June 01, 2009
High Speed Rail Rarely Turns A Profit

Only two high speed rail routes in the whole world turn a profit. Parenthetically, the higher the speed the lower the energy efficiency.

Such benefits, however, come with a huge price tag. By 2020, Spain plans to spend close to 100 billion euros on infrastructure and billions more on trains. That figure could give pause to places like California, a potential high-speed corridor whose area and population are about four-fifths the size of Spain’s.

“High-speed rail is good for society and it’s good for the environment, but it’s not a profitable business,” said Mr. Barrón of the International Union of Railways. He reckons that only two routes in the world — between Tokyo and Osaka, and between Paris and Lyon, France — have broken even.

I'd like to know how much energy each of the high speed rail lines use per passenger mile as compared to airplanes traveling those same distances.

The biggest benefit I can see for high speed rail: For lines that are electrified they avoid the need to use liquid fossil fuels. Once we hit Peak Oil (and maybe we already have) the ability to move around on electric power will become a big advantage. We can generate electricity from many energy forms. We will have plenty of electricity post-peak.

That 100 billion euros for Spanish trains works out to about 2174 euros per person or about 200 euros per year per person. Spain's 91/km² population density is almost identical to California's 90.5/km² population density. But California's growing more rapidly.

If you really want fuel efficiency electric bicycles beat any train or car or bus or airplane. You will see at that link that a 747 is more fuel efficient than an Amtrak train too.

Update: Contrary to popular impressions mass transit plays a small role in moving people around Europe. See this page at Figure 1: Motorised Travel (passenger-kms per capita per annum) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. Then scroll down in that same document and look at percentage contributions to moving people around in Europe in "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003". After all the mass transit subsidies and high taxes on gasoline well over 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe still are done by car. The convenience of cars wins out.

Update II: Since California is broke the bond market is going to say no to a high speed rail system between LA and SF.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 June 01 12:21 AM  Energy Transportation

Mthson said at June 1, 2009 3:00 AM:

I wonder if a high speed rail line between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles could help distribute the increasing population density so that it's not so clustered around those two population centers (plus San Diego).

Fat Man said at June 1, 2009 3:42 AM:

Mthson: I think you need to spend some time with a relief map of California. There are several mountain ranges involved. Besides, the environment is better off if we live in denser cities. See "The Lorax Was Wrong: Skyscrapers Are Green" by Edward L. Glaeser posted in the Economix Blog at nytimes.com on March 10, 2009.

The flip side of the passenger oriented European train system, that so many people have fallen in love with, is that the US moves a much higher proportion of its freight by train than does Europe. See "EU Looks to Cargo Trains To Ease Load on Trucking" by John W. Miller in the Wall Street Journal on June 5, 2007 at Page A6:

"Europe's dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo. Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73% from 68%, while rail's share fell to 17% from 20%. The rest goes by canal or, in the case of oil and gas, pipelines. In the U.S. in 2005, 42% of freight was moved by train and 33% by truck."


My guess is that the US saves a lot of energy using its rails for freight and its highways for people.

Brett Bellmore said at June 1, 2009 4:00 AM:

You're assuming that you can't power airplanes electrically, via beamed power. I wouldn't count on that.

Mthson said at June 1, 2009 4:50 AM:

We've had the ability to overcome mountain ranges for a while. California voters approved a high speed rail system in 2008 that is expected to be completed around 2020. "When built, high-speed trains capable of 220 mph (350 km/h) are anticipated to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in as little as two and a half hours." 1

JAY said at June 1, 2009 5:11 AM:

California is bankrupt. California is investing in a 19th century form of transportation. Does anyone see a connection?

michael vassar said at June 1, 2009 5:14 AM:

I don't remember reading that highways are profitable either.

JAY said at June 1, 2009 6:03 AM:

True. Another silly government monopoly.

