Today, from Megan McArdle at the Daily Beast:
Without that kind of passenger traffic, it would never make sense to lay the tracks (new tracks are required because for high speed rail to be truly high speed, it needs very, very straight tracks.) The Chinese government has a variety of strongarm measures to simply take the land it wants (not to mention a lot of low-productivity farmland). The US government has to tediously assemble plots one by one, compensating the folks whose land it has seized, and then jumping through various obstacle courses comprised of local and environmental review processes.
So we aren’t getting a national high speed rail network. Your wallet should be glad. But those of you who would really like to hurtle across the American landscape at 300 mph from Chicago to Las Vegas are permitted a small sigh.
To make train travel competitive, you’d need to raise airline ticket prices about 15 times, say with an excise tax or a tariff. Raising the airline ticket prices 15 times would, of course, pretty well end the airline industry as we know it; rock stars and CEOs would be about all that was left. Although I suppose they’d give their occasional traveler a second bag of peanuts if asked.
New technology won’t help all that much for a nationwide system, either. The French TGV train — I love French: train à grande vitesse just sounds so much inherently cooler than “really fast train” — really only travels about 200 miles an hour; even maglev trains are not a lot faster. That would cut the travel time in half, making the total travel time to New York only, hoo-hah, 45 hours.
It’s not a matter of the government not supporting Amtrak. It’s not a matter of the U.S. not having the “will” to have the best passenger trains in the world. It’s that passenger trains, using any current technology or any technology we see coming in the foreseeable future, simply can’t compete with airlines.
It’s just arithmetic.