Out-of-the-Box Ideas for High Speed Rail

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High Speed Rail, which generally means trains running faster than 110 MPH, is hot again these days.  There's money in the economic stimulus package, the beginnings of a plan in California, and just this week, a five-part series on National Public Radio.

I am a big fan of the idea. Personally, I would love to be able to hop on a train in Minneapolis and be in Chicago three hours later without the hassle of airports.  Or, even better, an overnight sleeper to San Francisco (currently a two-day trip by rail). For me, this would be a service worth paying a premium over an airline ticket, given how miserable air travel is these days.

But....the cost of actually building and operating a single high speed rail line will be substantial; and the cost of building a national network of superfast trains will be astronomical--though no more astronomical than the cost of other national infrastructure like the interstate highway system, power grid, or airspace system.

Fans of fast trains hope that once one regional network is built, the benefits will be so obvious that other regions will demand their own networks, eventually creating a national system.  Opponents charge (probably correctly) that high speed passenger rail service will inevitably operate at a loss and require government subsidies (though the highway and airspace systems also require considerable government care and feeding).

Public Rails and Private Trains

Government is good at building gigantic infrastructure projects, but not at figuring out how to make the most efficient use of the infrastructure once built.  Competitive markets, on the other hand, are great at figuring out what customers want, but no private enterprise could possibly afford to build a high speed rail network--and forget about the idea of two competing sets of tracks.

My idea is to have government build and maintain the high speed rail lines, but private companies own and operate the trains.  Any company which could meet appropriate technical requirements would be allowed to operate high speed trains and pay a fee for the privilege.

This is similar to the way the highways and airspace systems work today, where government builds and maintains the infrastructure but private companies set schedules, pricing, and routes.  It's almost the exact opposite of how Amtrak currently works, since Amtrak has a quasi-governmental monopoly on interstate passenger rail, but has to negotiate with private companies to use most of the tracks its trains run on.

There would be technical issues to work out--for example, traffic control, and how to allocate the most desirable time slots on heavily-traveled routes.  But we have decades of experience solving similar problems in the national airspace system.

In exchange for solving these (minor) issues, a high-speed rail system would gain several advantages:

  1. Taxpayers would not have to pay for the trains, just the tracks.  This might not sound like big savings, but over the lifetime of the system it's substantial.
  2. The government would be out of the business of setting fares and routes, and the free market can figure out how to deliver service at the lowest price.
  3. Riders would have the choice of several different services--for example, a cheap train with lots of stops and crowded cars, or a more expensive and comfortable train.
  4. This would create space for innovative new services--for example, same-day freight service--which a government-run system would never attempt.
  5. With competing services and innovation, the odds are much greater that the high speed line would be used at maximum capacity, increasing the economic benefit and the system's ability to pay for itself.

Personally, I've never understood why railroads have to own and maintain their own tracks.  The public-private hybrid we use for other transportation modes seems to work much better, and were it not for the historical accident of how the railroads were built in the first place 150 years ago, I don't see why anyone would follow that model today.