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Discrediting Three Major Arguments Against High Speed Rail

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Discrediting Three Major Arguments Against High Speed Rail

A Metrolink train approaches Pomona Station.

Christopher MacKechnie

Discrediting Three Major Arguments Against High Speed Rail

Let's face it - as I write this in February 2012 I look back on 2011 and I see a horrible year for high speed rail. The nation's most viable high speed rail project, a line in central Florida, was cancelled by the state governor despite clear evidence that the line would have been profitable. The Wisconsin governor cancelled federal money for state rail improvements, a gesture that benefited the state I live in - California - at the expense of Wisconsin residents. In November 2011 the California State High Speed Rail Authority put out a business plan that was widely panned for several things, including a gigantic increase in the projected cost to $98 billion. Republican state legislators in California are even preparing a bill to hold a referendum as to whether the project should be completely eliminated. Other high speed rail projects in the United States seem to be either dead in the water or at best have resulted in some minimal speed improvements for existing trains. But despite all these developments I still believe in the idea, and I think you should too. Here are three arguments that opponents often make to discredit the idea, and why I believe them to be false.

  1. Nobody is going to ride it because right now it's so easy to fly from southern to northern California and/or drive.
    This argument is in some ways the most ridiculous. It is not being built to serve the transportation needs of today's travelers, it is being built to serve the transportation needs of the travelers years from now. As I write this in February 2012 the United States is experiencing its highest average gas prices for this time of year in history - and in some states gasoline is predicted to hit $5. The "easy" drive across state is only going to get more expensive. And for those of you who think it is easy to fly, one acronym: TSA. And one hyphenated word: pat-down. Do any of you really believe the TSA's zeal to catch non-existent terrorist hijackers will ease off in the future? It stands to reason that every passing year will feature yet another high-tech device to zap travelers at the airport with unwanted radiation or human contact.

  2. The $98 billion price tag is ridiculous and the state cannot afford it.
    First of all, note that this price tag is not an annual total, it is a total for the entirety of the project, which may not be fully completed until 2040. On an annual basis, the price tag becomes more like $3 billion - which I believe is more manageable. Overall, the price tag is only equal to 23% of the total amount of money Caltrans - the state transportation department - is going to spend in this period. The vast majority of transportation projects Caltrans funds are highway projects. To me, it does not sound unreasonable to expect that your state transportation department spend 23% of its annual funding on something besides highways.

  3. Where they are going to build it (initially from the Fresno area to the Bakersfield area) is a train to nowhere.
    First of all, the California High Speed Rail Authority has no choice in the matter - federal law is making them build the first phase in the Central Valley because the federal funds need to be spent within a certain timeframe. Second of all, nobody expects the first segment to form a complete rail line. The high speed rail authority thinks of the first operating segment as either from Bakersfield north to the Bay Area or from Fresno south to the Los Angeles area. Third, because this is a new technology it is important that the first stretch be built in an area where construction will be relatively fast and easy. Finishing construction and opening the line will not only demonstrate that high speed rail is feasible in the United States, but seeing high speed rail in action is likely to move public opinion in favor of high speed rail. After all, it will probably be hard to resist the excitement of seeing trains operating at such a high speed.


There still may be personal reasons why you may not like high-speed rail - perhaps your house is right across the street from the proposed track location and the noise the trains will cause. Even in such a case, however, perhaps your grumpiness will be eased by the possibility of an increase in your property value . For the rest of us, may we be gracious enough in 2040 to buy our esteemed high-speed rail opponents a drink in the first-class bar on our 2 hour 40 minute train ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Magnanimity is surely classier than "I told you so".

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