Randall Parker said at June 1, 2009 7:11 AM:

Mthson, The state of California can not afford to spend tens of billions on passenger rail.

Michael Vassar, Gasoline taxes can easily fund roads. Add another ten cents to gasoline taxes and get about $1.5 billion per year (since California uses about 15 billion gallons of gasoline per year).

You might say we could tax gasoline to build rail. But most voters will oppose it since they know that even after a big rail build most of the miles they travel will still be in cars.

David Govett said at June 1, 2009 9:14 AM:

Have you not heard: Profits are double-plus ungood.

Ned said at June 1, 2009 10:44 AM:

Distance: 465 km
Train Travel Time: 2 hr (TGV)
Train Fare: 82€ ($116)
Driving Time: 4 hr (maybe optimistic, depending on traffic)
Cost of Gas: 39€ ($55), assuming 50 km/gal and gas cost at 1.20€/l

Distance: 629 km
Train Travel Time: 2hr 45min (Train which travels at TGV speed)
Train Fare: 111€ ($157) (directly proportional to TGV fare based on distance)
Driving Time: 6hr 30 min (maybe optimistic, depending on traffic)
Cost of Gas: 23€ ($33), assuming 50 km/gal and gas cost at $2.60/gal

Southwest Airlines flies between LA and SF many times each day. The actual flight time is about one hour, plus check-in time and travel time to and from the airports. The best fare is $49.

Given these numbers, one has to wonder how much demand there will be for such a high speed rail line in California. Certainly such a line can be built, but the cost will be enormous, given that the terrain is much more difficult between Los Angeles and San Francisco than between Paris and Lyon. Also, I doubt the NYT's brief assertion that the French and Japanese high speed trains break even. Does that include construction costs? Land acquisition? I suspect that assertion is based on a lot of optimistic governmental accounting, with many costs ignored or minimized. Anyway, the state of California does not have the money to bhuild such a line now, unless Obama ponies up the funds.

Andre Cotton said at June 1, 2009 2:58 PM:

Dear Ned,

viewed from France, the figures sound differently.
Train fares vary from 63€ to 85€ without any special conditions and are down to 40€ with some restrictions.
Road driving is at very minimum 4h 20min plus normally a 10min pit stop. Said 4 hours and a half in full clear conditions, i.e. never. Rather think 5 hours to reach Lyon and you are happy.
You're right on gas (around 40€) but you forgot highway toll: another 30€ and completely miss the car amortization and maintenance. The overall cost (as accepted by the French administration-sure it is at the floor) is around 0.40€ per km for what is a small car in the US. On this basis you spend over 200€, including the toll.
You have to carry more than 2 passengers to beat the train.

Between Paris and Lyon, you can access up to 25 trains per day per direction with often 1000 passengers aboard each.
With now 25 years of daily exploitation, there is no doubt the break even is done as there is no real competition.
And the icing on the cake, no fatality nor even injury since the opening.

I wish you can taste in the near future the difference between 2 hours by train and 5 by road when beginning a tough meeting.

no said at June 1, 2009 4:14 PM:

But doesn't the French government heavily subsidise rail and therefore the costs can't be calculated from fares?

Randall Parker said at June 1, 2009 5:56 PM:


Thanks for your useful comments.

BTW, I personally prefer trains to cars or airplanes. Airplanes feel like sardine cans. Trains are less stressing. But on longer trips it is hard to justify trains. I like cars out in scenic areas. But on a trip into Los Angeles I do not enjoy the drive.


Yes, airplane flights in the US are cheap. I wonder whether Ryanair is cutting into the train rider market in Europe with lower fares.

Jerry Martinson said at June 1, 2009 8:29 PM:


There is no way that the California high speed rail project is realistically going to provide service at the advertised speeds for anything less than $100 billion dollars.

For one, the local communities on the penninsula are demanding that the tracks trenched/tunneled with a new right-of-way that is not compatible with Caltrain. This is at least $20B.

