Red Train, Blue Train

Yesterday, Megan McArdle tweeted:

Okay, I like trains and all, but the bemoaning of America’s lack of high-speed rail seems out of proportion to any possible benefits.

Of course, many folks who support new investments in high-speed rail would no doubt say that the number of angry denouncements of rail programs seem out of all proportion to the policy choices actually on the table. Why such disproportionate discussion of the topic?

I’d attribute part of the commentary to a real technocratic frustration with the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure, the sorry state of America’s transportation planning and funding mechanisms, and the sorry state of the Congress that should be trying to fix the problems. But the bulk of the passion can probably be chalked up to the fact that high-speed rail has become a culture war issue. And that’s unfortunate. It also feeds back into the frustration among technocrats, who see the debate over HSR as providing another telling example of an important issue, the merits of which are wholly obscured by identity politics.

It’s a very frustrating debate. But let me just lay out of few quick thoughts on where I think a lot of the criticism of high-speed rail investments goes wrong.

One problem is the extent to which critics overstate how much true high-speed rail is actually on the table. It’s easy to get the sense reading op-ed critiques of HSR programmes that what’s actually in the works is construction of a truly nationwide true HSR system. In fact, much of the money allocated to “HSR” projects is actually being spent bringing woeful lines along major transportation corridors up to speeds competitive with driving. These are important investments that don’t fall into the “shiny, fantastically expensive, European” set of typical criticisms.

I’m also bothered by the fact that most basic analyses showing relatively poor returns for HSR construction tend to make unrealistic assumptions. They tend to take existing transportation subsidies as given and compare HSR to a no-build alternative that isn’t actually an alternative. America is forecast to grow by over 100 million people in the next few decades. New infrastructure will be built.

But among the most annoying things about the discussion is the extent to which HSR is held to an entirely different standard than other investments.

Consider. What should America’s top transportation investment priority be at this stage? I don’t think it’s controversial to say that first on the list should be spending to bring existing infrastructure into good repair. But current spending is insufficient to maintain current levels of service, to say nothing of improvements up to acceptable standards, and current revenues are insufficient to fund current spending absent broad transfers from general funds at the local, state, and federal level. Now, if we are interested in economic efficiency, then we should want the beneficiaries of transportation investments to pay for the benefits they receive. And that means that revenue should be raised from increases in user fees. To raise enough revenue to cover necessary spending, gas taxes would need to rise at least 20 to 40 cents, and perhaps more.  In much of the country, that moves the retail gas price to near $3.50.

Beyond paying for maintenance, we would want to ensure that existing roads and rails were being used efficiently before deciding to build more. And those caring about economic efficiency would insist that this be accomplished through road pricing. The added driving cost from congestion pricing would probably swamp that from increased fuel costs. I don’t know exactly what it would cost to drive from Washington to New York under a system that would keep that route congestion free 90% of the time, but I suspect it would be between $50 and $100, and potentially more (especially if one’s drive involved a trip into Manhattan). Costs would be significant in lots of places outside the Northeast Corridor. It wouldn’t be cheap to keep I-85/I-40 between Raleigh and Charlotte free of traffic 90% of the time.

Obviously, one would want to improve pricing on transit, as well. But this would be far easier in a system in which drivers pay an appropriate amount (this is the high-revenue equilibrium versus the low-revenue equilibrium). But on the NEC, Amtrak already runs a healthy operating profit. What do we think would happen in a world — demanded by those who take economic efficiency seriously — in which drivers pay significantly more to travel from one end of the corridor to the other? Run the models on that, and the calculus in favor of HSR looks quite compelling. What’s more, it would look compelling on other major corridors, including places like California. Certainly, American-style 90-mph average speed HSR would seem a no-brainer along many routes — like that between Charlotte and Washington.

