France opened two new high-speed rail lines last year, but they may be the last for
awhile because the country is running out of cash to pay for them. A recent review
by the European Court of Auditors seems to question whether any more high-speed rail
lines should be built anywhere in Europe.
The audit reviewed 30 high-speed rail lines and found:
Construction costs averaged 25 million euros per kilometer (about $46 million per
Much of this money was wasted because trains run at an average of just 45 percent
of the design speed of the lines;
Cost overruns and delays are the norm rather than the exception: overruns averaged
78 percent and several lines have been delayed by more than a decade;
Benefits in many cases are negligible: many of the lines cost more than 100 million
euros ($116 million) per minute of train time saved.
The auditors cite an academic study that concluded that high-speed rail was a “success”
if it carried 6 million passengers its first year rising soon to 9 million passengers.
But this study wasn’t based on the profitability of the lines; instead, nearly all
of the benefits it calculated went to business travelers who saved time by riding
the trains. The study assumed that time to those travelers was worth 40 euros ($46
dollars) per hour. But if it is really worth that much, why aren’t the trains priced
In any case, based on the 6 million/9 million criteria, only a minority lines audited
were a success. Of course, by the more realistic criterion of profitability, even
those were failures.
Although the auditors offered the usual platitudes about high-speed rail being “environmentally
sustainable,” they conclude that high-speed rail is not economically sustainable.
Most of the routes that are likely to capture a lot of riders have already been built,
so any further routes in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and other countries that
have been building high-speed rail, are likely to be severe drains on the economy.
It’s too bad the audit didn’t question the usual platitudes about environmental sustainability.
According to the European Union, nearly 85 percent of passenger ground-level travel
in the 28 countries that form the EU is by automobile, and high-speed rail has done
nothing to reduce this. For example, in 1990, cars provided 84.8 percent of ground
travel in France. Since then, despite France’s aggressive high-speed rail construction
program, the percentage of ground travel by car was still 84.8 percent in 2015. While
rail’s share grew from 9.3 to 9.9 percent, it did so at the expense of buses, not
Nor is high-speed rail putting a dent in air travel. Unfortunately, the EU doesn’t
estimate passenger-kilometers of air travel, but in terms of numbers of travelers,
air travel continues to grow faster than rail travel.
Supposedly, high-speed train operations produce less greenhouse gas emissions per
passenger-kilometer than air travel. But this ignores the huge emissions produced
during rail construction. One study found that the operational savings will recoup
the construction costs only if a line carries 10 million passengers per year, a threshold
reached by very few lines. Moreover, in Europe, many high-speed train riders would
otherwise be riding low-speed trains, and high-speed trains produce far more greenhouse
gas emissions per passenger-kilometer than conventional trains.
So Europe has spent tens of billions on high-speed rail lines and accomplished almost
nothing. High-speed trains haven’t gotten people out of their cars or noticeably
slowed the growth in air travel. On average, such trains have probably increased
greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional trains and air travel. The only
real return from high-speed rail construction is to serve the egos of the politicians
who fund them.