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Myths / Facts
A 2010 poll found twice as many Americans support high-speed rail than oppose it, with 49 percent of those surveyed favoring high-speed rail. About one-third, 32 percent, said they would use high-speed rail service rather than driving or taking a plane. One-quarter of respondents, 26 percent, said they oppose building high-speed rail corridors.
Opposition to high-speed rail is mostly based on a handful of claims. We offer critical facts that illustrate the other side of the debate.
Claim: Almost nobody will ride the trains
Fact: It’s impossible to measure something that doesn’t currently exist. Yet without the benefit of widespread service improvements, Amtrak is on pace to break its annual ridership record, carrying a best ever 13,619,770 passengers during the first six months of fiscal year 2010. In fact, every single Amtrak route carried more passengers, with several experiencing double-digit growth.
Some additional data on potential ridership:
- When Acela service reduced the trip time between Boston and New York, rail ridership surged. Between FY2006 and FY2007, the Acela’s market share of the Boston–New York travel market grew from 36% to 41%.
- According to a widely quoted study, Americans in 2025 are projected to take 112 million trips on high-speed rail, traveling more than 25 billion passenger miles, resulting in 29 million fewer automobile trips, nearly 500,000 fewer flights, and a potential reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.
Not everyone has to use a service to make it worthy of government support. A fraction of Americans use community colleges, fire departments, or public libraries, but all are considered important institutions worthy of investment. Only a tiny percentage of the population makes use of any single transportation investment. The question is whether enough people use it to justify the cost. One in five Americans has never flown in a commercial airplane, yet few would argue we shouldn’t have airports.
Claim: High-speed rail is less energy efficient than driving
Fact: Trains are 3 times as energy efficient as cars and 6 times as efficient as planes on a per passenger mile basis.
- A DOE study found that intercity passenger rail is more energy-efficient than intercity auto trips, even after adjustments are made for the different driving circumstances of intercity trips.
- Adding passengers to a train is done “with virtually no additional energy use” while adding car travelers means more cars on the road, with their own additional costs and pollution.
Claim: Unlike Europe and Asia, the US doesn’t have the population density to support high-speed rail
Fact: The US population is not evenly spread out. It is densely clustered in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, and California – precisely the areas where high-speed rail projects are advancing.
- Ohio, where rail service between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati is being proposed, is as dense as France. (277 per square mile vs. 239 per square mile)
- The Paris-Lyon HSR line serves a combined population of 11.7 million people 255 miles apart. That’s not much different than the proposed Chicago-Detroit corridor of 14.5 million people 304 miles apart.
Claim: People won’t be able to get to their final destination from the train station
Fact: Because trains stations are almost always located downtown, they provide seamless door-to-door transportation.
- Almost no airport in America has good pedestrian, bicycle, or transit access, yet that doesn’t stop people using airports.
- Though American cities are sprawled, the single largest employment zone in almost every metropolitan area is downtown, as are most convention centers, sports arenas, museums, and parks. This is precisely where the rail stations are.
Claim: High-speed rail will require huge government subsidies
Fact: Every form of transportation requires government investment.
- 41% of the $133 billion spent on highways in 2001 came from sources other than gas taxes, tolls and vehicle taxes and fees; fifteen percent came from General Fund appropriations.
- A recent study by the Texas Department of Transportation concluded that no road pays for itself. In some cases, gas taxes would have to rise by $2/gallon to support these roads.
- Essential Air Service provides subsidies to 153 small communities in the US and Puerto Rico at a cost of $123 million.
- Since the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor was established in 1926, Congress has subsidized the aviation industry with funds from the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund. According to a coalition of major players in the aviation industry, “the use of revenues from the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury to pay for a significant portion of the FAA’s costs is long-established national policy.” In 2003, the General Fund contributed 25% of the FAA’s budget. In almost every year, taxpayer subsidies are larger than airline profits.
Fact: Let’s not forget the external, social costs of business as usual
- The dominance of private motor vehicles also imposes legal and medical costs – 37,261 people were killed and 2.35 million were injured in automobile accidents in 2008.
- The land occupied by highways is the source of an enormous hidden subsidy, since no one pays state and local property taxes on highway land; similarly, parking lots tend to convert valuable land in developed areas to low-value use.
Claim: We would be better off spending high-speed rail funds on urban transit
Fact: It isn’t an ‘either or’ discussion. And most people who make this argument don’t support mass transit.
- Rail advocates have never said high-speed rail should replace transit funding. Rather, they have said that high-speed rail is a better transportation, environmental, and economic development option than additional highways and airports.
- High-speed rail and urban transit work together to provide seamless transportation origin to destination. Investments in transit can boost high-speed rail ridership and vice versa.
Claim: If we build high-speed passenger rail, we will take away capacity for freight rail, resulting in more trucks and more pollution
Fact: On the contrary, the track and signal upgrades that are part and parcel of the many high-speed rail plans will enable passenger trains to be more frequent and dependable, which will ultimately allow more freight trains on the tracks, traveling faster, according to a Transportation Economics and Management Systems report.
Many point to Europe to support this claim. But there are key differences that negate the argument.
In the US, about 42% of freight travels by rail, while 33% travels by road. In Europe only 17% of freight travels by rail, while 72% travels by road, according to a European Commission report.
This has nothing to do with the fact that they have good passenger trains. The problem is that freight tracks are a different gauge in different European countries, making it physically impossible to run a long-distance freight train across Europe. European countries deliberately build their tracks to a different width than their neighbors in order to prevent invasion. Under the European Union, this is slowly being corrected.