That’s what concern for economic efficiency implies — more expensive driving that makes demand for rail stronger. Perhaps we shouldn’t take economic efficiency seriously. In that case, rail supporters should feel free to say, fuck it, let’s build HSR whatever the numbers say. Or perhaps critics would say that they’re interested in economic efficiency, subject to what the political system can deliver. That’s not an unreasonable argument, but it certainly justifies all the angry columns about HSR and political dysfunction that the technocrats can muster.

But unreasonable or no, I don’t think it’s the right argument. The smart critics with whom I’ve debated tend to argue something along the lines of this: in a world in which current transportation planning and pricing weren’t bollixed up, HSR would make more sense, but given that they are, it doesn’t. With heavy auto subsidies, HSR becomes a boondoggle rather than a savvy investment, and so bollixed is better than bollixed plus HSR. But that’s not actually the choice we face. Amid heavy congestion and with the pressure of 100 million more Americans bearing down on governments, new construction will take place. And so the decision is between bollixed plus HSR and bollixed plus new highways. And on almost every measure, bollixed plus highways is the worse of the two options.

So why are there so many angry op-eds fuming about America’s inability to build HSR? Probably because current institutions and politics seem destined to fund the worst of all available transportation alternatives. We should be surprised that there’s so little outrage over this failure.


  1. Dan says:

    Reading about the struggles of setting more accurate prices on driving and parking reminds me an awful lot of efforts by governments to wean populations off of subsidies for another necessities: bread, oil, etc. Naturally, populations rebel. It takes quite a leap of faith to say that you’re going to pay a necessity without assurance that a proper market will rise up with alternatives.

    Are there any lessons from successful transitions to more accurate pricing in other parts of the world?

  2. Louis says:

    High-speed rail supporters could support their case by calling for the dismantling of Amtrak, and replace it with regional train service in major corridors. A NEC rail operator would be profitable, and be seen as a model for rail service to the rest of the country. HSR supporters need to think of regional funding structures that will allow people living in a region to make their own decisions about how best to spend transit dollars.

  3. jarrod myrick says:

    how much hsr foreign investment is estimated to be out there?

  4. CTM says:

    I’m not seeing the value in HSR for commuter traffic, which I’d wager is 90% of congestion. How can rail infrastructure be grafted over such vast swaths of cul-de-sac housing developments as exist in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, or even Little Rock? And how will rail travel help soccer moms in Maumelle, Arkansas get across the river to the shopping hubs in West Little Rock and back more easily than driving? Especially when they will be laden with groceries and other goods? Trunk rail lines are one thing, but it’s the smaller arterials into the bedroom suburbs that I’m not seeing. Is a revolution in infrastructure of this scale even possible at this point?

  5. cw says:

    I live in Madison WI. Recently the newly elected rep. gov. rejected the feds’ money for medium speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. I have been pro HSR in the past but supported the govs decision. There just wouldn’t be enough people riding it to bring the benefits anywhere near to the costs, even when you consider that it would have been part of a line between Chicago and Minniappolis. Not enough people would ride it because, basically, there was not enough potential riders (between Madison/Miwaukee/Chicago at least), becasue it didn’t even go as fast as a car, because congestion was not bad enough on the roads (although chicago is getting there), and because there was not a useful intercity pulic transport system in madison, milwaukee, or miniappolis.

    So what this says to me is that there are places a certain threshold is passed where HSR makes sense, a threshold of consisting of potential riders/speed/congestion/intercity transport system. We should focus on those areas that have pssed this threshold first, watching as other areas approach the threshold. That way we don’t waste money on non-viable routes, money which can be used to make viable routes more viable: i.e. faster and more extensive.

    The other thing we should be doing is thinking further ahead technologically. Things like dirigibles for freight and automated highways might make more sense than HSR in the future in a country as large as ours. Some form of automated rental car combined with commuter rail might make more sense in some cites. Spending money on non-viable HSR would also take money away from research and experiments with future technologies.

  6. MarcV says:

    I echo CTM. When I lived in a Boston suburb, driving to a commuter lot then taking the “T” into Boston made economic sense. But when I worked on the 128 beltway, there simply is no viable alternative to driving.

