News: CJ Exclusives

High Speed Trains, Low Ridership

North Carolina officials see bullet trains as next transportation step

At first glance, there may seem a world of difference between a light-rail system transporting urban commuters and a European-style “bullet train” speeding between cities at more than 100 mph.

Actually, the main differences are the hardware and the scenery. The underlying economics are remarkably similar, as both require enormous capital outlays and ultimately rely on what might be called the “Field of Dreams” school of marketing — “build it and they will come.”

If recent history is any guide, both transportation concepts stand to use huge amounts of taxpayer money to provide services desired mainly by a loose coalition of automobile haters and nostalgia buffs —along with bureaucrats who maintain that North Carolina can’t remain competitive without more rail service.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of North Carolinians continue to “vote” every day on this issue by simply driving their automobiles.

A study released in June by the Reason Foundation said that not one of about two dozen light-rail systems in the nation makes money. Their costs per passenger mile are several times that of highways and they carry a minuscule portion of the commuter traffic in their communities, usually between 1 percent and 2 percent.

Researcher Ted Balaker also reported that astronomical cost overruns are the norm. For example, the planned rail system in Raleigh-Durham was originally projected at $250 million. Now it has metastasized into an $850 million growth on the landscape, the first leg of which is expected to open in late 2007.

The dossier on high-speed interurban trains isn’t quite as extensive, mainly because proposed rail corridors are still being studied and subjected to the inevitable environmental impact analyses. While there’s an extensive record on the wastefulness of light rail, no “bullet train” project has yet had a chance to fail in the United States.

The high-speed rail concept in North Carolina started in 1992, when the U.S. Department of Transportation designated five corridors for the service nationwide. The original plan was for a Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Washington D.C. to Charlotte via Richmond and Raleigh. The concept has since been extended south to Jacksonville, Fla. The project wrapped up its first tier environmental impact study in 2002 and is now working on the second round.

In North Carolina, high-speed rail is being shepherded mainly by the N.C. Department of Transportation, with input by the N.C. Railroad Co., a public-private real-estate trust that owns the principal 317-mile line linking Morehead City with Charlotte. The NCRR leases the track to Norfolk Southern Railway for freight services, which in turn subleases to Amtrak for the six lightly occupied passenger trains that pass through North Carolina each day.

Scott Saylor, president of NCRR, said the costs of high-speed rail are almost unknowable at this early date. “You’re looking at major federal money,” he said.

The NCRR earns about $11 million a year from Norfolk Southern for use of its tracks, nearly all of which is reinvested. A large share of the money has to go toward maintenance and upgrades of the existing line, for example, a new bridge at U.S. 54 in Raleigh, now about half-complete. Saylor noted that the improvements have been made to support the 60-some freight trains that cross North Carolina each day. They’re not designed for bullet trains shooting across country at 100 mph or faster.

The NCRR has also been able to pay for occasional capital construction, such as the recent renovations of the old passenger stations in High Point and Burlington. While these projects are aesthetically pleasing, it might be asked to how much use they will get as transportation consumers continue to bypass Amtrak in favor of the airlines or their own automobiles.

Amtrak’s recent performance in North Carolina suggests that if high-speed rail becomes a reality sometime after 2010, the only result will be half-empty cars going a lot faster. Amtrak carried 434,000 passengers to17 North Carolina communities during 2003, down from 442,000 the previous year. It runs four daily trains from New York through North Carolina, terminating at either Miami or New Orleans. Also, the state contracts with Amtrak to fund the Piedmont between Raleigh and Charlotte. The state also subsidizes the Rocky Mount-to-Charlotte portion of the daily run of the Carolinian, which originates in New York.

By comparison, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport serviced 7.9 million passengers in 2003, even while the airline industry continued to struggle with its post Sept. 11 slump. Passenger traffic at RDU peaked in 2000 at 10 million.

High speed trains elsewhere in the U.S.?

Transportation engineers have warned that high-speed rail is ill-adapted to the suburban sprawl that, for good or ill, characterizes most American cities. For example, in 1997, three engineers of the University of California at Berkeley along with a French colleague published a study on the prospects for high-speed rail in California.

They concluded that bullet trains were a much better fit for Europe and Japan, where they noted that population densities are higher than even such congested urban centers as Los Angeles and San Francisco. They also pointed out that rail carries with it a great deal of inflexibility in its infrastructure — once built, rail lines can’t be moved, even if population and consumer demand drifts elsewhere.

Their conclusion: “Compared with the greater flexibility afforded the untracked air travel system or the ubiquitous highway system, high-speed rail faces serious difficulties.”

Considering that the study was paid for in part by the California High Speed Rail Commission, the researchers were clearly not delivering a message that their patrons wanted to hear.

These findings hold little hope for the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, if for no other reason than population densities in North Carolina are much lower than in California. All of the state’s three major urban areas come in at no more than 2,000 residents per square mile — a fact suggesting that all are nonstarters for both light-rail commuter trains and high-speed rail.

The credibility of high-speed rail in North Carolina may soon be influenced by developments in Florida, where a statewide referendum on this mode of transport is on the November ballot. Voters will be asked whether they want to repeal a 2000 referendum that amended the Florida constitution to require the state to initiate high-speed rail service between at least five cities.

The repeal movement is being led by none other than Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he views high-speed rail as too expensive, especially as it will divert money needed for highway improvements. Bush canceled an earlier high-speed rail proposal upon taking office in 1999. But this time out, high-speed rail has had support from both parties in the Florida legislature, leaving Bush no choice but to go for a referendum to cancel the earlier referendum.

The James Madison Institute, a free-market think tank based in Tallahassee, recently reported that the cost of building a bullet train system has been widely disputed. Opponents estimate that it would be $17 billion over 35 years for a statewide system, as mandated by the 2000 referendum. Advocates have come up with a figure of $75 million a year for 35 years, but only for the portion to connect Orlando and Tampa.

The Madison Institute has consistently opposed high-speed rail, even going back to the earlier proposal terminated by Bush.

Bob Fliss is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.