Second there are small mountains in the way that are geologically active. This can be solved but costs $20B more and will slow down the train to a crawl.

At the costs, and trying to get a pathetic 15 percent farebox recovery, the ticket cost will be so high that only psychologically abnormal people with a such a fear of flying that they are willing to tolerate the slowness will take it.

Just like Amtrak only more expensive.

Tangurena said at June 1, 2009 9:19 PM:

High speed rail is a fabulous way to waste money. About a decade ago, BART wanted to run 110-150mph lines out to Silicon Valley. The cost of construction and land acquisition was in excess of 120 megabucks/mile of track. There can be no grade crossings where the trains travel at full speed, so every crossing needs to be a bridge - either for the rail line or for the roadway. The cost of everything: steel, copper, cement and real estate has more than doubled in the past decade. 100 gigabucks is about right for the lower bound on the cost that this raildoggle will cost.

And don't forget, damage to roadways (rail and highway) goes up with the 4th power of the velocity and the square of the weight.

Andre said at June 3, 2009 1:45 PM:

Dear "no", Jerry and Tangurena

I feel that the discussion is biased as for you car is THE symbol of liberty.
But, think, who pay for the roads and highways in the US? Private companies that ask you heavy tolls for each piece of street (as is is the case with highways on some European countries, France included)? Or you as taxpayers?
Who build most of the current American railroad network? Private companies, isn't?
For sure in Europe a significant part of the cost of the railways infrastructure come from the taxpayers but quite all the streets, roads, tunnels and bridges too.
So why should it be normal that usage of the roadway is not paid by car drivers but should be completely charged to the train traveller? There is no economical reasoning there, only lifestyle arbitration....

In most of European capital cities, a high ratio of mass transportation commuters is the only condition for car drivers to sometime exceed 10 mph. An example, the "A" line of regional metro that link west to east suburbs of Paris carries up to 55.000 passengers per peak hour, on one railtrack per direction (a 50 feet footprint). At first feeling you could say: and so what?
When you remember that the maximum flow of one highway lane is 1800 cars/hour (at around 20 mph, the optimal speed) you easily compute that this A line is equivalent to a 30-lanes highway (700 feet wide). Imagine how huge land surface you could sell back from highways for housing and shops - enough to pay for the railway probably?

Nick G said at June 3, 2009 2:43 PM:

who pay for the roads and highways in the US? Private companies that ask you heavy tolls for each piece of street (as is is the case with highways on some European countries, France included)? Or you as taxpayers?

Strictly speaking, maintenance of US highways and major secondary roads is paid for by a user fee levied on fuel (gasoline and diesel).

That, of course, leaves US fuel almost untaxed. Also, US highways don't pay property taxes, as do railroads. You could reasonably regard this lack of general taxation as a kind of indirect subsidy of highway transportation. But, that's different from maintenance, which is indeed paid for by the users.

Do French highways pay property taxes?

Allan said at June 3, 2009 4:51 PM:

People don't mind paying gas taxes because they can use the highway in their own private vehicles as opposed to a railroad which only a train can use. Think of it this way, would people support highways and interstates if only truckers and buses could use them?

As for HSR, we could get much more and better bang for the buck by upgrading the tracks to handle "fast"trains (110 mph). If you want to truly go fast, then build maglev lines. Maglev costs to build are roughly comparable; it has a significant operating and maintenance savings; it's faster; it's quieter,etc.

Randall Parker said at June 3, 2009 6:33 PM:


We pay car registration taxes as well as gasoline taxes that go toward roads. These taxes are linked (albeit imperfectly) with road usage. If you don't drive a car you don't pay the taxes. What isn't clear to me: what percentage of all road maintenance costs do these taxes cover?

It is my impression that European and American railroad usage gets subsidized by taxes paid by non-users. Certainly that is true for American users of Amtrak and also for most (all?) public transit rail systems in American cities. Also, all public transit bus systems are subsidized by taxes paid by non-riders.