    Now in south Florida, we have the Tri-Rail that goes N/S along I-95. But when you live and work out of walking distance to it, it makes no sense. Let’s face it, if you live and work in a city you can walk or take a subway. But if you live in a suburb and/or work in an office park in another part of town, the convenience of driving a car is not going away. I mean, who wants to take one train ride and 2 bus/cab rides at both ends of a home/work commute?

    NEC works great for busy white collar professionals and politicians due to the relative closeness of those cities. But let’s face it, we are not Europe and the vast expanse of most of the country and our home/work locations is never going make HSR more viable to driving.

  7. Louis says:

    @CTM The answer for the suburbs is fifteen-passenger vans that operate on semi-fixed routes that connect to high-density mixed-use developments near train stations.. With GPS and cell phones, getting a ride somewhere will be as easy as opening an iPhone app, locating the nearest van, and telling that van to pick you up. The vans would operate privately, although there may be direct/indirect subsidies.

  8. wetsteint says:

    It’s funny that Avent can mention that there will be 100 million more people in this country in the next couple decades, and not make a value judgement about that fact.

    Is it desirable to have another 100 million people on this finite piece of land, with finite resources? If so, why? If not, what can we do about it.

    (But then, I’m not a pwoggie.)

  9. CTM says:

    @Louis That’s a lot of vans for the north Dallas rush hour. I foresee a congestion of vans in Denton. :)

  10. alkali says:

    It’s ridiculous to think that we can just move to a completely different kind of transportation infrastructure. The fact is that people in this country have always ridden horses to get where they need to go, and that’s not going to change.

  11. llama says:

    Louis, I doubt very much a HSR operator in the NEC would profitable unless the gov’t subsidized the infrastructure. What would dismantling Amtrak achieve? The Acela is essentially HSR, although it’s very slow compared to other countries’ HSR. Regional areas do not spend federal transit dollars. Never have, and doesn’t look like it for the future. So I have no idea what you want here. A new form of regional government? Multi-state owned corporations a la Port Authority of New York and New Jersey?

    CTM, we need to accompany any commuter transit lines with changes in zoning code. I grew up in northern NJ where half the breadwinners take commuter rail to NYC. There’s an old-fashioned main street, with higher density (2 and 3 story) buildings. Such development is impossible in many places due to parking minimums and a host of other zoning requirements. Ryan makes compares medium/long distance travel possibilities, which on highways will always include non-long distance travelers (e.g. commuters). That seems counter-intuitive, but this highlights a benefit of HSR, i.e. a dedicated medium/long distance travel alternative to flying or driving.

  12. Tommy D says:

    CW, I live in California where the inter-city freeways, built for 25 million people plus commerce, now serve 37 million on the way to fifty. No surprise the system is full. Overflowing. Conventional inter-city trains — Bay to Sac, Central Valley, San Diego-LA — are already thriving and what passes for high speed rail is promised for Bay-LA-San Diego. You gotta plan ahead. The roads are choking up.

  13. beejeez says:

    You’re on the right track, Ryan. Ha.

    I think what’s needed on this is an overall HSR strategy. Right now, it’s a maze of pork-barrel conflicts, land-use red tape, and extremely poor public understanding. There needs to be a HSR czar whose job is to build a framework that grows logically according to a formula that takes into account population trends, highway construction costs, commuting times, realistic construction, service and speed improvement timetables, local transportation hub capabilities, urban vs. rural needs, pricing and probably about 10 other factors I can’t think of off the top of my head. Establish this formula, and businesses and the general public can have confidence in the logic of federal subsidies and support. Cities, states and especially businesses would be able to do long-range planning based on predictable federal investment triggers. I also think the government should be open to leasing rail routes via competitive bidding for private-sector administration.

  14. Xofis says:

    >Is it desirable to have another 100 million people

    Or, as India calls it, ‘Wednesday’ :)

  15. cw says:

    tommy d,

    “I live in California where the inter-city freeways, built for 25 million people plus commerce, now serve 37 million on the way to fifty.”

