Research & Commentary: High-Speed Rail

Published October 24, 2012

In 2009 in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress allocated $8 billion to send to states for intercity rail projects, with “priority to projects that support the development of intercity high speed rail service.” In pursuit of these federal grants, several state and regional high-speed rail plans emerged. The Federal Railroad Administration received more than $57 billion in requests from 34 states in 2009, and in 2010, 31 states and 13 rail corridors received funding. 

Supporters of high-speed rail claim it is better suited than automobile and air travel for certain kinds of travel, and that it is more energy-efficient. In most cases, however, high-speed rail is not the right fit for travel in the United States. High-speed rail systems work in areas with high population densities, such as Asia and Europe, but in the United States a more dispersed population and greater distance between major cities make rail a poorer value than air or automobile travel. Those difficulties also have plagued conventional rail, with private passenger rail evaporating in the 1970s to be replaced by Amtrak, a heavily subsidized national train service that costs taxpayers almost $50 per passenger to keep afloat. 

As Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute explains, “high-speed rail proposals are high-cost, high-risk megaprojects that promise little or no congestion relief, energy savings, or other environmental benefits. Taxpayers and politicians should be wary of any transportation projects that cannot be paid for out of user fees.” 

Support for both the federal high-speed rail program and various state programs has begun to waver in recent years as the costs mount up. After Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich scuttled high-speed rail plans in their states, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the $1.2 billion in grants previously awarded to Wisconsin and Ohio would be redirected to other states. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott ended the Florida High Speed Rail project by rejecting all federal funds for high-speed rail, citing its high cost and limited benefits. 

High-speed rail is an expensive endeavor with questionable benefits for taxpayers. Instead of subsidizing the construction of new high-speed rail lines that are less efficient than other forms of transportation, the government should focus on maintaining and improving our current highway and air systems, which are well established, in demand, and in dire need of repair. 

The following articles examine high-speed rail from multiple perspectives.

Research & Commentary: SunRail Will Produce Few Benefits and Cost Millions
John Nothdurft, government relations director of The Heartland Institute, discusses the then-proposed Florida SunRail high-speed rail line, arguing it is a poorly planned system that is both unneeded and likely to result in cost overruns. “The availability of federal stimulus funds might make SunRail look like a win-win situation, but that money will eventually dry up, and the system’s operating costs will inevitably exceed revenues. Florida taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.” 

Californians Regret Approving High-Speed Rail
Environment writer Bonner Cohen reports on a University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll: Four years after approving a $9 billion high-speed rail proposal, Californians strongly oppose high-speed rail and would vote against it if given another chance. 

High-Speed Rail Proving Costly in California
Cheryl Chumley reports in the Heartlander digital magazine about the California high-speed rail proposal approved by voters in 2008, which has strayed so far above original cost estimates and so far under ridership promises that a key transportation analyst called it the greatest scam ever to hit the state. 

High-Speed Rail: The Wrong Road for America
In a Cato Policy Analysis, Randal O’Toole argues against implementation of high-speed rail: “In short, high-speed rail proposals are high-cost, high-risk megaprojects that promise little or no congestion relief, energy savings, or other environmental benefits. Taxpayers and politicians should be wary of any transportation projects that cannot be paid for out of user fees.” 

The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report
The Reason Foundation examines high-speed rail ridership and revenue, demographics, construction costs, operating costs, financing costs, airport and highway alternatives, train speeds, train designs, safety regulations and standards, greenhouse gas reductions, potential community opposition, and historical experience in the United States. 

High-Speed Rail, Budget Buster
Wendell Cox writes in National Review about the massive cost overruns experienced by other countries that have implemented high-speed rail. “Virtually everywhere high-speed rail has been constructed, financial liability has fallen to the taxpayers. In Taiwan and the United Kingdom, taxpayers assumed billions of dollars in private debts for much more modest high-speed-rail systems than Japan’s,” he writes. 

The Tampa to Orlando High-Speed Rail Project: Florida Taxpayer Risk Assessment
In this Reason Foundation Policy Brief, Wendell Cox examines the Tampa to Orlando High-Speed Rail Project. He found the financial risk to Florida taxpayers could ultimately be huge and involve both capital cost overruns and operating subsidies. 

An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail
This paper from the American Public Transportation Association outlines several of the criticisms raised against high-speed rail and provides supporters’ responses. “This paper identifies, categorizes, and sets the record straight on each of the criticisms this group of self-proclaimed opponents of intercity passenger and high-speed rail have leveled,” the paper states.

High-Speed Rail: Transit Solution or Fiscal Disaster?
Josh Goodman of Governing magazine writes about California’s proposed high-speed rail system and speaks with several opponents and supporters of the new rail line. 

Increasing Passenger Rail Service Could Make Traffic Congestion Even Worse
Wendell Cox, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute and former member of the Amtrak Reform Council, considers whether passenger rail eases traffic congestion as promised.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit The Heartlander’s Budget and Tax News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Glans at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].