President Obama’s initiative to spend $13 billion on high speed rail development requires serious examination and questioning by transportation experts, state leaders and congressmen because it appears to have potential for only limited impact nationwide.
We acknowledge the great nostalgic appeal of universally available rail travel – an era that faded as automobiles, highways and airlines became the transportation of choice among Americans.
Cars and trucks remain the choice for most Americans, including Mississippians, and the more pressing need is for adequate additional funding to build highways, freeways, and bridges for the still expanding volume of private and commercial traffic.
Mississippians born in 1940 and earlier frequently saw passenger trains passing or stopping in the town where they lived, but after World War II, better cars and more air travel pushed rail travel into a secondary, then tangential role, especially long-distance trips.
The high-point for rail passenger ridership was 1920, when 1.2 billion passengers boarded and rode.
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote in late 2008, “Close scrutiny of these plans reveals that they do not live up to the hype. As attractive as 110-to 220-mile-per-hour trains might sound, even the most optimistic forecasts predict they will take few cars off the road. At best, they will replace for profit private commuter airlines with heavily subsidized public rail systems that are likely to require continued subsidies far into the future.”
“(My) assessments are confirmed by the actual experience of high-speed rail lines in Japan and Europe. Since Japan introduced high-speed bullet trains, passenger rail has lost more than half its market share to the automobile. Since Italy, France, and other European countries opened their high-speed rail lines, rail’s market share in Europe has dwindled from 8.2 to 5.8 percent of travel. If high-speed rail doesn’t work in Japan and Europe, how can it work in the United States?”
We recognize fully the need to update and expand the nation’s freight rail lines, a proposal that could benefit virtually every state, and especially states like Mississippi heavily criss-crossed by freight rail and their interconnections.
A compelling need remains for additional infrastructure investment in new highways. Almost all states are hard-pressed to find enough money to meet proven needs.
No experimentation is needed. The proof is visible everywhere.
Obama cites his admiration for European rail systems, and it’s warranted. Even so, train travel in relatively compact Europe is secondary to autos, and it can’t be replicated in the expansive U.S.