    This is what I’m saying. That kind of congestion is one of the requirements for viable HSR. We are nowhere near that in the upper midwest and may never be. You plan ahead by watching as condition approach viability and spend your money there. There’s plenty of places where HSR makes sense now or in the next decade. The upper midwest is not one of them.

  16. dws says:

    To CW — I am also from Madison but now live on the East Coast.

    First, the train was going to travel at about 110 mph – I hope you don’t drive that fast. Second, I suggest you read Richard Longworth’s excellent new book, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.

    His point is that the upper midwest suffers from a very bad case of cultural and intellectual isolationism between states and between the region and the rest of the world, and argues that it is crucial for the health of the region to break out of this mindset and find ways to do things like retain the graduates of the excellent universities there (many students, even those from the midwest, graduate and then, primarily due to the lack of opportunity but also because of the downside of midwestern culture, leave for one coast or the other, taking all their talent, skills, and education with them), attract immigrants, and consciously reorient toward the global world.

    For Wisconsin, which has had a detailed rail plan for 15 years (started by Republican governor Tommy Thompson – it’s excellence of which was the reason why Wisconsin was awarded more money than any other individual state) to give back the $800 million to begin the Chicago-Milw-Madison-Minneapolis corridor as gov-elect Walker just did is an enormous mistake and shows a gross, misguided ignorance about what Wisconsin needs.

    We need to plan NOW for 20 years in the future. By not having rail, we are helping to ensure that the region stays isolated and backward in its approach to the modern world. (Note that by giving back the money, Wisconsin is now preventing the Twin Cities and Chicago from connecting to each other as well, unless they go through Iowa which I am sure Iowa would be delighted to do. Minnesota and Illinois both want the train.)

    I do think that it would take a few years for Wisconsinites outside the most populated areas to get used to the idea of taking the train. (On the other hand, informational meetings about the train all over the state were packed with supporters, and the Milwaukee Journal did a poll that showed 64% of respondents supported the train.) More public transport is indeed crucial locally in Madison and Milwaukee if this was going to work really well – it won’t help if people get dropped off downtown but then have to get to their jobs out on the west side.

    However, once people figure out all the big and small details about what it’s like to have rail as part of your transportation system — like that the train can often run during snowstorms when everything else is halted; that it’s actually very pleasant and sociable to take the train and is far better than flying; that Amtrak has a pretty decent frequent-travel miles program; that the train does make stops outside the major metro areas; and that you could go from Minneapolis to Chicago in 4-5 hours (or just not have to drive to work anymore) the climate will change.

    Anti-train people in Wisconsin constantly say: Who would ride this thing? They say that because they have never lived anywhere with good rail service – they truly, and I mean no disrespect, don’t know what they are talking about. They also have no idea how much it costs to build and maintain highways or how much this cost is subsidized by taxpayers, and that the train’s cost is really not bad at all in comparison.

    In 20 years, around 20% of Wisconsin’s population will be elderly, just like everyplace else. Do you want the highways filled with 80-year-old Baby Boomers? (Note that Wisconsin also has the highest rate of drunk driving in the country.) In 20 years gas could be $10/gallon or more. Do you want Wisconsin to be the only state where traveling by car is the only way to get anywhere?

    You have to start SOMEWHERE, and building a good rail system takes time. Beginning and ending a judgment of the appropriateness of HSR in Wisconsin with only a survey of late 2010’s population, gas prices, and economic climate is pretty short-sighted. Look at the train project maps — the rest of the Midwest is going to be connected. Now Wisconsin isn’t. That is something I think many, many people are really going to regret.

    My only hope is that when the train seems even MORE like a no-brainer (which it will in 5 years) there will be both such overwhelming support for the train and availability of better technology that Wisconsin will get real HSR that will travel 200+ mph — a better system than what is proposed now. I think you might start seeing many people move back to the midwest then, along with more high-tech business, entertainment companies, and educated immigrants — ALL of which Wisconsin and the rest of the midwest need to prosper.

