The Reckoner!

High speed rail. Do we need it, or not?

The battle has raged over a number of inter-city high speed rail lines. 


  • Convenient for people traveling between major urban areas.
  • Alternative to flying.
  • Other developed countries have them, so should we.


  • Tax payer costs for construction run into the many billions of $
  • In Europe where gas is high and cities are close, the trains absorb billions in annual government subsidies.  Amtrak already gets billions every year for established lines in the busiest corridors.
  • Used by relatively few people.

Tell me, Reckonauts!  Where do you stand on this?  Is high-speed rail worth it?

Reckoning Results!
Yes we want them.
No, they lose too much $
Don't be cheap.
Can't afford them.
Previous Reckoning!
Thursday Night, 1995. Which sitcom reigns supreme, Seinfeld or Friends?
Next Reckoning!
If you could just zap all Star Wars-related storytelling made after 1998 out of existence, ...

Reckoning Comments!

This is almost certainly going to break down along where you live.  If you're suburban or not living on the coasts, high speed rail is not going to improve your life iota, and it's going to cost a crapload of your tax dollars.

But I'm not suburban, and I do live on the coasts (on that much-vaunted I-95 rail corridor, as a matter of fact), so of course I think high speed rail is a swell idea.  Why fly or drive to Boston when I can zoom right into South Station on a Shinkansen?

Such is the challenge of living in a geographically big and dispersed country.  It's expensive, but I think it's worth it in a select cases: SF to LA, maybe LA to Las Vegas, DC to Boston, Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and maybe a few other cases I'm not thinking of.

See, we used to have passenger rail service in the U.S., but people got upset because they couldn't understand the economics that led to the price discrimination that the railroads developed in their pricing system.  So laws were passed to stop price discrimination, and no big surprise, passenger rail service stopped being cost effective.  Fast forward fifty years, and major urban cities think passenger light rail is the answer. 

No, it's not *the* answer.  There is no one answer to traffic problems.  But there is much that can be done to help, most especially to get urban planners out of the way, ease zoning regulations, and privatize transportation options as much as possible, including bus services, and roads themselves. Subsidizing something as burdensome and inflexible as light rail is not a good or cost-effective solution.

Sorry to rant, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about this kind of issue.


The pricing angle is a good one, and it's interesting to see the dynamics for existing Amtrak service on the Northeast Corridor.

I live in Philadelphia and I go to New York City at least once a month.  You know.  To check up on the competition.  And I've never used Amtrak.  Do you know why?

Because a round-trip Amtrak ticket on that route is usually $110.

A round-trip bus ticket, which involves a trip that's almost the same amount of time (depending on traffic how asleep the bus driver is) is $22.

If you want to take a train, you can take Septa to NJT via Trenton.  Round trip?  $48

Whyinthehell would I pay $110 for that trip?  And why does it cost $110?  Oh right, because Amtrak has to operate that valuable Minneapolis to Spokane line where the conductors probably outnumber the passengers.  That's where the money is going.

@Dan Koch- As a frequent Amtrak traveler the pricing structure is infuriating for the very reasons you list.  Also equally frustrating is how much the prices have gone up in recent years.  I remember taking the train from D.C. to Philly when I was in college for the princely sum of $50. That same ride now costs roughly the same as Philly to N.Y., meaning prices have gone up over 100% in the past 10 years.  

That all being said, I'm completely in favor of high speed rail (so long as we're assuming it would be implemented in areas that actually need it as opposed to a more Amtrak-esque solution).  As a fellow coastal city dweller, the arguement that has persuaded me the most is the potential effect on housing prices.  Greater and easier access to the metropolitan area could make any number of rural areas surrounding the metropolitan area into viable commuter communities.  This could help to both develop those communities and bring down housing prices in the city proper.  

The Reckoner!