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” (  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.    

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 3 – Freeway and Interstate Road Costs

One of the top reasons for not developing a high-speed rail system in the U.S. is apparently the cost.  “We can’t do it because it will cost too much” is voiced without any knowledge of what the actually costs really are – it’s a mantra from those who do not want competition or change.  Just imagine what America would have been like if the initial investors in the rail system of the 1800s had been faced with that and we had to stay with horse and wagons during the western expansion.  Yes, wagon trains were an integral part of that early slower expansion prior to the American Civil, War, but afterwards it was the rail that allowed Euro-centric people to rapidly expand across the country to create the USA we know today.  So, was rail simply outmoded by automotive transportation, or was it something else that caused the decline of the great American rail roads? 

After the Civil War the U.S. train networks ran across the country.  The cattle drives, so popularly portrayed in western movies, were only a few years of the West’s history until the late 1860s: After that the rail lines spread south to the grasslands so cattle could be transported quickly and efficiently to the stockyards and slaughterhouses of the Great Lakes, and then to the cities of the growing Eastern areas of the continent – Prairie grasslands and farmlands to dinner table in less than 5 days with new grazing and watering cattle cars plus refrigerated freight cars keeping everything fresh.   It was the hay-day for the rail system until new businesses were born that competed for the railroads effectiveness.  First, decentralization of the cattle industry occurred with feed-lots taking over from full-time range grazing.  Next, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller had other ideas for which industries would dominate the American transportation scene.  Rail survived because of the need for Heavy freight (e.g. Coal), and passenger rail in the pre-airline era for most regular people traveling long distances – only the well-off could fly anywhere.  Ford lobbied extensively for roads with his new trailer trucks to carry freight and automobiles to take Americans everywhere, and Rockefeller was happy to lobby to provide gasoline to take them there.  While the rest of the world invests in building new high-speed rail systems, the U.S. sits quietly with some minor projects (by comparison), the excuse being that rail is too expensive.   So what kinds of expenses are we talking about?   First let’s look at the freeway-interstate system of roads.

Dwight D Eisenhower returned from Europe impressed by the German Autobahn system, started in 1913 as a public works project with over 1300 miles completed by 1939, that allowed Hitler to truck his troops quickly around Europe.  When Eisenhower became President of the USA he promoted the Interstate road system as a defense initiative.  It begun in 1957 with $25 billion of appropriations and was officially completed in 1992, although new section are still being added as traffic needs are realized for over 48,000 miles of interstate.  The estimated final cost was about $500 Billion (about $5-10 million per mile).  The amount of modern traffic and weather impacts makes repairing the Interstates during ‘Orange Barrel Season” an ongoing and highly lucrative business, and also a source of great frustration for traffic trying to move around the country.  The Federal interstate system was funded 90% by the federal government and 10% by the States through a highway gasoline tax.  One problem with this is that this redistributed gas tax revenue from states with lots of drivers to those with very few drivers.  The result being that funds were often taken from states that need more transportation infrastructure than they have to states that have more transportation infrastructure than they need.  Prior to the interstate system, major road projects within a state were paid from through toll systems (turnpikes) – user pays fees. 

One of the biggest costs of placing freeways through a city is the disruption to neighborhoods.  This involved a lot of eminent domain and rerouting of existing urban roads plus interstate exists to allow local traffic to still flow while allowing through traffic unhindered motion.  The problems occur (especially at peak traffic times) when freeway ‘incidents’ happen to slow the traffic flow.  Incidents as bad as accidents to people simply driving badly are enough to create the daily traffic jam woes we take as normal no matter how many lanes get added.  The term ‘Induced demand’ explains how expanding freeway traffic lanes merely allows more drivers use the freeway. 

Traffic jams can be temporarily ameliorated by new traffic systems and addition of more lanes (after the inevitable construction delays), but with over 850 cars per 1000 people in the USA the same traffic jams reoccur within 18 months.  We seriously need to rethink roads as the only solution to moving people and freight around.  And this problem is everywhere in the world.   In the previous post I talked about an 8-hour trip using high-speed rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  To drive would have also taken 8 hours under ideal road conditions but would not have been as relaxing (car rental and gasoline costs would have been more than my train ticket).  A few years ago, instead of taking the 4-hour train journey, I drove from Calais to Amsterdam in what should have taken less than 4 hours.  I spent 4 hours of that final 8-hour trip sitting in multi-lane traffic trying to get around Antwerp.  In Britain a year ago, I spent 5 hours doing what should have been a 2-hour drive because of motorway construction.  Freeways can be great, but only in ideal conditions, which are fast becoming rare.  Supporting alternate transportation systems is much more than trying to support renewal energy systems, it is about sustainable ways of getting people where they want to go in the most convenient, safest, and cost-effective systems possible.  Over a century ago, our ancestors could get to near where they wanted to go by taking the train and then using a horse system to get to the place they wanted to be.  Automotive transportation is certainly convenient (when it moves) but maybe there is a way we can use high speed renewable transportation and local systems when we get there.  Obviously, cost is a major factor to consider.  While interstates are not cheap, what is the cost of a high-speed rail system by comparison?  To be continued…..      