  17. cw says:

    “First, the train was going to travel at about 110 mph”

    THe train in 2016 would go 110 for stretches. The average speed at the top was 79 mph. The average speed from madison to milwaukee until the upgrade was way less.

    “(many students, even those from the midwest, graduate and then, primarily due to the lack of opportunity but also because of the downside of midwestern culture, leave for one coast or the other, taking all their talent, skills, and education with them),”

    Do you really think they would stay becasue of medium fast trains? And midwest culture is fine. Madison Chicago Minniappolis all have jsut about everything the coasts do (Plus lots of snow and freezing temperatures).People left the midwest becasue the economy was based on manufacturing and that moved to cheaper pastures.

    ” …the Milwaukee Journal did a poll that showed 64% of respondents supported the train.”

    A much better study showed that 35% supprted the train.

    “Anti-train people in Wisconsin constantly say: Who would ride this thing?”

    This is the main problem. Even if the train was superfast and there was great local transport systems at the ends, there are not enough potential riders to make the benefits of the train worth the costs. It’s simple matter of population. Madison has 200K people. Milwaukee has 900K. Minn/StPaul has 3 mill. Of course Chicagoland is huge, but HSR is only really viable between large population centers within 200 miles.

    You might say Chi to Minn makes sense, but that is 6 hours by car and 1 hour by plane. Once you leave leave chicago the roads are not congested. A train going through milwaukee and madison with a top speed of 110 MPH would take at least 5 hours to get to Min. and cost as much as the plane. At 2-3 billion for the tracks between Chi to Min, the benefits would not come close to matching the cost.

  18. jim says:

    HSR is only really viable between large population centers within 200 miles

    Pity nobody told SNCF before they built the line between Paris and Lyon (about 265 miles). They’d have been spared committing the massive mistake that was TGV.

    Where does such a statement come from? Said, apparently, with a straight face.

  19. cw says:

    I’m not sure that a 65 mile difference is enough to support such intense sarcasm. You risk sounding like the comics guy on the Simpsons.

  20. Mixner says:

    For driving, user fees already cover almost all spending. Auto subsidies are trivial both as a share of the total costs of driving and in comparison to the subsidies provided to mass transit and intercity rail. For transit and rail users to even come close to covering the cost of their rides, user fees (ticket prices) would have to be doubled, tripled, or more.

    No one has ever made a convincing case that the benefits of HSR in the United States would exceed its huge costs. Claims to the contrary rest on absurdly optimistic estimates of cost and ridership. Which is why HSR is never likely to become a significant component of our transportation system.

  21. jim says:

    I note that cw at 8PM didn’t tell us where such statements come from.

  22. Louis says:

    15-passenger vans could solve the “last mile” problem for transit, so people can quickly get from their house to the four-lane highway intersection or the train stop. We could also sharply reduce traffic jams through congestion pricing (instead of tuning in on the radio to hear about traffic, you could find out how much the tolls are at the moment).

    As for dismantling Amtrak, the NEC routes are already profitable and would still be eligible for federal money. I do think a regionally funded Port Authority like structure would be best, as the rural bias of the U.S. Senate makes it impossible to get much done there. HSR funding is moving in that direction, as no one is proposing national HSR service.

    As for the Midwest, I think commanders underestimate how much productivity is lost by driving. And, once you reduce commuting times to an hour (like the proposed Milwaukee to Chicago route) you will attract development in the place with a lower cost of living.

  23. Mixner says:

    How would 15-passenger vans solve the “last mile” problem for transit? You’d have to wait for the van, then wait again for the train. And wait yet again if your trip involved a connection. And how would transit agencies already strapped for cash pay for them? Demand response (van service) is by far the most costly form of transit.

    I’d like to see your evidence that Amtrak’s NEC routes are profitable. Some of them might make an operating profit, but that’s like saying your airline is profitable…as long as you don’t count the cost of actually buying the planes.

