Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” suggests replacing air travel with high-speed rail connections.
But the comparisons drawn with Europe ignore that despite massive investments on the Old Continent, prices remain non-competitive with air travel and that state-run rail crumbles under its own inefficiency.
In a piece for Vox, Umair Irfan writes “High-speed trains already compete with planes in many parts of the world. They also have far lower carbon emissions.” The article compares the ambitions of AOC with existing examples in Japan and Europe.
“The prices are comparable too, with train tickets actually coming in cheaper for routes like Paris and Lyon or Seoul and Busan. The Paris-Lyon train fare is about $75, while the flight is about $115. Both trips take about 2.5 hours door to door.”
The price for Paris-Lyon by high-speed rail is indeed correct, but Umair Irfan doesn’t mention that the only carrier operating that route is the state-run carrier SNCF.
SNCF currently carries a debt of a staggering €55 billion ($62.3 billion). In fact, the yearly deficit and debt increase of the train company is so bad that France had to revise its annual debt by 0.1 percent of total GDP in 2016 and 2017.
This makes every ticket you buy in France highly subsidized, while air travel actually pays more in tax than it receives. Slate suggests that French engineers should have helped built high-speed rail in California. That would probably have been the only way to make it worse.
The choice of Paris-Lyon is also very convenient, since it’s number one and three of the largest cities in France, therefore benefitting from regular and highly used high-speed rail connections. The only air travel between those two cities is ensured by AirFrance and its subsidiary HOP!, in which the French government is a minority shareholder. Every other connection in France would be connected both quicker and cheaper by air travel.
Let’s try Paris-Nice (the fifth largest city of the country, in the South of France). High-speed rail would take you a total of 6 hours, at a cost of $90 (with highly subsidized state rail), while British low-cost airline EasyJet gets you there in 1 hour, 30 minutes for only $56. That is probably the reason why France is currently supporting an initiative in the European Union which would add an additional tax of $8 per flight segment. Smart move: if you tax airlines into higher prices, your case for “cheaper” train travel will be self-fulfilling.
It becomes even more interesting if you consider other travel itineraries. Paris-Nice is only about 600 miles. If you wanted to get from Greece’s capital of Athens to Madrid, which is a European equivalent of a “cost-to-coast,” your distance would be almost 2,000 miles, which is still less than a connection between New York and San Francisco (2,800 miles). However, Athens-Madrid by train, ferry, and bus would take you between 3 and 4 days, and cost about $340, while a direct flight would be $140 and about 4 hours.
That wouldn’t even account for the fact that the train connections are indebted, and thoroughly unreliable.
In Belgium, a structural rate of more than 10 percent of trains are late.
In Germany, a quarter of trains operated by “Deutsche Bahn” experience delays, which has brought the operator to change the definition: a high-speed train delay of less than 15 minutes is simply not counted as a delay.
You’ll also notice that Central and Eastern European nations, which have suffered historically from communism until the early 1990s, have no high-speed rail connections whatsoever, and are completely reliant on air travel to connect cities. AOC: collective ownership or fast trains, you can’t have both.
In fact, the only countries in Europe where high-speed rail starting from 165 mph — which is the speed needed to reduce travel times competitively enough to challenge air travel — are France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. In total, they have a network of about 4,600 miles of high-speed rail connection, and not even remotely close to anything the U.S. would need in terms of connection.
High-speed is no solution for passenger transport in the United States, it’s a fantasy that has paid out badly for the wallets and travelers in Europe.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator currently based in Belgium. His articles have been published by Newsweek, The American Conservative, the Washington Examiner, Le Monde, and Le Figaro. He is a Young Voices Advocate, a regular contributor for the Foundation for Economic Education, and works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.
Originally published here