Sunday, July 08, 2018

Cartoon by Monte Wolverton - California High Speed Rail Project
Monte Wolverton

France opened two new high-speed rail lines last year, but they may be the last for awhile because the country is running out of cash to pay for them. A recent review by the European Court of Auditors seems to question whether any more high-speed rail lines should be built anywhere in Europe.

The audit reviewed 30 high-speed rail lines and found:

* Construction costs averaged 25 million euros per kilometer (about $46 million per mile);

* Much of this money was wasted because trains run at an average of just 45 percent of the design speed of the lines;

* Cost overruns and delays are the norm rather than the exception: overruns averaged 78 percent and several lines have been delayed by more than a decade;

* Benefits in many cases are negligible: many of the lines cost more than 100 million euros ($116 million) per minute of train time saved...

Although the auditors offered the usual platitudes about high-speed rail being “environmentally sustainable,” they conclude that high-speed rail is not economically sustainable. 

Most of the routes that are likely to capture a lot of riders have already been built, so any further routes in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and other countries that have been building high-speed rail, are likely to be severe drains on the economy.

It’s too bad the audit didn’t question the usual platitudes about environmental sustainability. According to the European Union, nearly 85 percent of passenger ground-level travel in the 28 countries that form the EU is by automobile, and high-speed rail has done nothing to reduce this. 

For example, in 1990, cars provided 84.8 percent of ground travel in France. Since then, despite France’s aggressive high-speed rail construction program, the percentage of ground travel by car was still 84.8 percent in 2015. While rail’s share grew from 9.3 to 9.9 percent, it did so at the expense of buses, not cars.

Nor is high-speed rail putting a dent in air travel. Unfortunately, the EU doesn’t estimate passenger-kilometers of air travel, but in terms of numbers of travelers, air travel continues to grow faster than rail travel.

Supposedly, high-speed train operations produce less greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer than air travel. But this ignores the huge emissions produced during rail construction. One study found that the operational savings will recoup the construction costs only if a line carries 10 million passengers per year, a threshold reached by very few lines. 

Moreover, in Europe, many high-speed train riders would otherwise be riding low-speed trains, and high-speed trains produce far more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer than conventional trains.

So Europe has spent tens of billions on high-speed rail lines and accomplished almost nothing. High-speed trains haven’t gotten people out of their cars or noticeably slowed the growth in air travel. On average, such trains have probably increased greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional trains and air travel. 

The only real return from high-speed rail construction is to serve the egos of the politicians who fund them.

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