  24. Louis says:

    While there would be some wait for the van, ideally the routes would be short enough for frequent service. If you wanted to drive you could, but the cost (say $5-$10 in tolls for a commute, plus gas) will move people to mass transit. And, I see these vans as being operated by private entities, much like taxis, except with the economies of scale produced by larger vehicles. This won’t be the solution for everyone, but when gas goes up to $5/gallon many people will prefer mass transit to save money and time.

    I don’t have the stats on Amtrak handy, but operating profits matter, as there are other benefits to fixed cost investments (like buying trains).

    I see traffic jams as a major sap on productivity in this country. By tolling roads, and developing private transportation alternatives for people who don’t want to pay $10-$20 for a congestion-free commute we would reduce carbon emissions, increase productivity, and encourage people to live in communities with greater population density.

  25. jim says:

    The Acela service (the closest thing to HSR currently existing in the US) is, in fact, profitable after accounting for depreciation. Conventional train service on the NEC is not. One would think that Amtrak would seek to expand the profitable service and contract the unprofitable, but it has developed a culture of reliance on subsidies partly because Congressmen care about the long distance routes that run through their districts but which lose vast sums. One of the arguments for breaking Amtrak up is to break (or at least isolate) its subsidy-seeking culture.

  26. For a vehicle in air, the power required varies as the cube of the velocity: what this means is that it generally requires 8 times the power to go at twice the speed.
    Thus a train which goes 144mph needs three times as much power as one going 100mph. How green is that? Would you pay 3 times the cost to arrive 40% faster?

  27. Wad says:


    You asked “How would 15-passenger vans solve the “last mile” problem for transit?”

    SuperShuttle found the answer.

  28. Wad says:

    Louis, several cities already have these van services you describe, primarily used for airport services.

    One global brand is SuperShuttle, now owned by French conglomerate Veolia. Generally, though, these tend to be regional companies.

    What would need to be done is for local regulatory boards to allow open access to train stations for these vans. Presently, these vans can only pick up passengers to and from airport or cruise ship terminals. Some are allowed to charter their vans. They are not permitted to go anywhere else, otherwise they’d have to be locally regulated as taxicab services.

    The key difference between a van and a taxi is that a van will generally charge a fixed rate between the terminal and the origin/destination zip code. (Taxis use meters that charge by distance and idle time, making the fare variable.)

    One other advantage is that frequent users of these vans, namely business travelers, can set up accounts and call ahead for service and bill the usage to their tab.

    For office parks and suburban job centers, large employers or office park property managers will provide a private minibus connection to the station.

    As an example in Southern California, Burbank and Irvine are two suburban cities with substantial employment centers. These stations see two-way peak commuter traffic; there are both residents leaving for jobs and workers coming in during the morning. Private buses are provided for the latter in the absence or poor alternative of a public transit service.

    Much of the infrastructure and know-how already exists in the real world. We don’t need hypotheses.

  29. Wad says:

    Ryan wrote:

    I’m also bothered by the fact that most basic analyses showing relatively poor returns for HSR construction tend to make unrealistic assumptions.

    There are also fallacious arguments used particularly when it comes to potential passenger estimation.

    Critics tend to base passenger predictions on “catch area of a subway station to make airplane trips”. In other words, if the numbers sound woefully low, it’s because there’s an assumption that high-speed rail will have an attraction area that’s more or less the same as a subway station, (about a half mile) and that people are making end-to-end trips (500 miles).

    Overbuilding and underserving are big project risks. But so is underbuilding and overserving.

    Political compromise would likely lead to the latter. Critics will balk at the cost-benefit report, but supporters want to get some service, any service out there, and they’ll refine their numbers for more conservative scenarios.

    Opening day comes and they find out over time that the demand has exceeded these expectations. The catch area turns out to be much bigger, and station pairs show surges in demand where they were not expected.

