Not a bright future for high speed rail

We’re all familiar with heated discussions as to the proper role of government in our lives — when, for example, should the Federal government, if ever, be directly involved in the planning of solutions to any one of our myriad social problems?

Take the problem of rail transportation, and in particular the Boston-New York-Washington rail corridor where rail service now is now and has been for so long unsatisfactory. A good high speed rail service could change things over night (a long night of construction), be highly beneficial to the millions who are required to regularly travel along this route.

Now wouldn’t you think that Amtrak, a Federal government owned passenger rail service, given the obvious need and clear benefits of such a project, would be able to come up with a reasonable plan for realizing it? And wouldn’t the Amtrak planners be fully aware from the start that if the construction costs were too great, given the trillion dollar deficits the government is currently running, their project would never get beyond the planning stage?

Well evidently not. The Amtrak planners have  instead come up with a 151 billion dollar proposal that doesn’t meet a proper cost benefit analysis. A “Gulliver” article, the Most Expensive Tunnel in the World, in this week’s Economist, makes this clear.

As the writer of the article says, “the more you delve into the details of the plans, the sillier they appear.” The 10 mile tunnel underneath Philadelphia, for example, would provide only marginal improvements in speed and access, while being at $10 billion about three times as expensive per mile as the Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps.

But the most ridiculous item in the plan must be the $7 billion to be spent for renovation of Washington’s Union Station, the station being at the very end of the line, and providing few if any benefits to the full operation of the line between the cities.

Why are the Amtrak planners seemingly unable to act as if construction costs were not one of the principal if not the major factor in the creation of the high speed rail line along the North-East corridor? Is it that only the private sector can properly handle costs, perhaps because unlike the Feds they’re not able to print their own dollars to meet cost overruns?

Gulliver concludes: “There’s no doubt that America’s big east-coast cities could benefit from access to true high-speed rail. But before it gets the funding necessary to make that happen, Amtrak should put forth a credible, smart proposal that puts the needs of passengers and the public first.”

Now what are the chances of that happening?

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