Paris rail commuter traffic: Yes, impressive numbers.

Does subsidy of commuter train riders by non-riders make sense? Well, to most non-riders in the US it doesn't. They do not see the benefits to themselves or to society as a whole. However, in the French case I see a few benefits:

- Less pollution.
- Less land used for highways. Therefore more land for other purposes. This is a bigger advantage in more densely populated France.
- Less vulnerability to Peak Oil. Those electrified trains will keep running on nuclear power when lots of cars go idle.

Of course there are other ways to reduce vulnerability to Peak Oil. But those electrified trains really will help.

Randall Parker said at June 3, 2009 7:28 PM:


It looks to me (see figure 3 here) that over 85% of passenger miles in France are traveled via car. So you have a lot of trains. But most people still choose cars. That's the pattern for Europe as a whole. Over 80% of passenger miles are still by car even with very high gasoline taxes and large scale public spending on passenger rail.

Since that's the best Europe has achieved I do not see how the US is going to do any better with rail.

Nick G said at June 4, 2009 8:57 AM:

I'd love to see a really thorough comparison of the US and European travel patterns, including subsidies and fuel consumption.

Europe imports as much fuel per person as the US - is that freight? Europe uses trucks much more than rail for freight, compared to the US. On the other hand, Europeans use only 18% as much fuel per person for personal transportation. How much of that is shorter distances and a different historical heritage?

Finally, how does Europe manage to pay for it's oil imports? Why does the US have a persistent trade imbalance, and not Europe?

AJ Lynch said at June 5, 2009 11:43 AM:

I heard some expert recently claim that mass transit is the least subsidized form of transportation. That can't be right. Today the fed govt forks over more than $50 for every Amtrak passenger to subsidize the cost of their train trip. Highways and roads surely cost far less per person per mile traveled.

Someone should do this calculation. Any volunteers out there?

WJ said at June 5, 2009 11:58 AM:

I remember reading in the Economist some time ago that the capital costs of the French TGV is parked within one state-owned entity and has a massive loss. Another company operates the trains and almost turns a profit by paying very cheap rent on the cost of the track.

Blacque Jacques Shellacque said at June 5, 2009 12:06 PM:

California voters approved a high speed rail system in 2008 that is expected to be completed around 2020.

Wanna bet that someone, somewhere, eventually will file a lawsuit to stop or impede progress on the plan? (assuming that hasn't happened already)

Bruce said at June 5, 2009 12:10 PM:

I thought the US Hwy system was a mess and (for the most part) has been coasting on infrastructure built in the 1950's.


"The U.S. highway system is broken. And it’s not clear where the money is going to come from to fix it.

Amid a steady rise in congestion and ongoing deterioration of decades-old roads and bridges, federal and state funding is failing to keep up with the need to maintain existing infrastructure and increase capacity. And the cash shortfall is only going to get worse, with the Federal Highway Trust Fund — supported by a tax on gasoline — projected to run dry in 2009.

Part of the problem stems from the increase in traffic borne by a national highway system that is 50 years old in places. In 1955, the system carried 65 million cars and trucks. Today, that number has nearly quadrupled to 246 million, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.


Koblog said at June 5, 2009 1:25 PM:

How can we be at "Peak Oil" when we haven't even begun to tap our own resources?

Bob K said at June 5, 2009 1:43 PM:

Well, high speed rail rarely operates as a profit-seeking organization.

In the 1970's, in the wake of the Penn Central bankruptcy and the nationwide collapse of passenger rail, Congress formed Conrail and Amtrak. The government largely kept its hands off Conrail, and after the Staggers Act deregulation, it became a profitable railroad and a successful business.

