President Obama’s proposed $53-billion more for “high-speed rail” (on top of a previous $10-billion) is a testimony to the power of adjectives.

If it were labeled “plain old rail travel” it would lack the pizazz but would be far more accurate.  Understating costs, overstating benefits, and lots of supersonic rhetoric are the selling points for high-speed rail.

The “high speed” adjective invokes thoughts of bullet trains speeding at 150 mph, 200 mph or more.  The reality of Obama’s plan is—at best—the 85 mph that is the average speed of America’s fastest train, the Amtrak-run Acela.

When Obama claims his trains would reach 100 mph and more, he’s talking about peak speed reached only for short stretches, not the average.

How about pollution savings?  The supposed rail advantage depends on comparing apples to oranges.  If you compare auto emissions on highways, they’re no worse than rail emissions.  Rail has an advantage only if you compare long-distance train trips with car emissions from stop-and-go driving in the city.

An exhaustive Department of Energy analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes, “intercity auto trips tend to be relatively efficient highway trips with higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates — on average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips. Additionally, if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat12 — making overall energy savings even more problematic.”
The lack of energy or pollution savings leaves us with the key problem:  Huge expense with little benefit.

Rail travelers don’t pay their own way as drivers must do.  Obama’s plan would increase the rail subsidies, which already are heavily subsidized with tax money–often by hundreds of dollars a trip for each passenger–whereas the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that drivers receive no subsidy:  Drivers buy the roads through fuel taxes, and also must pay for their own car, gas, insurance and repairs.

Obama’s $63-billion is just a drop in the bucket, though, when compared to the hundreds of billions – if not trillions — his ultimate plan would require (to “give access” to 80% of the country).

Except for our coastal areas, most of America lacks the population density that makes rail more feasible in places like Europe, Japan or China.  President Obama’s political support is centered in our large cities that would claim the benefits of high-dollar rail subsidies.

But trains–just like airplanes—won’t take you directly from your home to your destination, but only between airports or train stations.  You must find other means to get to and from the stations.  Only automobiles take you all the way from start to finish—and without stopping at multiple stations as trains must do.

That’s why rail and transit carry a declining percentage of America’s passengers each year, despite the heavy subsidies they receive.  Airlines handle almost 100 times as many domestic passenger miles as Amtrak, and our roads handle almost 800 times what Amtrak does.

Even if we doubled our intercity rail, it would provide a very tiny boost to travel—and at exorbitant cost.  People prefer cars because they offer the time-saving convenience and flexibility to carry you to precisely where you want to go.  Our government should recognize that consumers place a premium on this, before spending billions of our money trying to tell us that we’re wrong.

–Former Congressman Ernest Istook chaired the Transportation Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.