Megan McArdle asks “why is America’s high-speed rail so dreadful?”
I’ll one-up McArdle: why is America’s passenger rail, Acela or not, so dreadful? My answer is that it’s not integrated at all into the broader transportation system—in transportation planning parlance, there’s a lack of intermodal connections.
If I fly from New Orleans to Memphis or Chicago, I can park my car at the airport. When I get there, I can rent a car, or in Chicago I can get on the “L.” If I ride the train… none of the above, although if you wander the streets of Chicago for a few blocks you eventually would get to an “L” station. The only reason the Acela works on the NEC is because Washington, New York, and Boston all have effective mass transit networks that connect the center-city stations to other modes (air, car rental, or parking) in the suburbs.
To make high speed rail—or even higher speed rail—workable in America, it’s going to require that intermodal infrastructure to be in place. Which means, for practical purposes, the sensible course of action is to build the stations where the infrastructure is already there—at airports, which already have rental car locations and parking garages, along with transfers to and from air carriers. If that’s not practical, then convenient connection options between airports and rail are a must.
Update: More on this theme from Tyler Cowen and Stephen Karlson, the latter of whom reminds us that many of the barriers to high-speed operation of existing rail lines are political rather than economic.