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 2

Why use trains?  In the last post I emphasized how the USA developed through train technology.  Obviously, the advance of automotive transport and oil use over the past century spurred the car and truck culture, and now the airline industry, we now take for granted.  It’s hard for most Americans to visualize a different way of moving around the country.  If you travel outside North America you get a different perspective of travel. 

The drive plus ferry from London to Paris used to take 7 hours or more depending on road and weather conditions, especially across the English Channel.  The intercity rail from London’s Paddington rail Station to Paris’s Gare Du Nord rail station (city center to city center) for as little as $40 takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes.  From there you have access to all the major cities in Europe without the hassle of traffic congestion and holdups that are as prevalent in Europe as they are in America.  On a trip back from Paris to London on the ‘Chunnel’ train I was able to walk up and down the train and visit the refreshments car at ease.  I talked with a French woman going from Toulouse to London on Business and why she was taking the train and not flying from Toulouse to London.  The story was much like I mentioned in the last post about flying to Chicago.  When all the wait times and airport to city connections were factored in, the journey for this woman was not only about the same amount of time but the cost using the trains was about the same.  The woman said the trains were also more convenient and comfortable.   

On a recent trip I flew to Munich and rented a car to travel around Bavaria and northern Austria.  I must say that legally doing over a 100 mph on the Autobahn back to Munich was exhilarating but strange as I had to keep moving over to the slow lane to allow the really fast cars to pass me.  Germany is renowned for it speeds on the autobahns.  I made it from the Austrian border to the outskirts of Munich in less than 2 hours.  The 16 Km (10 miles) journey at 4pm from the outskirts to city center where the hotel was located, however, took another 2 hours, and then I had the nightmare of negotiating traffic in a city I did not know all the while avoiding road construction and then trying to find parking for the car while I checked into the hotel (most European city center hotels do not have parking).  The next day I travelled the high-speed electric Intercity Express rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  It took about 8 hours and cost about $80 in a first class car (I splurged).  Flying would have been a little quicker but I would have missed all the great scenery along the way, which was wonderful, even at 300 Kph (186 Mph) top speed – all information was listed and updated continually on the ‘smart’ information board in each car.  It was also most comfortable and quiet and typical of German efficiency, on time at all the station stops (usually 3-4 minutes only per stop for nine stops) along the way.  From the main station I was able to take a local train to within a mile of my friends who lived about 20 miles from Amsterdam without hassle at Rush hour.  Light rail will be covered in another post to come soon.       

There has been much discussion over the past decade about the viability of an intercity high-speed rail system in the USA similar to Europe or eastern Asia. I’ll leave the financial realities of building this rail system and the expansion and maintenance of existing U.S. roadways for the next post.  For now, let’s focus on whether a rail system would be a viable option for the U.S.  One of the most polluting forms of travel in the world is jet travel.  Jet fuel with its emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus cloud formation accounts for as much as 5 percent of fossil fuel pollution.  Trains are electric, but of course, the source of the electricity is crucial.  Using a fossil fuel power plant is only slightly better than using aviation fuel.  However, using renewable electrical sources is ideal.  A recent report noted that Holland now uses 100% renewable energy (primarily wind energy but with some solar from Solar tunnels above the rail lines!  

The French have been experimenting with high speed rail and a few years ago tried out a 450 Kph (280 Mph) successfully.  It is still on the drawing board but remains a future option.  Japan has been working on boosting their famous Shinkansen train to get speeds of 360 Kph (225 Mph).  Now just imagine going express from center Denver to center Chicago in 4 hours or even New York to Los Angeles in 13 hours by rail!  Of course, you would have to factor in time to get to the rail station.   (Note our previous rough calculation of air travel times – NY to LA is 6 hours flying, plus 2 hours gate time before departure and then roughly 1-2 hours between home, parking, etc. for a total of 9-10 hours air travel time.)   Germany has also experimented with a high-speed ‘Maglev’ system that also shows promise.  While still theoretical we already have the technology to make them work, are vacuum ultra-speed Maglev systems.  These could work at speeds literally as high as 3000 Mph because of no need for wheels (magnetic forces are used to separate the train from the rail with no friction – the train is the only moving part).  While many countries are working on the technology, it is still just on the drawing board with just test sections of Maglev in places like Germany.     

For visitors to Japan, China, or Europe, the high-speed train systems for long journeys are a definite plus.  In Spain, the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed train (19 trains a day) takes about 2 ½  hours and costs #35 one way.  (It takes 6 hours to drive and 1 ½ hour actual flying time.)  It works so well, air flight between the cities is rarely used.  If high-speed rail works so well why is it still almost non-existent in North America?  Most reasons given are financial in that the cost is prohibitive.  Why was it not so for other countries?  The other problem has been public support.  Most Americans have never experienced the high-speed system and propaganda against high-speed rail is prevalent from special interests who will be somewhat displaced by such a system.  In talks where I have laid out the argument for high-speed rail and then taken a simple hands up survey of who would use it if it were in place gives a telling response – over 90% of people like the idea.  So, what are the financial realities of high-speed national rail versus the existing freeway road network across the U.S.?  Next post….