High-Speed Rail — An Expensive Trip Back to the 1800s!

In the television series, The Simpsons, the creators parodied the central plot point of the celebrated musical, The Music Man. But instead of fleecing the citizens of Springfield by duping them into creating a youth marching band, the updated version of Harold Hill dupes Homer and company into building a monorail.

That was in 1993. More than two decades ago, the satirists at Fox (and elsewhere) knew that those calling for a 19th century solution to a 20th or 21st century problem was foolhardy — and the reality is, no matter how you slice it, a monorail is nothing more than a train (albeit a fancier train that runs on one track instead of two).

Yet here we are, in the second decade of the 21st century, and there are those who want to lead us down this road again and again. It can be inner-city trollies, like the boondoggles in places like Washington, D.C., or Tucson, Arizona. Or it can be commuter rails to nowhere, like those in Austin, Texas (more on this in a moment). Or the craze of so-called “high speed rail” — like California’s idiocy, or what some are attempting to impose on Texas.

One would think that given Austin’s lackluster experience with commuter-rail that those who dream of a Japanese-style bullet train between Dallas and Houston would be thinking twice.  Just last week in Forbes, contributor Scott Beyer, who writes on urban issues, penned a piece that can be summed up by its very title, “Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste.” In that, Beyer writes vividly about deserted commuter rail stations, while Texas’ rugged individualists take to the highways. As Beyer sums up, “No one there with financial options is going to instead take rail transit that follows a fixed route, arrives every 15 minutes, and makes multiple stops—no matter how much of said transit is built.”

Yet there stands the gang that wants to build this high-speed rail connecting Houston with Dallas, 240 miles apart. It’s roughly a three-and-a-half-hour drive. Not commuter distance, certainly, but not a terrible distance. Worthy of a device that cuts the time by more than a third? Possibly… but at what cost?

Those costs are hard to decipher. At TexasCentral.com, you’d be hard-pressed to find an accounting of those costs (especially the annual operating costs). But here’s what we know — we know that the build-out of the rail line is projected at between $10 billion and $12 billion. And while we don’t know what the annual operating costs are, we can use other data to extrapolate.

We know that Texas Central wants to run trains for 18 hours of a day, with 6 hours off for track and equipment inspection. It also wants to run trains every 30 minutes during peak times. So let’s say that Texas Central wants to run 23 trains every day, in each direction, 200 days each year. And a train in each direction every hour for 18 hours on the other 165 days each year.

That means that its trains will run 3,633,600 miles per year (46 weekday trips x 240 miles each trip x 200 weekdays a year plus 36 weekend/holiday trips x 240 miles each x 165 weekend days and holiday days per year). According to Amtrak’s 2009 Annual report, the Acela Express’ cost per mile was $101.81. Let’s assume that the operators of Texas’ high speed rail could keep their operating expenses to an even $100 per mile — this would put the annual operating expenses at just over $350 million per year (or just over a third of a billion dollars annually).

So for a 40-year lifespan of a project, we’re talking (assuming the lowest cost of construction and the annual expenses remaining constant) of a life-cycle cost of the Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail Project of just about $25 billion!

A new 737 costs about $50 million. For $800 million, 16 could be purchased. If just 8 are used at a time, with half flying from Dallas to Houston and half flying from Houston to Dallas, at $5,300 per hour in operating costs, at 72 flights per day, the annual operating expenses are $278 million annually…

But this means that if we were merely to take the construction costs, plus the operating costs of the high speed rail (the $25 billion number)… the planes could be bought, and with the remaining $24.2 billion you could fly 4.6 million people every year for nearly 90 years!

Or, more to the point, over the course of the 40-year lifecycle for high-speed rail, you could fly millions of people every year for less than half the cost — in fact, you could probably fly them for less than the cost of construction!

Even better, you could do this without having to build any track. You could do this without having to disturb any land. You could do this without having to displace any Texans or take their property from them. And you could to this by using a method of transportation that millions still love to use (though both the government and the airlines are doing their best to spoil it!).

Now, I’m not suggesting that some consortium actually buy a fleet of planes to ferry people between Dallas and Houston. All that I’m saying is that using a 19th century technology (even with supposed 21st century improvements) is a massive waste of money and resources.

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