I wrote yesterday on U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s trip to Europe to study high-speed rail there, and asserted that Spain’s mission to put ninety percent of the country’s citizens within 50 km of a rail station was a good model for the United States to follow. One commenter argued that the effort was ultimately going to pull the Spanish government far into debt because of the cost inefficiencies of building lines to relatively small cities; the result would be proof to conservatives that high-speed rail isn’t an acceptable use of government funds and therefore shouldn’t be pursued by Washington. I’d like to address those issues here.
The Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen and the Paris-Lyon TGV lines are said to be the only high-speed corridors in the world that have paid off their initial construction debts. They were also the first of their kind and have had decades to make profit on services along their respective corridors, so there is reason to believe that other highly frequented routes, such as Lyon-Marseille, Madrid-Barcelona, and Paris-Brussels, will be equally profitable over time.
But what about those lesser-performing lines? Spain’s investment in new corridors between small cities — such as the 90 km line planned between Ourense and Santiago de Compostela, both with only about 100,000 inhabitants — raises questions about whether the government should be prioritizing projects that affect so few people.
Undoubtedly, it’s true that we need a standardized system in the United States to ensure that the most qualified projects are those that are funded. But I disagree with the idea that the ambitions of a country such as Spain are unrealistic; its goals for rail transport are both universal in reach and achievable in scope. With a population twice that of Texas on a land area 2/3 the size, Spain is small enough and sufficiently dense to mean that connecting every part of the country to the fast rail network is a reasonable goal. That may not be true in the United States, with the huge emptiness of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions constituting an unmanageably large gap, but strong intercity connections on the Eastern and Western seaboards are certainly worth envisioning.
Indeed, the Spanish mission to ensure strong train connections to every part of the country differs very little from that of the U.S. Interstate Highway program, whose links now extend to virtually every metropolitan area — no matter how minor. My simple point is that Americans deserve excellent rail connections just as they have come to expect the same from our road network.
Perhaps, then, one might argue that new rail connections are acceptable just about everywhere, but that high-speed rail is overkill for Springfield, Missouri or Boise, Idaho, for example. I think that this is largely a disagreement about definition. The federal government now defines HSR-Regional as train service operating at speeds of over 110 mph; I think that it would be acceptable for the federal government to guarantee such service to every metropolitan area of more than 100,000 inhabitants. Perhaps a similar goal would guarantee HSR-Express service, at more than 150 mph, to every metropolitan area of more than 500,000 inhabitants.
It is true that many of these lines would take decades, if not centuries, to break even on their initial construction costs. Yet, in terms of gas tax revenues, will the segment of Interstate I-90 constructed across South Dakota ever do so, either? Is it reasonable to affix profit-oriented aims to national infrastructure policy?
Ultimately, national rail construction policy should serve two primary goals: one, to improve mobility between the nation’s most populous urban centers within 600 miles of one another; and two, to connect the entire nation through a more sustainable mode of travel than currently offfered by either automobiles or airplanes. To fulfill the first objective, we must we must invest in expensive new lines for very fast trains in significant corridors like California or the Northeast. These lines are likely to be profitable, and, if managed correctly, would eventually make up their construction costs. To fulfill the second, we have a national incentive to take a loss on infrastructure building to ensure rail traffic to smaller metropolitan areas throughout the country.
The government has finite resources, and it cannot commit to a rail line to every municipality. But to dismiss the goal of a truly national rail network as unprofitable and therefore not acceptable to American conservatives would be succumbing to failure before the game’s even begun. Rather, we need to start with a national goal and move on from there, working in phases to accomplish universal coverage just as Spain has. It may take fifty years to finish, but long-term planning is the best kind of planning.