High-speed rail: Ed Glaeser runs the numbers

Above: The AMF Monorail ride at the New York Word’s Fair, 1964.

Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser wrote a series of NYT Econmix posts in 2009 on the costs and benefits of high speed rail (HSR). For his example case of the city-pair Dallas-Houston Ed estimated that costs exceed benefits by a ratio between four and six. Which is similar to the ratios that other studies find comparing cost per passenger mile between rail and flying/driving.

I can’t fault Ed’s estimates — if I wanted to nitpick I would say he gave rail the best possible numbers. But it doesn’t follow that no high-speed rail link can every make a profit. It depends on the city-pair, on the competition, and of course on what people are willing to pay for a specific service. I like riding the TGV on the Paris – Lyon link, especially compared to the dismal domestic Air Inter, one of the most uncomfortable airlines of my experience. I won’t pay 5x to ride the TGV, but I will pay more than an Air Inter ticket + associated connecting friction.

If anyone knows of objective LCA research that shows any HSR links that are profitable please comment with the link(s).