Amtrak, by contrast, has operated under intense Congressional scrutiny, serving mainly to protect legacy railroad jobs, and over-serve the districts of the most powerful Congresspersons. There are plenty of people unhappy with flying, but the legacy rail system is not capable of competing with air travel.... Amtrak long-distance trains operate on slower schedules than trains of sixty years ago. But Amtrak has no access to private capital for investment and growth, no appetite for risk-taking. The problem with Amtrak is not that it costs so much, but that it provides so little rail service. But doubling Amtrak's subsidy wouldn't double the service.

One wonders if the government provided an environment for private capital to invest, if perhaps high-speed rail could be profitable... perhaps acquiring a right-of-way and leasing it to an operator. After all, passengers pay much more for their travel than shippers pay for freight. The idea that passenger rail can't be profitable just seems to be one of those notions that's generally accepted, even though there isn't really a tested basis for it.

Koblog said at June 5, 2009 1:52 PM:

Just returned from Kauai Island, Hawaii.

We put 415 miles on our rented Chevy HHR in six days. No other form of transportation could have come close to the personal freedom, convenience, privacy, security, comfort and even economy of that car. We did as we desired, where we wanted, when we chose, carrying everything we needed.

The automobile is perhaps the greatest invention ever. It provides precious mobility to the common man--mobility inconceivable to kings and emperors just 150 years ago.

Add to that the wonder of the modern aircraft: 2,611 miles in 5.5 hours for a few hundred dollars. And an empty seat beside us, to boot.

We took the train once in Northern California. It was terrible.

First had to figure how to get to the train from the airport. Then we stood on the platform freezing while waiting for the next train, having missed the last one by a few minutes. Then when finally on board, the train stopped about every three minutes. Then it stopped altogether for twenty minutes to allow an oncoming train to pass. When we finally reached our stop, which wasn't actually the destination, we had to figure a way to get to where we really wanted to go. Then, once at the hotel, how to move about from there?

Trains suck! California is throwing money down a rathole. All because we believe a gas we exhale and plants inhale is poison. Fools.

Mikey NTH said at June 5, 2009 2:39 PM:

When factoring travel times, do not forget to include the door-to-door times. With autos, the travel time is often door-to-door. With airplanes and trains the travel time is often station/airport to station airport, with the time of getting from the starting point to the station/airport and from the station/airport to destination not factored in. My recent flight from Detroit to Raleigh-Durham was and hour and a half, but there was the three hours to get from Lansing to DTW (and then go through airport check-in, etc.) and the hour from RUD to my brother's in Sanford (no checked baggage).

Obviously faster than driving from Lansing to Sanford, but total trip was five and a half hours. And Amtrak does not go direct from Detroit to Raleigh-Durham.

Constantine Magildahyde said at June 5, 2009 3:11 PM:

I've got to point out here that the only way "California's growing more rapidly" than Spain is if Spain is shrinking faster. Which I doubt. California is one of the states that is now LOSING population due to things like high taxes used to pay for light rail. A study that was done in Phoenix recently (sorry, I can't search for a link right now because I'm at work) found that the person-miles achieved by light rail can be matched by adding ONE lane to a highway. And we know which of those is cheaper. Then again, Phoenix went ahead and added it anyway. Light rail RARELY works in the US. The MARTA in Atlanta is a joke that was only busy during the '96 Olympics, but was an obvious waste of money the rest of the time.

As for the idea of a car equaling liberty, there is something to be said for that. I can carry my pistol in a car and the state says that nobody can stop me, but that becomes more of an issue on public transportation. This, along with a general dislike of sweaty masses makes me dislike light rail. No matter how "convenient" it seems to hop onto a train for one's commute, there are plenty of people like me who will never ride it anyway out of personal distaste. I don't like crowds (or much with the word "public" in it), and I enjoy both the time alone on my commute and the ability to go where the train does not should the mood suit me.

luagha said at June 5, 2009 3:33 PM:

California tried to start this same high-speed rail project in 1995 projected to complete in 2006. It failed then for all the reasons stated above and then some. In order to put the rail terminal close enough to any city to make it worthwhile, you're going to spend ten years politically and in court fighting eminent domain land use problems. (If someone is connected, and they don't want their land going, it ain't going. If someone not connected doesn't want their land going, it'll go, but they can make it take a few years to do so.) If you put the main terminal too far away from a city to ameliorate some of those problems, no one is going to use it - why take a train 45 minutes to get to the bullet train?

