Today I’m starting a series on high-speed rail. This first post contains my opening thoughts, and some of the background assumptions that inform the rest of what I’m going to write about.
There are many people in the wide world of the media who have taken time to write about the pros and cons, and people have wide-ranging opinions about the viability and the value of any rail system. The arguments for and against tend to boil down like this:
High Speed Rail would be an immense benefit to the economy, transformative in the same way the Interstate Highway system was 60 years ago. The cost may be high, but we’re facing a mobility crisis and we need to act. Adding more freeways just makes the existing traffic problem worse downstream. Go to Europe and see how useful and enjoyable the rail system is, and then tell me that you still don’t want one!
High Speed Rail would cost a fortune and hardly anybody would ride it. Where are they going to put the stations so that they’re actually useful? If I have to drive a long distance and then park at the station and then pay a bunch of money for a ticket and then I arrive in only a few minutes less than what it would have taken me to drive the whole way, why on Earth wouldn’t I just drive the whole way so I can have my car with me when I arrive?
The biggest thing I see missing from the debate is acknowledgements due to both sides.
For the pro-rail folks: realize and address the fact that if the service doesn’t save time or money compared to driving, then ridership will be very low. Also, if the system doesn’t connect to the right destinations, ridership will be low. In other words, it’s not worth building a system at all if we can’t build one that will be useful to people.
For the anti-rail folks: acknowledge that if a new system is built that offers better service, the environment will change in response. People will adapt by moving their homes or offices etc, or by demanding better local transit connections or park-and-ride facilities.
Lastly, on the issue of funding: highways and rail are both highly subsidized. I personally think that neither should be subsidized, but as long as one is they will both have to be. There’s no way that one method of transportation can sustain itself privately in an open marketplace against a subsidized competitor. So, I’ll happily propose an unsubsidized rail system just as long as we convert all freeways and/or long-distance highways to toll roads which collect fares based on their cost of operations, maintenance, and construction, and restrict gas taxes to use for local streets. If that’s not on the table, then we’ll have to consider some ways in which the public sector can support a high-speed rail effort.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time researching high-speed rail. There are dozens of studies that talk about the issue, and a wide range of proposals floating around the world. However, most of these proposals are piecemeal, focused narrowly on a single objective. For instance, some studies focus on redeploying existing freight rail tracks for the cheapest possible regional system. Other studies look at connecting cities across the nation, but don’t discuss how the trains will connect into local transportation systems.
My strong belief is that any high-speed rail proposal should meet the following criteria:
What I don’t see among the many existing proposals on the table are detailed concepts meeting those criteria, so that is what I’m going to attempt to develop. As an added icing-on-the-cake I’m going to try and conduct this as an open dialogue that seeks input from anyone who is interested in providing it. I’ll be writing sequentially, first about big-picture things, and then about little details. When I’m finished with this series my goal is to have developed and justified a reasonable proposal for a new transportation system here in Texas.
I’m looking forward to the series, and the lively discussion I expect will come with it.