilometers of railway usually takes 10 years overseas, but only two years in China. He said tight delivery deadlines were sometimes met with lower quality control measures.

A railway engineer expressed concern over the structural stability of railways lines from land subsidence issues. Foreign builders typically leave a four to five year buffer time for land settlement before construction is completed. But in China, the Ministry of Railways has used elevated bridges to address changes in land elevation.

Another development to watch, as America attempts to catch up in the high-speed train race, is ridership. It turns out that, in China, the notion that “if you build it, they will come,” may not be a slam-dunk. Economist and China specialist Patrick Choavec observes that, while China’s conventional rail system is completely overloaded with passengers and coal, the high-speed system may not be a viable answer:

China’s high-speed rail is “expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even. The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low. Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket — which is doubtful given their limited incomes — they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train. If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network.”

Derailment in Florida

In an NPR interview, Florida’s newly elected Gov. Scott  explained his rationale for turning down federal funds for high-speed rail.  He said,”The …data shows capital cost overruns are pervasive in nine of 10 high-risk, high-speed rail projects, and that two-thirds of those projects inflated revenue projections by an average of 65 percent of actual patronage.”

The federal funds would have paid for 90 percent of the construction costs, but Scott called the expenditure “too risky” for Florida taxpayers.

The Florida project would have been the first in the US. Some speculate that Gov. Scott’s rejection of federal money was an ideological move—paralleled in other states, where conservative lawmakers characterize any money from Washington, and especially from the Obama administration, as tainted. 

But even if, in the short term, Gov. Scott’s decision has financial merit for Florida, rejecting high-speed rail technology for the US in the 21st Century is like saying no to automobiles in the early 20th century or nixing the interstate highway system in the 1950s. When new technologies emerge—advances that can improve quality of life and the nation’s economic health—they’re going to be adopted. So, high-speed rail is probably going to happen—eventually. The only questions seem to be when, where, how much and what we will learn from the journey.