Tuesday, February 8, 2011

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 Spain 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).

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

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