high-speed rail versus highways

Now that the latest Ontario High-Speed Rail proposal has come out, we are getting the usual Serious Journalism about rail.  Which means some combination of intentional and unintentional concern trolling about rail, particularly around costs (call it “concern costing”).  A particular attribute of this kind of analysis is it always looks at rail in isolation as a standalone service, as if decades of subsidizing driving didn’t exist.

Here’s what a better comparison of Ontario high-speed rail versus highways that included more context might look like:

Measurement High-Speed Rail Highways
Est. deaths over 10 years 0 3000
Est. injuries over 10 years ~0 30,000
Est. expenditure over 10 years $20 billion? $26 billion
Est. direct revenue over 10 years ? $0

So just to be clear, spending $26 billion on roads to get zero revenue and kill 3000 people is a no brainer, but spending maybe $20 billion on rail to get some unknown millions in revenue and kill zero people needs Very Serious Analysis.

Estimated deaths over 10 years is from Ontario road deaths: Did drivers do better or worse in 2015? It applies to highways under OPP jurisdiction. Estimated injuries is just a direct 10x scaling of deaths.

Estimated highway expenditure is from Ontario budget 2017, at the bottom of Investing in Highway Infrastructure.

No one really knows yet how much the train will cost, or how much revenue it will bring in.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t examine the viability of High-Speed Rail. I’m just saying we should place it in context with our expenditures on highways. If you’re not asking the exact same questions about highway “viability”, then it’s not a level playing field.  If you’re not talking about the fact that you’re introducing HSR into an environment where driving has been massively subsidised on multiple fronts, including cost of gas, cost of highways and cost of parking, then it’s not a level playing field.