The last time this was tried in 1995 the people running the project just did a bunch of 'studies' that demonstrated what the problems would be and that said, 'okay, give us 100 billion dollars and wave a magical political wand to let us get started!' and nothing happened. It turns out just to be a way to keep this study group in money. All they are going to do with the new bond measure that was just passed to get this going again is update the studies and fail again.

Omri said at June 5, 2009 4:53 PM:

Oh, for crying out loud. Democrats committed intellectual bankruptcy by supporting the teacher unions and sinking the school system into the muck, but now you republicans are coming close to upping the ante over energy and transportation issues. It's enough to make the average engineer apoplectic.

When you compare rail to road, you take all the expenses Eisenhower and Roosevelt undertook into creating our highway system and set them aside, while demanding that train systems pay their own capital costs. That's apples and oranges. ANd unfortunately, it's far too easy to play with an Excel spreadsheet and fudge the numbers to order in order to make one side better than the other, and plenty of think tanks in Washington, in the pay of various lobbies do that. It's especially easy to fudge the numbers when you realize road users pay for the roads partly through gas taxes but mostly through non-user-pays financing (income tax, sales tax, etc). The train companies, however, have to pay property tax on their tracks. Change a couple pennies on those little spreadsheet cells and the picture looks very different.

Similarly, it's easy to be very selective in what you notice when you compare America to Europe. It is true that the shorter distances make train systems cehaper for the Euros to set up. But guess what: the same applies to highways. Because of distance and money, we build our highways long, wide, but THIN. And so our highways wear out faster and require insane amounts of expense to maintain. The Euros build theirs not-so-long, about as wide, but they can afford to build thicker, better, longer lasting roadways. That is also why they could afford to throw away their freight rail by mandating that tracks be devoted to passengers. We can't, because we would go bankrupt if we did 77% of our long hauls by semitrailer. The Euros will keep on trucking while our interstates crumble to nothing because we can't afford to rebuild them.

Finally, there's comparing the energy consumption of an airliner versus a high speed train. They are surprisingly close, BUT! an airliner has to have liquid fuel. A train can get its juice from whatever you want. Like coal, uranium, hydro, whatever's on offer. Even better, trains have hybrid locos. If there's juice on the overhead wire, it can use it. Otherwise, crank up the diesel. European rail is heavily electrified. Ours would have been, too, if not for GM vetoing it in the 1950's. Well, ding, don, GM is dead. We can have a transportation infrastructure that can draw energy from anything. If we're not too enthralled by moronic partisan talking points from an election campaign that ended months ago.

DirtCrashr said at June 5, 2009 5:44 PM:

There is loophole language written into the CA High Speed Rail $10-Billion bond bill to that allows the funds to be spent on other purposes - including "studies" that take years and years to complete and supply a select group of people with long-term free-money jobs. Many expect that not a shovel of dirt will be turned-over on high-speed rail before the funds are otherwise exhausted by deal-making.
Most of the Bills that come out of Sacramento to Ballot have such legally "enabeling" language written-in, which well reflects the huge fiscal garbage-dump that CA has become - and the snake-pit that is Sacramento in particular. But they are safely Gerrymandered behind district walls and supported by Political Machines, so we can't easily get rid of the vermin.
As to whether High Speed Rail will increase distribution along it's length and relieve congestion at the polar extremes, as a cultural anthropologist and long time Peninsular Bay-Aryan, I doubt that any socially significant striver would ever enter the Mini Mid-West that is the Central Valley Farming corridor - so any increase in population distribution will have to come from the Supported Classes - and the current Corridor occupants are already predisposed to not support a further influx of such residents as recent increases in crime and meth-lab use from the expanding suburbs has shown them to be undesireable and incompatible with the Traditional Values of the Central Valley.
It is the high-density Urban polarities containing large numbers of the Supported Class that have the tipping-power to maintain Democrat Party control over the state, so perhaps the Democrats wouldn't wish to lose their advantage either.
Perhaps a High-Speed Rail line from the Northern Wastes (Eureka/Mendocino) would facilitate transportation of the seasonal Pot-Harvest to the Marijuana Clubs ("Oh Yes Doctor, I really do have something wrong with my eyes.") in the Urban Centers - but the Hippies never pay for anything like that so the funds might as well be spent on Developers, Unions, and other pay-back deals made in Sacramento. I have zero faith that it will happen.

