New reasons to be skeptical of high-speed railI know I'm probably beating a dead horse here, since HSR is all but dead now in this country, but I recently engaged in a Facebook debate on HSR that uncovered some arguments beyond the usual. It started with this story of a TXDoT study of MSR (medium/mediocre speed rail ;-) to Austin, followed by my response on how inter-city luxury buses undermine the case for HSR. What follows are some of those new points:
Here's a core problem with rail that really undermines the economics. When you build a road between two cities, it serves both people and cargo between those two cities, as well as all points in between and the entire road network beyond (i.e. going north on 45 from Houston can take you to any city on the way to Dallas, to Dallas, or beyond Dallas). When you build a multi-billion dollar airport, it can serve flights to just about every other airport in the world. Both of those lead to very high utilization and lots of passengers to spread the costs over. Now think about rail between two cities like Houston-Austin or Houston-Dallas. If you put many stops along the way, it really slows the net speed, so it doesn't really serve points in between (esp. since they're low population). And if your final destination is beyond that city, you're probably going to either drive or fly - so you don't get the network effects/benefits. So, at the end of the day, those very expensive tracks (and trains) only really serve people going specifically between those two cities, which vastly limits the number of passengers to spread the costs over. The only scenarios where trains really work economically is when there are a linear string of population centers relatively close to each other so the tracks can serve multiple origin-destination pairs, like the DC-Baltimore-Philly-NJ-NYC-CT-RI-Boston corridor, or the country of Japan.
CA has vastly more people than TX in a nice linear city configuration, but is struggling to figure out how to justify cost estimates that have soared north of $100 billion. I agree there is a productivity boost for riders, but 1) would it be for enough people? and 2) will they pay for it? Would you pay $100 each way to visit Austin? Especially if you could pay $30 on a luxury bus with wifi and get the same productivity boost? Or if you could just drive and improved voice recognition in your phone could keep you productive? (it's coming fast) And the environmental benefits are only good if the trains are reasonably full. That usually means reduced frequency, which further inhibits ridership. Buses get the same or better environmental benefits and can perfectly tailor capacity to demand while keeping up frequency (because of the smaller capacity increments than trains).
There's also technology risk: what happens to rail ridership when we have very high MPG, self-driving Google-cars in a decade? I'm not sure when the self-driving will be really reliable on local streets, but I have no doubt they'll get it pretty solidly reliable on long-distance suburban/rural interstates.
Another thought experiment. Two options to connect two cities. Option 1 goes 200mph and requires billions of dollars of infrastructure between here and there, including cutting through landowners and making absolutely sure no vehicles or cattle/large animals can ever get in the way - or, for that matter, that any terrorist can sabotage the route (catastrophe), a challenge similar to securing our border. Option 2 goes 500mph and requires no new infrastructure (it already exists), nothing at ground level to cut through landowners or provide a safety risk. Security is only needed at the endpoints. Framing it that way, the answer seems obvious.
I'm not saying rail doesn't have a definite cool factor (and it does work well in certain parts of the world). I'm just saying the alternatives, costs, network limitations, and technology trends leave it with too small of a niche market to make economic sense in most of the U.S., including Texas.