High-Speed Rail Part 2, 1 and 3: Europe, Japan, Midwest US

High Speed Rail, Part 2, Europe
by Randal O’Toole

Many Americans who visit Europe return gushing over the high-speed rail lines. If only our country had the foresight to build such wonderful trains! It is too bad that America is being left behind the high-speed rail revolution.

Fast, frequent rail service may be a boon to tourists. But it does not play a significant role in overall European travel. Eurostat’s Panorama of Transport says that, as of 2004, rails in the 25-member European Union carried just 5.8% of passenger travel – down from 6.2% in 2000 – while automobiles (including motorcycles) carried 76.0%, up from 75.5% in 2000.

Italy was the first European country to start high-speed train service, with a 160-mile-per-hour train between Rome and Florence in 1978. France’s TGV began service in 1981. Today, high-speed trains run on more than 3,000 miles of track in Europe. France is the leader: its trains carry 54 percent of Europe’s high-speed rail riders, followed by Germany at 26 percent and Italy at 10 percent. Spain, the U.K., and other countries are all below 5 percent.

At the same time, page 106 of the Panorama of Transport says rail carries only 8.6% of passenger travel in France, with 85% going by car. German rails have 7.1% of the market, with 85% by car; Dutch rails are 8.1%, 84% car; U.K. is 5.5% rail, 87% car, and so forth. Even in Eastern Europe, with the exception of Hungary (where rails have 13% of the market), rails carry only 6 to 8 percent of travel. (These numbers don’t count air travel; adding that reduces rail’s shares even further.)

Regulations set by the European Union are supposed to prevent member states from gaining an unfair advantage over other members by subsidizing their transport networks. Yet most of the capital costs of high-speed rail has been covered by government subsidies, sometimes (as in Japan) in the form of “loans” to the state-owned rail companies that will probably never be repaid.

“Rail is heavily subsidized,” says French economist Rémy Prud’Homme. “Users pay about half the total cost of providing the service.” Prud’Homme estimates that European Union nations give at least 68 billion euros in annual subsidies to their rail systems.

Despite the speed of the trains, the extent of the subsidies, and the punitive taxes on driving, high-speed rail has not reduced highway congestion. “Not a single high-speed track built to date has had any perceptible impact on the road traffic carried by parallel motorways,” says Aria Vatanen, a member of the European Parliament.

The introduction of subsidized high-speed rail has caused some airlines to end service paralleling rail routes. Before France opened high-speed rail service between Paris and Marseille in 2001, nearly four times as many people flew this route as took the train. Today, trains carry more than two people for every person flying, and at least one airline has abandoned the route. Airlines have completely abandoned Paris-Brussels service, and at least one airline has left the Paris-London market, since high-speed rail service began between those cities.

Japan’s high-speed trains operate on a different track gauge (the distance between the rails) than its low-speed trains. This means the two networks never interconnect. Europe countries use the same gauge for both of their networks. In major cities like Paris, the two systems are separate. But in the hinterlands, the high-speed trains often operate at conventional speeds on tracks shared with other passenger and freight trains.

For example, TGV trains can be seen throughout France and into several bordering nations. But they only operate at high speeds between Paris and a few other major cities including Marseille, Le Mans, St. Pierre Des Corps, London, and Brussels.

As in Japan, the emphasis on passenger trains has meant a de-emphasis on freight trains. In 2004, rails carried just 16.5% of freight (compared with 37% in the U.S.), while highways carried 72.5 percent (compared with 28.7 percent in the U.S.). As in Japan, rail’s share of European freight is shrinking, while in the U.S. it is growing.

Billions in subsidies, dwindling market share, successful only in putting formerly profitable competitors out of business. These are hardly the hallmarks of a program worth envying or emulating.

High Speed Rail, Part 1, Japan

By Randal O’Toole
posted in Antiplanner. Planning Disasters, Transportation

The presidential nominating conventions are over, so we can now turn back to more serious business, like debating rail transit. As it happens, Californians will get to vote this November on whether to sell $9 billion worth of bonds to start building high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

With a current total estimated cost of $30 billion ($45 billion when branches to Sacramento and San Diego are included) and rising, California high-speed rail is a megaproject of truly disastrous proportions. As one California writer says, it “would make the Big Dig fiasco in Boston look like a small scoop.”

Before looking at the California plan in detail, it is worth examining high-speed rail in other countries. The best place to start is Japan, which introduced high-speed rail to the world in 1964.

Opened in time for the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s first Shinkansen or bullet trains went 130 miles per hour. Today, they go 185 miles per hour over more than 1,500 miles of track. By 2011 the country expects to run some trains as fast as 200 miles per hour.

In 1960, when construction began on the Shinkansen, automobiles accounted for less than 5 percent of Japanese passenger travel, while rails carried 77 percent. But a nation that is rich enough to build high-speed trains is rich enough for its residents to buy and drive autos.

