Rail Debate: Should the Federal Government Invest in High Speed Rail?

Two transportation experts, Ken Orski, editor of Innovation Briefs and Joshua Schank, CEO of the Eno Center take opposing sides on whether it makes sense for the federal government to invest in high speed rail in this Wall Street Journal exclusive.
September 26, 2012, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The Wall Street Journal editor poses the question, "Would funds for high-speed rail be better spent on improving existing intercity rail service?" While Orksi, editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs responds affirmatively, Schank does not deny the importance of improving existing rail service. "Yes, money is tight, and fixing what we already have would provide a greater immediate return. But isn't that always the case?", he asks.

However, Schank, President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation argues that incremental improvements are not enough, while Orski states that "until the U.S. regains its fiscal footing and has the financial resources to embark on a bold, capital-intensive endeavor, the federal government should forget about building a nationwide high-speed rail network and focus instead on modernizing existing rail infrastructure."

One of the main disagreements is whether the U.S. with its develolpment patterns would benefit from HSR as have Europe and Japan. Orski believes that only the Northeast Corridor should be considered while Schank cites travel statistics between Chicago and St. Louis to show how a "new high-speed rail line... could conceivably bring the travel time between the two cities down to less than 2.5 hours. After factoring in the challenges with airport security and traffic, this travel time would be highly competitive with airplanes and autos for people throughout both regions."

While Orski admits that the Northeast Corridor is a good candidate for HSR, he doesn't appear to support funding it other than "improving existing rail service-for instance, on signal systems, track alignments and station design."

Only "(w)hen the economy starts growing again, we might want to revive the idea of high-speed rail. Until then, prudence, good sense and the nation's well-being require that the federal government lower its sights", he concludes.

Schank ends his essay more optimistically.

"There is no doubt that building a high-speed rail network in the U.S. is an ambitious plan fraught with major funding and operational challenges. ...The U.S. can't afford to shy away from large investments out of fear. That is something second-rate countries do", he writes.

Two accompanying charts show rising Amtrak ridership since 2000 and "Amtrak's ten busiest lines in fiscal 2011 and their passenger counts".

The link to the article may be time-limited for those lacking WSJ electronic access.

Thanks to Mark Boshnack

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Published on Monday, September 24, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal - Business
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