If you ignore the fact that building a nationwide true high-speed rail network would cost $1 trillion, then building a nationwide true high-speed rail network would be really cheap. In much the same spirit, Michael Barone argues that intercity buses are a better bet than passenger rail. “The cost to taxpayers is minimal” he assures us, because “[c]ity streets and interstate highways already exist.”
And yet his examples of the success of intercity buses all come from America’s densely packed northeast corridor where the passenger railroad already exists as well. So it’s difficult to see what the point of the comparison is. I also don’t see, as long as we’re paying attention primarily to the northeast, what the point of casting these modes in zero-sum competition against each other is. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is fairly successful as it is, and I don’t think anyone’s proposing to try to replace it with a TGV-speed track. The right question to ask about it is whether there are reforms we could implement that would reduce costs without impairing service. It seems to be the case, for example, that Amtrak is purchasing unnecessarily expensive locomotives in order to comply with needlessly onerous crash regulations. On a more banal note, it’s long seemed to me that the installation of some vending machines on trains (perfectly safe contrary to what people have sometimes told me) would produce extra revenue without higher fares. But nothing about reducing the Amtrak cost structure has anything to do with intercity buses. That industry’s main need would be to see more systematic application of congestion pricing along the I-95 corridor.
In terms of new spending on infrastructure, clearly the right question to ask isn’t whether building new passenger trains is cheaper than not building them. The question is whether it’s a better value proposition than some other approach. Consider, for example, the much-discussed Texas Miracle. The state’s population has been growing rapidly for decades and will continue to grow. It will need new transportation infrastructure. The infrastructure will cost a lot of money. What should the nature of the infrastructure be? Austin is 200 miles from Dallas. There are currently 15 daily flights between the two cities. These are two of the fastest growing metro areas in America. It’s inevitable that some expensive new investments will be made in the field of moving people from Austin to Dallas and vice versa. Is it crazy to think some of that should be investment in passenger trains?