Sgt. Joe Friday said at June 5, 2009 8:12 PM:

Making money hauling people from one place to another is difficult, absent subsidies of some kind. Period. Highways, airports, rail all are subsidized one way or another.

And you want to talk about 19th century technology? All I can say is: cruise ships. They make money for their owners, but still use taxpayer-funded port facilities. But they're not common carriers, I'll admit; it's entirely leisure travel.

Ideally, there shouldn't be any government policy favoring one form of transportation over another, but that's not gonna happen. That said, going anywhere by airplane these days is so goddam unpleasant, especially for a guy my size (6'4", 250 lbs.) that if there were train service that was even sorta, kinda time competitive on a short-to-medium distance route, I'd use that exclusively. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way - shoot, if 20% of the traveling public felt that way (which I'll bet they do), it's a huge market numbering in the millions.

Amtrak's problem is, as another commenter observed, its legacy costs and its unions. Two simple things could probably give Amtrak at least a fighting chance at financial viability: get rid of the unions, and make it an employee owned company. If you have to, give it some kind of benign anti-trust exemption for a short period of time, along with tax credits rather than direct subsidies. Bring in a proven transportation entrepreneur (Richard Branson comes to mind, maybe the guy who runs Royal Caribbean Cruise Line) and give him a free hand to experiment. I'll bet you'd see a surge in train ridership figures.

Other Larry said at June 5, 2009 8:45 PM:

In the US, the Boston-Washington corridor would be far easier to build and get far more traffic than SF/LA. If it's going to break even anywhere, that's where it will. There must be some reason besides transportation that California is pushing this.

Steve Skubinna said at June 5, 2009 10:39 PM:

"We will have plenty of electricity post-peak."

You are an optimist. It would have been more accurate to say we "can" have plenty of electricity. I read a few years back that NIMBYs had transmogrified into BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). I am sure that Obama voters expect to generate power with unicorn farts (from the same creatures that will magically poop free health care, no doubt). Those of us not reliant upon making our +10 saving throw are faced with a more difficult situation. In our world, the laws of phsyics and economics are not so readily set aside.

I am sure that eventually there will be enough backlash against ecological totalitarians that we can build additional power generation plants, but it might not take effect until most of us are fighting over scarce cave space.

Nick G said at June 5, 2009 11:30 PM:


Could you elaborate quantitatively on the thickness of US & European highways? How do the subsurface and surface materials compare?

Also, why are 50 year old capital costs relevant? And, if US medium & long-distance passenger transportation is too heavily dependent on liquid fuels, isn't the same true for European freight?

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2009 7:36 AM:

Steve Skubinna,

I'm not being an optimist when I project plenty of available electricity post-peak. Rather, I am arguing that economic contraction will decrease demand for electricity even as supply of oil declines. All the nuclear, natural gas, coal, hydro, and wind generators that will exist will be underutilized post-peak. So count me firmly in the ranks of the pessimists.

Though on the bright side, if you manage to buy an electric car and have the money to charge it the electricity will be available to enable you to do so.

