O’Toole: Trains that Nobody Needs
by Randal O’Toole
In November, Midwestern states, including Indiana, signaled their readiness to spend a large share of $12 billion by publishing a final Midwest Regional Rail Plan. The plan calls for a Chicago hub with spokes radiating to Detroit, Pittsburgh, Columbus (via either Fort Wayne or Indianapolis), Cincinnati, Nashville, Kansas City (via St. Louis), Omaha and the Twin Cities. The plan says this system is “close to 3,100 route miles” (based on Amtrak and other railroad timetables, the actual total is 3,037 miles if the Indianapolis-Columbus option is taken and 3,061 miles if the Fort Wayne-Columbus option is used).
Perhaps to avoid association with the controversial California project, the plan does not emphasize the term “high-speed” rail (the California High-Speed Rail project could cost $100 billion, more than three times the $33 billion that was initially estimated). Where California planned to build dedicated high-speed lines for the entire length of its routes, the Midwest plan calls for building dedicated lines only in the countryside between Chicago and Detroit, Chicago and Ft. Wayne, Chicago and Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis, and Chicago and St. Paul. The trains would use tracks shared with freight trains in the cities and in outlying areas such as St. Louis-Kansas City, Indianapolis-Cincinnati, and so forth. The dedicated lines would be capable of running passenger trains faster than 125 miles per hour, but the plan doesn’t mention trains running at the 220mph speeds promised by California.
By my count, this means construction of approximately 1,500 miles of new rail lines. Although tracks capable of moving trains at, say, 150 miles per hour would cost less than ones that can move trains at 220 miles per hour, they would still be expensive. The Midwest Plan estimates total capital costs of $116 to $162 billion. That would allow for $70 million to $100 million per mile for new construction with enough left over to upgrade most of the remaining shared tracks to allow for speeds up to 110 miles per hour.
Once the system is built, the plan projects that it will carry 17 million to 33 million riders a year. Projected fares of $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion a year would “nearly” cover operating costs.
Both of these claims are highly optimistic. The Northeast Corridor has more people than all of the urban areas on the Midwest plan’s map. Moreover, those people are more compactly located on a single, 457-mile route instead of being spread across six main routes averaging 456 miles each. The biggest city in the Northeast Corridor is smack in the middle instead of being at the endpoint of the various routes. All of these factors make the Northeast Corridor more amenable to passenger train ridership than the Midwest. Yet, in 2019, Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor carried just 12.5 million riders.
In addition to ridership projections that are too high, the Midwest Plan’s projections of operating costs are too low. The plan’s ridership projections depend on running trains about as frequently as those in the Northeast Corridor. Yet Amtrak spent $1.3 billion operating trains in the Northeast Corridor in 2019. The Midwest is not going to be able to operate trains in six corridors for just 15 to 50 percent more. With ridership lower and operating costs higher than projected, there is no way that fares will “nearly” cover operating costs.
Randal O’Toole, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is a transportation and land-use analyst. He is the author of “Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.” This is excerpted from his Antiplanner newsletter.