America Wrong Continent for High-Speed Trains

Today the White House released a plan to invest anther $53 billion in High-Speed rail.

The New York Times headlines this “U.S. Plays Catch-Up on High-Speed Rail“, admiring High-Speed trains in China and Europe. Basically, the American Left argues that since Western Europe and China have high-speed rail, and since they believe that Western Europe and China have better economic policy than the United States, we should emulate them and build fast trains.

I often argue that European style policies will not work in America because of demographics and cultural differences. I can understand that not all readers are convinced that Americans are that different from Europeans. However, I hope every reader accepts that the U.S is geographically different from Europe and Asia.

High-Speed train countries Span and France have 3 times higher population density than America. China has 4 times higher, Germany 7 times higher, Japan 10 times higher, South Korea 15 times higher and Taiwan 20 times higher population density than the U.S. Germany is more densely populated than New York state, and China more densely populated than California.

Countries that like America have a lot land compared to people, such as Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and Australia have not made any large scale investments in high-speed trains.

Let me illustrate this graphically. I take the total high-speed miles from The International Union of Railways, and plot the density of the high-speed-rail network with population density.

The United States is not an outlier as the White-House suggests, the U.S is exactly where our population density would predict. Only after President Obama’s plan will the U.S become a outlier, a country with more High-Speed Train that population density would predict (the figure after Obama’s plan is my estimate based on White House material).

High-Speed trains are not only expensive, they are slow when compared to air-travel. Take one of the least crazy high-speed train projects, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The White House estimates are that this trip will take 2 hours 40 minutes. The same trip by commercial flight takes 1 hours 20 minutes. Even if you add an extra one hour for security check, the trip is faster by air (you also have to drive to the airport, but the same is true for trains).

After the first terrorist attack against high-speed trains, the security advantage would diminish. If we really wanted to and had an extra $53 billion over, we could invest in flying faster, in making the security process more effective, or (most sensibly) improving the high-way system.

Another fact Liberals ignore is that air-travel is cheaper in the U.S, costing about half per mile of what it does in Europe (perhaps due to economies of scale and higher competitiveness).

Building High-Speeds trains is likely a “White Elephant”, a massive visible project that gets politicians attention, but is a dead for tax-payers. I hope we are not building it just to fulfill juvenile fantasies of making the U.S more like Europe.

About Tino Sanandaji 39 Articles

Tino Sanandaji is a 29 year old PhD student in Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and the Chief Economist of the free-market think tank Captus.

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7 Comments on America Wrong Continent for High-Speed Trains

  1. This article uses flawed logic. There are areas with high density, and TONS of areas with low density (hence why freight trains go through the midwest). Dense urban areas in the US could use high speed rail effectively. This is absurd and really pushes some kind of agenda.

    Reason for low density: Farmland! The US makes more food than anyone else… we have a lot of rural farmland in the midwest and VERY dense areas on the coasts. Those dense areas would come close to South Korea in density. Also, look where China is located. Over 1 billion people and it ranks low. Why? Farmland, it throws the entire study off.

  2. This article is very misleading. When high speed rail is being discussed, they are referring to the continental United States, so that means Alaska and Hawaii are not included. By not including Alaska, the state with the lowest population density, the numbers this author uses will change drastically. If you’re going to try to prove a point, use numbers that count.

  3. This is a disingenuous article and a complete simplification of the issues.

    America does have a low population density, so does China and Russia, Everything west of Shaanxi and Sichuan in China is near wilderness. Both countries are investing in high speed rail networks. But no one is suggesting high speed lines through Montana and Nebraska or transcontinental lines. The plan is for lines along corridors of high density populations. Like LA-Barstow-San Francisco, Dallas-Austin-Houston, St Louis-Chicago etc. Many of these lines will be a similar distance to European ones and far shorter than Chinese lines (Beijing to Shanghai is still 750miles, Guangzhou to Wuhan-600miles). In fact High speed rail competes with air for <5hrs journeys and at 200mph that can mean 500mile distances.

    As for demand, well the European high speed lines are now changing from discrete lines running internally in each country to a pan European network with long distance trains between capitals. London to Frankfurt (500miles) services is starting soon. Madrid to Barcelona is 390miles and now 2hrs 20mins by train and rail has taken 80% of the travel market. What the writer doesn’t mention is it gives huge passenger capacity compared to airlines and freeways hence it works over shorter distances with more stops (ie Taiwan, Japan, Belgium, Netherlands and UK).

    Are you worried about China creeping up on America economically? Well with that attitude you should be. Technically many of the lines proposed are medium speed (100mph-125mph), high speed is 150mph+ so they are not even up to European and Asian speeds and standards. If America does not invest long term for its future, it will be knocked off the top spot. Do you think in 40 years time you can rely on an economy built around using gasoline inefficiently? The risk of peak oil and the rise of China, India and Brazil mean all the major economies are going to be fighting over the same (and more expensive) resources.

  4. Aside from the numerous grammatical mistakes and misspellings this weak article doesn’t really make a valid point. The post by ‘Neil’ however makes substantial counter points, in comparison.

    I question the political agenda driving [pun] this article as well. Starts with “the American left” used early in the article and then degrades to the juvenile label of “Liberals” near the end.

    Sir, I do not define myself with such simple terms like Conservative, Right-wing, Liberal, Leftist, Independent, ad nauseam. No, I am a complex blend of all these terms, as are millions of other free thinking Americans.

  5. This graph is counting the land in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, and everywhere else that people don’t go to unless it’s for vacation. I’d like to see a graph of the states bordering the Atlantic ocean, I think that would put our dot much farther to the right.

  6. I suppose when JFK said “we’re going to be 1st to land a man on the moon” he inspired not one but several generations of Americans and proved that great words can lead to even greater deeds. He proved that leadership is not just about hooking vision to spirit but more about setting truth into the direction so all who engaged in his vision believed. I don’t suppose for one minute he thought “lets spend $billions so less than 500 people can get to station moon and back – all must have a return ticket”. He was thinking America must be and always be “up front and centre in all we do – if we are to be the global leader”. So I am little baffled why this vision has not followed over into High Speed Rail. It would appear that the US are still looking skyward for a solution which is a bit of a short term vision since we all know that oil is a depreciating global asset. It would be good to have the US exporting proven High Speed rail technology so that Billions of travellers can benefit from the same technical brilliance that took men to the moon…and back. As for Tinos article above…good try.. lets have another NASA this time for trains.

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