    Adding supply takes far too long as equipment takes years to build and staff training and pay need to be budgeted for years ahead.

    Managing demand through pricing is even trickier, as anticipating rider elasticity is tricky. Price increases can cross the elasticity curve and chase away too many riders.

  30. Morgan Warstler says:

    The correct strategy is this:

    Horse trade with conservatives – no corporate taxes for a $1-1.50 gas and diesel tax.

    This pushes far more of the electorate into the “needs public transportation” column.

    You need to price personal transportation high enough in the face of current subsidy politics, and it will not happen unless you are ready to make a far more aggressive trade.

    Until then HSR supporters are simply people asking more taxes, and most of America is not going to support it.

    Let the current situation change (horse trade), until suddenly most families are 1-car families mentally, until people have moved closer to city to save money, and maybe in 20 years you’ll get more tax revenue.

    Until then, American’s are suburban car drivers and since they have to have a car, your proposals are worthless big City Blue State ideas.

    The question is: how badly do you want it?

  31. Wad says:

    @MarcV wrote:

    But let’s face it, we are not Europe and the vast expanse of most of the country and our home/work locations is never going make HSR more viable to driving.

    So, anything less than achieving the impossible is considered failure?

    An HSR trip must be a zero-sum game, in that one mile of train travel must come at the expense of one mile of car travel, with the goal of 100 percent HSR mode share and 0 percent auto share?

    That’s what I am getting here.

    That’s not why I quoted your comment. The vast expanse of the U.S. as a land mass is the wrong measurement. We’re building an HSR system for people transportation, so it makes the job easier. Just find where a lot of people happen to live close together. In other words, large populations.

    Fortunately, population centers are arranged in a way in which they can travel in a line. Look at a train line like a string of pearls.

    I’ve put together a Google Map of two city regions that would well serve as a central hub for several lines. One just happens to be Washington, D.C.

    Although New York is the largest MSA and CMSA in the Northeast, Washington D.C. actually serves as a better hub. For one thing, New York City would be extremely constrained HSR-wise by locating its terminal on Manhattan Island. Forget about serving the airports.

    D.C. also has the advantage of being a better hub for a national rail grid. D.C. can get farther south into the South and west into the Midwest.

    I’ve also collected population data on MSAs and CMSAs within a 500 mile radius of Washington D.C.

    There are about two dozen MSAs and CMSAs within 500 miles of Washington D.C.

    The largest CMSA south is Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson, S.C., with slightly more than 1 million.

    Along the way are Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and Richmond, Va. There’s also the Piedmont Triad cities anchored by Greensboro, but its location would mean a slower ride.

    The farthest western big city from D.C. is Indianapolis. There’s a straight line connecting Dayton (CMSA of 1 million but declining), Columbus and Pittsburgh. The challenge is finding how to connect Pittsburgh to DC.

    The Northeast Corridor is already spoken for, of course.

    It’s an incomplete map, as I haven’t yet added the metropolitan areas of 500K to 1 million yet. These mid-to-large metros could also sustain an HSR station.

    Just calculating the populations of metro areas >1 million, you have a population of roughly 72 million within 500 miles of D.C. That’s close to 25 percent of the American population.

    I’m doing similar maps for other hubs that also have strong populations and many possibilities for lines: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle or Portland and Los Angeles.

    Continued …

  32. Wad says:

    … Continued from above.

    Establishing these six hubs — with service radiating 500 miles, the optimal maximum distance for a single high-speed rail line — you get both a national network and cover an overwhelming majority of where America lives and works (easily 80 percent or more will have access to HSR service).

    It doesn’t mean geographic equity, though. Because populations aren’t spread out equally, at least a third of America geographically wouldn’t live in an area that has the population to support HSR.

    The mountain time zone is SOL. For one, the terrain makes any project more expensive. The other problem is that there are just two MSAs with >1 million populations: Salt Lake City and Denver. Denver is larger, but it’s lousy because of its remoteness. The only other major >1 million metro is Salt Lake City.

