Note: I accidentally posted an incomplete (and incorrect) version of this post yesterday and subsequently deleted it; it may have shown up on RSS readers, and I apologize for any confusion.
Edward Glaeser “ran the numbers” on high-speed rail in the New York Times this week, hoping to provide some insight into the value of investing in a fast train network in the United States. His analysis, focusing on a hypothetical 240-mile line between Dallas and Houston, concluded that annual capital costs (including back payments on initial construction) would be vastly higher than benefits added from the completion of the project. His piece’s conclusions weren’t particularly compelling.
Ryan Avent responds well in a piece for Streetsblog, arguing that Glaeser’s simplistic analysis doesn’t take into account a number of important variables that may well influence the system’s future use. Significantly, no consideration is made for the land-use implications of rail investment. Is Glaeser ignorant of the fact that rail stations located downtown reduce automobile use by encouraging the development of dense, pedestrian-friendly communities around them? Does Glaeser not realize that high-speed rail, operating at much higher capacities than airplanes and therefore offering cheaper prices (if it’s managed well), could not only take over the air market, but also displace a significant percentage of existing road travel?
It’s worth considering whether Glaeser’s assumptions about ridership — 1.5 million trips a year — make much sense. Here’s a comparison between arguably the most successful high-speed rail line in the world (the French LGV Sud-Est) and the one Glaeser hypothesizes in Texas:
|Center City 1 Pop||Center City 2 Pop||Metro 1 Pop||Metro 2 Pop|
|Paris-Lyon||2.1 m||0.4 m||11.1 m||1.6 m|
|Dallas-Houston||1.3 m||2.2 m||6.3 m||5.7 m|
It’s true: the French cities are more densely populated and their public transportation ridership is higher. But evidence suggests that high-speed rail investment is effective in inducing significantly higher demand on corridors between huge cities such as that between Dallas and Houston. In 1980 (before the Paris-Lyon line opened), 12.2 million people rode the conventional rail line between the cities; by 1989, 22.1 million were riding the TGV between the two. That number has likely almost doubled today, considering that overall TGV network ridership is at about 100 million a year.
Despite cultural differences, can Glaeser really support his claim that only 1.5 million trips will be made between Houston and Dallas given the comparison with the French line shown above? Is the American psyche that incompatible with international experience?
The most serious flaw in his piece, however, was his unwillingness to compare the cost of high-speed rail with that of expanding airports and relieving congestion on roadways. As Robert Cruickshank often puts it on the California High Speed Rail Blog, “The cost of doing nothing is not zero.” In other words, fast trains may be expensive to get running, but in many cases, their implementation costs are far lower than those of building new interstates or air terminals.
No matter the costs of high-speed rail, then, they must be measured against the equivalent costs of investing in road and air travel, both of which are just as expensive and far more troubling from a number of other, non-economic perspectives. Mr. Glaeser’s numbers need to be run again.