The bullet trains, says one historian, were “criticized by some as a foolish investment on a par with the Great Wall of China (which did not stop the Mongol hordes).” Similarly, the Shinkansen failed to stop the auto hordes from taking over Japan. As the chart above shows, the opening of bullet-train service coincided with a rapid acceleration of auto driving and a slowing of the growth of train travel.

From its creation in 1949, the state-owned Japanese National Railways (JNR) had always earned a profit. But the opening of the Shinkansen sent it into the red. Despite, or because of, expansion of high-speed rail lines, the company continued to lose money. When it raised fares by 50 percent in 1976, many passengers shifted to highway and air travel, and autos carried more passenger kilometers than rails for the first time in around 1977.

Not surprisingly, once one high-speed rail line had been built, politicians in other parts of the country felt their cities deserved such service as well, and they pressured JNR to borrow money to build more lines. By 1987, JNR’s debt exceeded $200 billion. Since it was operating in the red, it seemed unlikely that this debt would ever be repaid.

The government’s solution was to privatize the railways. The massive debt was to be repaid by selling unused railroad land (which never happened, and the debt is still on the government books). Free of debt, the private railroads were able to operate without major fare increases, which may be why ridership grew between 1985 and 1990. Initially, the privatized railway companies owned the low-speed rail lines and leased the high-speed lines. Later, the government “sold” them the high-speed lines with “deferred payments.” While rail operations may earn a profit, expansions of the high-speed rail network since 1987 continue to be heavily subsidized by the national and local governments.


The chart shows that auto travel has declined in the past few years, but it hasn’t been replaced by train travel. Instead, rising gas prices (and a continuing recession) led Japanese to turn to motorcycles and what they call “light motor vehicles.” These are three- or four-wheeled vehicles with engines smaller than two-thirds of a liter. (By comparison, the Smart cars that Daimler is beginning to sell in America have one-liter engines.) The Japanese are clearly not giving up their personal mobility.

While high-speed rail has not successfully competed against the automobile, it can compete with air service — so long as rail construction is subsidized. Airlines don’t have to pay for the air they fly through, while the infrastructure costs of rails are extremely high. While 95 percent of travel between Tokyo and Sapporo (not connected by bullet trains) goes by air, rail carries far more travelers than the airlines on Honshu, where most high-speed rail lines are located. Of course, it might be asked why it is in the public interest to replace unsubsidized air travel with subsidized rail travel.

It is also worth noting that Japanese railways carry only 4 percent of local freight (compared with 37 percent in the U.S.). Highways carry 60 percent of Japanese freight (vs. 29 percent in the U.S.), and the rest goes by coastal waterways. One way of looking at this is that, by focusing efforts on passenger rail service, Japan has effectively doubled the number of trucks on its highways.

The Shinkansen certainly added to Japan’s technological prestige in the 1960s. But they were “successful” only in the sense that they (barely) covered their operating costs. They never came close to covering their capital costs, and they failed to discernibly slow the growth of auto travel.

Japan’s population is nearly three-and-one-half times as great as California’s in a slightly smaller land area. The island of Honshu, where most of the high-speed trains run, has a population density nearly five times greater than California’s. Japanese cities are also served by much better mass transit systems — essential for people who want to travel without autos — than California’s. Despite these advantages, high-speed rail did not succeed in Japan.

High-Speed Rail Part 3: The Midwest Rail Initiative

By Randal O’Toole
posted in: Antiplanner, Planning Disasters, Transportation

In 1935, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad — known as the Milwaukee Road for short — began operating steam-powered passenger trains at speeds up to 110 miles per hour between Chicago and Minneapolis. Passengers at that time had their choice of three railroads — the Milwaukee, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Chicago & Northwestern — each of which had at least two trains a day that took 6-1/2 hours between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Today’s Amtrak trains require eight hours for the same journey. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative — a consortium of nine state departments of transportation — proposes to reduce this to 5-1/2 hours and to similarly speed service from Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other midwestern cities.

In 1991, Congress directed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to identify five potential high-speed rail corridors in the U.S. In 1998, Congress expanded this to up to eleven routes. The FRA has complied, though in some cases the term “corridors” is rather loosely applied.

Altogether, the FRA envisioned more than 9,000 miles of high-speed rail. In most cases, however, trains would have a top speed of just 110 miles per hour. This is more than any train in the U.S. outside the Boston-Washington corridor. Amtrak trains from Chicago to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Diego go up to 90 miles per hour, but otherwise no U.S. passenger trains more than 79 miles per hour.

Still, to high-speed rail aficionados who know about the Milwaukee Hiawathas, 110-mph is just a conventional speed; true high-speed rail goes more than 125 miles per hour. However, conventional speeds have one major advantage: While a true high-speed rail system requires construction of completely new infrastructure, FRA’s plans can incrementally improve existing rail lines.

The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative follows FRA’s incremental approach. No doubt for political reasons, the MRRI expanded the FRA’s five-spoke system into an eleven-spoke system, seven of which would allow 110-mile-per-hour trains. Where the FRA system included 2,300 miles of track in the Midwest, the MRRI system boosts this to 3,150.

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