On November 9 2010, Keith Yost, columnist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper The Tech, published an opinion piece stating the case against high-speed rail (HSR) and large-scale infrastructure projects in general. In his article, ‘Derail high speed rail: It’s time to end the liberal fetishization of infrastructure’, Yost, who also blogs at The Sensible Technocrat, argues that the US should abandon proposals for high-speed rail because the potential cost is too high compared with the potential benefits. The pattern of urbanisation in the US makes HSR unviable, Yost contends. Homes and workplaces are spread across urban centres, making node-to-node transport such as HSR ill-suited to the needs of US citizens. The flexibility afforded by cars is a much better fit, he argues. This argument may apply to US HSR proposals, but it’s largely irrelevant to the Australian discussion.
The main proposal in Australia is for a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney. The link will provide an alternative to air transport. It’s not simply a substitute for existing rail and automobiles. When considering convenience you have to compare oranges with oranges. So, if the Australian line offers an alternative to air travel, one has to compare the convenience of HSR with the convenience of air travel. And not many people have a form of air transportation parked in their garage. Most of us have to travel to an airport, much as we would have to travel to a station if we were to use HSR. If this is also the case in the US, then the rejoinder also applies there.
Yost’s argument about the potential cost of HSR is much stronger, however. The magnetic levitation (Maglev) lines used for some (the most expensive) high-speed trains are estimated to cost up to US$300 million per mile. As well as the high estimated cost of line, Yost reports (drawing on research by Flyvbjerg, Holm and Buhl (2002, 2005)) that budgets for transport infrastructure projects blow out by a whopping 45 percent on average. This trend seems to hold for Australian infrastructure projects (think Myki and the desalination plant in recent Victorian history), which makes cost overruns a real problem — one that any government would have to realistically consider in its cost-benefit analysis.
Then we get to Yost’s arguments about the environmental benefits of HSR. He warns that even if travellers shift from air to high-speed rail, airlines are not likely to reduce their total number of flights. To compensate, airlines will simply use smaller planes. This is mere conjecture, however, and Yost produces no evidence for the claim.
He does, however, provide evidence for the claim that the impact of high-speed rail on carbon emission, oil consumption and oil imports will be negligible. He cites a US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on high-speed rail, which found that many of the estimated environmental benefits of HSR are based on ‘assumed high passenger loads’ (CRS 2009, p. 16). Yost gives the impression that these assumptions are incorrect. But this is what the report’s summary actually states:
Proponents of HSR contend that it provides a number of direct and indirect benefits to travelers and the general public, some of which may not be apparent until far into the future. The extent of those benefits would depend largely on the level of ridership, which is difficult to forecast accurately … The level of ridership would depend, to some extent, on the adoption of policies that would encourage people to use high speed rail. High speed rail systems in other countries are part of national transportation policies which support HSR use through both incentives (e.g., widespread provision of a complementary mode, public transit) and of disincentives (e.g., policies which make automobile use more expensive, such as relatively high taxes on motor fuel). Without similar policies in place here, HSR ridership in the United States may not match expectations based on the experiences of other countries.
(CRS 2009, p. 28)
The assumptions are not, therefore, incorrect. They are simply premised on government also introducing incentives and disincentives. Furthermore,
Many of the benefits ascribed to HSR, such as improved mobility, reductions in imported energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and so forth, would come from very high speed rail lines. Yet very high speed lines are the most expensive and potentially risky investments from a costeffectiveness perspective.
(CRS 2009, p. 28)
The investment is risky. It may not be cost effective. But, as the CRS report concludes, it could provide the environmental benefits that Yost claims it will not. In fact, the section of the report that Yost draws on to make his claim that a US HSR line will not reduce carbon emissions, oil consumption and oil imports is actually a discussion in the UK Eddington Transport Study of a HSR line between London and Scotland (Eddington Transport Study 2006, p. 213).
Congressional Research Service 2009, High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States, CRS Report for Congress.
CRS, see Congressional Research Service
Eddington Transport Study, see HM Treasury and Department for Transport
Flyvbjerg, B, Holm, MS & Buhl, S 2005, ‘How (In)accurate Are Demand Forecasts in Public Works Projects?’ Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 71, no. 2 (Spring), pp. 131-146, retrieved 30 November 2010.
———— 2002, ‘Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?’ Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 68, no. 3 (Summer), pp. 279-295, retrieved 30 November 2010.
HM Treasury and Department for Transport 2006, The Eddington Transport Study: Main Report, Volume 3, London.
Yost, K 2010, ‘Derail high speed rail: It’s time to end the liberal fetishization of infrastructure’, The Tech, November 9.