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2009 7:52 AM:

Bob K,

We know that passenger travel isn't profitable because we once had large scale passenger travel and the travelers switched happily and eagerly to cars and airplanes. The private railroads in the US that did passenger travel gradually withdrew from the business.

At the same time, rail freight competes quite well with truck freight and most ton miles in the US are traveled by rail freight, not truck freight.

Omri said at June 6, 2009 5:33 PM:

Yes, Mr. Parker, we once had a passenger train system and dumped it for airlines and roads. We subsidized air and road travel, and taxed train travel to oblivion, and lo and behold, it became unprofitable, expensive, and unused.

Omri said at June 6, 2009 5:41 PM:

Nick G: google isn't helping, but ask any civil engineer.

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2009 6:46 PM:


Subsidized air and cars competing with unsubsidized trains: This is a myth.

Look, airplanes do not need a lot of infrastructure. The vast bulk of the costs are airplanes, labor, and fuel. Whatever the US government might have subsidized in the form of air traffic controllers didn't amount of much in the bigger scheme of things. People wanted to travel much faster. So they eagerly switched to passenger flight. Airports do not need federal subsidies. The US government doesn't subsidize purchase of airplanes.

Cars and subsidies: First off, cars greatly increased the total amount of miles traveled per person. People treated cars as enablers for far greater amounts of travel. People wanted cars. Car friendly policies by governments were a response to popular demand. Cars are what the people wanted.

Look at Europe for a control on America's policies. Europe has very high taxes on cars and fuel. European governments subsidize trains and other mass transit on a large scale. What's the result of these policies? In all European countries over 80% of all passenger travel is by car. Where's the big advantage of rail? See figure 3 at that link.

netdragon said at June 6, 2009 9:32 PM:

Highways are not profitable either. I guarantee that there will be no difficulty filling trains between Atlanta and Charlotte. Also, trains are a lot more convenient than the huge Atlanta airport. I really don't like having to get there 2 hours early. I don't always want to drive my car out of Atlanta either. It's like driving out of a black hole.

"You're assuming that you can't power airplanes electrically, via beamed power. I wouldn't count on that."

Hahaha! Strap on a tesla coil to a plane? Let's (A) invite lightning strikes and (B) Kill birds, other plane travellers, and (C) Fry our atmosphere!

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2009 10:49 PM:


Most toll roads are profitable. Look at the NJ Turnpike and the Pennsy Turnpike. They charge and the revenue they collect pays for the roads.

No Oil for Pacifists said at June 7, 2009 1:57 PM:

Anyone have a more recent source for the share of rail transport vs. other modes in Europe? I note that--outside of France--much of the introduction of Europe's high speed rail systems came after the 2003 date of the CfIT figures.

Lyqwyd said at June 12, 2009 5:13 PM:

Koblog, interesting, I just came back from Maui and considered my rental car a complete waste of money, I used it basically to get to the airport and back, and a couple trips that I could have made just as easily on the shuttle. I'm sure had I chosen to go other places it would have come in handy, but for my Hawaii experience it was pretty much useless.

Lyqwyd said at June 12, 2009 5:15 PM:

Randall, that's great that toll roads are profitable, they should make all roads into toll roads, cuz the ones without toll sure don't make a profit.

PFR said at November 10, 2010 9:31 PM:

It seems that the trend on this thread is to try to justify building more and better highways as an alternative to trains because that is less costly to taxpayers. Or even that trains won't make a profit.
Hospitals, Fire departments, Universities, Subways, The Military, The EPA, The police, OSHA, Medicare to name a few, don't make a profit. There are many complex reasons for citizens to finance public sector projects. Posting your knee-jerk political commentary is populist drivel.

Trains that work well, that have heavily traveled itinerary, are far more environmentally sound than fueling individual automobiles with one person in them, traveling on interstates. Is there anyone on this thread who disagrees with this?

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