The True Cost Of High Speed Rail For The U.S. Is More Than $500 Billion

Barack Obama’s vision of a national high speed railway is going to cost over half a trillion dollars, according to an estimate by Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

This is probably supposed to be a shocking number, but with the value of money losing all its meaning lately–a $750 billion TARP bill here, an $800 billion stimulus bill there–this really doesn’t seem all that bad. Money well spent, we think, trains are pretty awesome.

Not that the big number really matters since Obama’s not talking about high speed trains. His plan is to improve the medium speed trains, which O’Toole says doesn’t really benefit the environment all that much:

According to the Department of Energy, the average Amtrak train uses about 2,700 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy per passenger mile. This is a little better than cars (about 3,400 BTUs per passenger mile) or aeroplanes (about 3,300 BTUs per passenger mile). But auto and airline fuel efficiencies are improving by 2 per cent to 3 per cent per year (for example, a Toyota Prius uses less than 1,700 BTUs per passenger mile).

By contrast, Amtrak’s fuel efficiency has increased by just one-tenth of 1 per cent per year in the past 10 years.

This means, over the lifetime of an investment in moderate-speed trains, the trains won’t save any energy at all. In fact, to achieve higher speeds, moderate-speed trains will require even more energy than conventional trains and probably much more than the average car or aeroplane 10 or 20 years from now.

California wants to build a true high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, capable of top speeds of 220 miles per hour and average speeds of 140 miles per hour. The environmental analysis report for the California high-speed rail projects costs of $33 billion for 400 miles, while the Midwest Rail Initiative projects costs of $7.7 billion for 3,150 miles of moderate-speed rail. That’s $82 million per mile for true high-speed rail (partly because the California project goes through some mountains) and only $2.4 million for moderate-speed rail. All else being equal, high-speed rail will cost 10 to 12 times more than moderate-speed rail. A true, national high-speed rail network would cost more than half a trillion dollars.

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