Today Megan McArdle kvetches about the prospects for high speed rail in the United States. I gather this subject has bubbled to the surface again because of the tiny amount of funds that are in the stimulus package to tantalize people with the idea of an efficient high speed rail system in the United States.
I touched on this subject three years ago and what I wrote then is as true now as it was three years ago.
I drive between Chicago and St. Louis, a trip of about 300 miles that takes roughly 6 hours, perhaps a half dozen times a year. I used to fly but between getting to the airport, going through airport security, waiting for the flight, and the flight time itself it takes nearly as much time to get there by air as it does driving. Why pay more to get there in the same amount of time, get crammed into a seat that’s so narrow that your shoulders crowd the person next to you, and be treated like a shmuck for your trouble?*
I’m a great candidate customer for a high speed rail connection to St. Louis but for it to make sense it would need a number of characteristics:
- The trip one way should take no more than three hours. That would require an average speed of roughly 100 mph.
- The trip should cost no more than $50 one way.
- The trip should be in reasonable comfort end-to-end i.e. boarding, riding, de-boarding.
Heck, if that were the case I’d use it once a week.
There are no prospects for such a connection from St. Louis to Chicago. The existing roadbeds won’t support it with some stretches requiring very low speeds. I don’t take the train now because I won’t pay air travel prices to spend eight hours in a cattle car.
If you’re a true lover of rail travel, go to the United Kingdom. Practically everything in Britain is a relatively short rail hop away and some of the small branch lines are very picturesque. Except for the Eastern Corridor the U. S. is the wide open spaces. There aren’t any medium hauls, 500 miles or less, that would support the traffic that would make them self-supporting.
*Some day let me regale you with stories of flying from Chicago to Huntsville once a week on the NASA contractors’ special on Southern Airlines, the airline with the worst on-time record. Talk about the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company. Believe me, you’ve never lived.