Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 4 – High Speed Rail Costs

Once upon a time the need for mass transit was non-existent.  Most people did not go anywhere and stayed close to where they were born, lived and worked.  And those that travelled accepted that the journeys would be long, uncomfortable, and most likely exciting in many ways – just getting to your destination was an accomplishment in itself.   Since the early 1800s taking a long trip on land meant using the rail system.  Roads were OK at best, and prone to extreme erosion, meaning that unless they were well maintained (rare except on tollways) became bumpy and uncomfortable challenges.  The kinds of roads we take for granted today are not even a hundred years old.  Before WWII roads were most likely only asphalted on tollways and only within the cities.  Everywhere else was most likely a dirt track of varying quality.   In 1919, as a young army office. Ike Eisenhower was part of a trek from Washington D.C. to San Francisco along one of the first cross-country highways (The Lincoln highway).  The convoy of 80 trucks and motorcycles took 62 days to make the journey (an average of 6 miles an hour).  “They crossed plains, mountains and deserts on roads that, up until Nebraska, were surprisingly well made. But once the convoy hit the West, the trucks started getting stuck in ditches, sand and mud, for hours at a time. By Utah, the conditions of the roads were so bad, it almost stopped the convoy altogether” (History.com).  At that time, a train took 3 days.    

While it may seem that I am espousing the rail system (I am), my main point is that what we consider normal and immutable is a relatively new idea – individual travel vehicles as a source of long-distance freedom – the great American love affair with the automobile.  Any idea can be improved if we are simply willing to sit down and think about it through ‘systems thinking.’  We used to have horses that can go more places than a car, but the car offers two advantages over a horse – speed and distance.  Having said that, it is pertinent to note that the cars we love so much sit unused on average for 95% of the day.  When you think of how much you pay for that speed convenience, the true cost effectiveness of the personal automobile becomes questionable.  The mere century long love affair with cars has been showing signs of failing as traffic woes and road infrastructure adventures become the norm.  In Europe, many people needing to go distances travel on the high-speed rail system and then use local transportation once they get to their destination.

In the last post we covered the costs of building and maintaining roads, the latter, being one of the most costly, yearly infrastructure costs we have.  As we shall see, building railroads is not cheap, but the infrastructure maintenance costs for tracks are less by comparison to roads.  The costs of equipment maintenance (e.g. trains and train and road trucks) using the systems are somewhat comparable. 

France began the European fast rail in 1981 (Japan did it in 1964), quickly followed by the rest of Europe.  The advantages of rail traffic above roads traffic are greatly reduced emissions even when diesel trains are used.  Add electric trains using renewable energy sources and emissions are almost non-existent.   So how much to build the railways?  Out on the open road through farmland and countryside, not too expensive:  about $1-2 million per mile of track.  Once you get into urban and city areas, the cost goes up because of needing to pick a line that doesn’t disrupt already existing systems.  Both road freeways and rail have the same problem, no one wants to give up their property for the common good and lots of eminent domain purchasing is necessary.  Of course, the roads and rail can be elevated, but the cost of raised concrete overhead systems raises the price considerably and means more long-term maintenance costs have to be factored in to the building costs.  So, the cost climbs to about $15-100 million per mile of track laid down.  Before you say that using aircraft is cheaper because the only need is for airports, note that a single Boeing 767 costs about $200 million per plane (seats 181-367 passengers) or $650,000 per month to lease.  The Boeing 777 (seats passengers) is about $440 million to buy.  Most High-Speed rail trains are about 16 carriages long for a total of 1300 passengers at an initial cost of about $5 million (this cost was hard to find) for the electric locomotive and carriages.   The main Chinese bullet-train line from Beijing to Shanghai takes just over 4 hours and netted over $1 billion in profit in 2016. 

While Europe and Asia are expanding their high-speed rail, the U.S. seems to be lagging behind.  Cost is obviously a factor.  China’s high speed rail with a maximum speed of 350 km/h has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about $27-33 million per mile, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels, as compared with $40-62 m per mile in Europe. In the U.S. there are only a few high-speed train routes.  The Acela line from Boston to Washington D.C. (about 457 miles) takes about 6 hours averaging only 70 mph because many sections of the rail are still of the slow-rail system.  California is building the Los Angeles to San Francisco line in the central valley but estimates are the final costs will be about $90 million per mile.  The $77+ billion dollar project has been prone to political problems, especially with the 2018 cancellation of nearly a $1 billion of federal funding. 

The take-away of all of this is that the high-speed rail systems around the world have been quite effective because of private investment coupled with governmental investment and support.  The benefit of trains over airplanes is clear for short to moderate length travel of 12 hours or less.  After that it comes down to convenience.  From an environmental perspective, trains are the best option since air travel is the most polluting forms of travel and road traffic still using fossil fuels is still a major pollution issue.  Economically, trains are still the best option for moving freight and people, and the options for renewable energy are easier with trains than most other options.  Personal transport costs are also better with trains, but the convenience factor is still a big one for American users.  When we live in a ‘got to get there now’ mentality, regardless of price (while we can still afford anything), then alternate options for transporting ourselves around will always be a debating point.  Travelling to other countries and using their transportation systems when you do not have your own personal car to drive around (I omit car rentals here because it is an price option that gets prohibitive if one means to travel across many countries with exorbitant drop off fees) you get a different perspective of what mass transit can mean.    

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