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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:

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.

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.

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.

Claim: High-speed rail will require huge government subsidies

Fact: Every form of transportation requires government investment.

Fact: Let’s not forget the external, social costs of business as usual

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.

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.