    Kansas City is the closest major metro to the east, but it’s too far.

    Salt Lake City has only two connections: Denver and Las Vegas. Geographically, though, it can reach into two other mid-size metros, albeit at a high price: Boise and Reno. The former would offer a connection to a Pacific Northwest train, and the latter could offer a connection to either Sacramento or a high-speed version of the Capitol Corridor train (3rd busiest rail corridor in the nation). Basically, Reno would be a gateway to the California system.

    The pickings are even more slim north of Denver and Salt Lake City. There is no major metropolitan area between Minneapolis and Seattle. That’s a gap of more than 1,600 miles. There’s nothing that could be done here unless the cities along I-94 magically sprout major metropolitan populations.

    I shouldn’t have to explain why Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico or U.S. island territories will not get HSR.

    The biggest area that can support HSR but wouldn’t get it under this scenario is Southeast Florida. An Atlanta hub can reach Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa Bay, but not anything farther south. Florida would need to build a Miami-Orlando spur or an Atlantic Coast line.

  33. Another reason we’re going to need HSR is that air travel is destined to get a lot more expensive as supplies of petroleum fail to grow.

    As that happens, we can either (a) pay a lot more money for air travel, (b) drive instead (and also pay a lot more), (c) travel a good deal less, or (d) have a HSR network that is a good substitute for air travel over intermediate distances.

    It would seem that one choice is clearly superior to the others. Just sayin’.

  34. zilfondel says:

    According to wikipedia, the city of Lyon has a population of only 480k, metro of 1.4 million. Hardly a huge urban area.

  35. HMason says:

    CW, “I’m not sure that a 65 mile difference is enough to support such intense sarcasm…”

    65 miles is quite considerable. When compared to driving distance, that’s an hour, one way…
    However, more importantly, (also according to Wikipedia…), in 2001, some twenty-two years after the opening of the Paris-Lyon LGV (high speed rail line), SNCF completed the 156 mile, LGV Méditerrée, which completed the high speed connection between Paris and Marseilles (470+ miles). This shortened the trip time between France’s two largest cities from more than five hours to three hours flat…
    Now more than two-thirds of all travel between Paris and Marseilles is done by TGV. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible if France had not decided to build the original Paris-Lyon leg.
    That’s exactly where Wisconsin has failed. Wisconsin has failed to see the picture as anything beyond Milwaukee to Madison; when in reality, picture should be in the context of an eventual connection between Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and Chicago-land, as well as points beyond in both directions.
    Taking a quick look into the history of the development of I-94, the route that currently provides the vital link between all of the cities listed above, I find that it was started in North Dakota in 1958, as a twelve-mile segment between Jamestown and Valley City.
    Just imagine if the planning for I-94 had been confined to those two cities, and arguments such as those that have just prevailed in Wisconsin had prevailed back when the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was being debated…
    I can now see the Chicago to Minneapolis-Saint Paul HSR link making its stop in Dubuque, Iowa… (my touch of sarcasm…)

  36. Steven says:

    @Mixner: “For driving, user fees already cover almost all spending.”

    So, gas taxes cover the cost of building and maintaining city and county streets. I’d like to see links to your sources proving that user fees cover all automotive-related spending.

  37. sturgis says:

    Why exactly are we engagin gMs. McArdle on high-speed rail, urban planning or economic policy in general? It’s a legitimate question. I just spent a few minutes reviewing some of Ms. McCardle’s tweets, many of which are remarkably flip or shallow, &/or glaringly ill-informed and plainly not accurate. Standout examples include the HSR and the politics and economics of the Wisconsin demos, unions and electoral dynamics.

    yah, not eager to be harsh or anything, but they seem to be openly and even willfully useless. Here, she’s bemoaning the bemoaning about lack of HSR, but without any consciousness of the actual economic and human benefits.

    It is such an open display of callousness and an ignorance that makes me wonder why she’s part of the conversation at all. And the reckless disregard for the impact of her words is impossible to miss, and duly noted.