There are many strong reasons to oppose high speed rail (HSR). Let’s start with the. Offensive arguments – reasons HSR is bad.
Costs. HSR is incredibly expensive. With one estimate putting the cost of a nation-wide HSR network at $4 trillion for the initial outlay, plus annual maintenance costs. O’Toole (2021) even places the cost at more than $100 million per route mile and claims the ticket sales will not cover the costs.
To give you a perspective on the scale of these costs, the entire federal budget is approximately $5.8 trillion.
Debaters will argue this as a one-time expenditure, but the costs of projects like this are normally spread over many years, likely 10 years. But even then, the costs would average $500 billion/year.
Regardless, the cost of the project would be considerable (not counting any cost underestimating and continued upkeep expenditures). A program of this size would likely be paid for by a combination of tax increases and more government borrowing (probably based on the rationale that ticket fees could eventually fund the debt).
While the details will be the subject of another essay, it raising the government debt is likely to hurt the economy in a number of ways and so do higher tax rates.
On a related note, Buckley (2022) argues the money could be better spent on literally anything else (though teams should remember the Con can’t counterplan to spend it elsewhere).
Politics. Although Politics disadvantages are not common in PF debate, there is significant Republican opposition to the funding of HSR and there would probably be moderate Democrat opposition to this level of spending as well (imagine what it would take to get Sinema or Manchin to support this!). If Biden had to spend political capital to get at least enough moderate Democrats on board to get this through Congress, it would likely undermine his efforts to get other agenda items passed.
Midterms. Although it is expensive, HSR is generally politically popular with the public and passage could be a boost for Democrats in the midterms, enabling them to at least keep the Senate and maybe the House.
Environment. Although Pro teams will make strong environment arguments (see above), Con teams will argue that the construction of HSR will hurt the environment in may ways:
*Diesel emissions from construction equipment (Engel)
*Problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds (Engel)
*Disruption of wetland ecosystems from building the rail lines (Engel)
*CO2 emissions from construction (Lin)
*Metal smelting and non-metallic mineral production (Lin)
*Discharge of water pollutants (Lin)
*Heavy metal pollution (Lin)
Pro claims of environmental benefits do depend on people using the rail (see reasons below that use won’t likely increase much (O’Toole; Free Market Foundation)). If use doesn’t meaningfully increase then there are only environmental harms from construction. As it is, Pro claims of environmental benefits rarely even assume these costs.
These environmental harms occur regardless of the energy source that powers the HSR. But, if HSR ends-up being powered by electricity that is generated by burning coal, then SO2 and CO2 emissions will increase as well.
Racism. Since the rail lines are often built over and though communities of color, these communities are often negatively impacted by the construction. Not only is there disruption of the community from the construction, but the communities often bear the brunt of the environmental costs of the construction.
Free Market/Libertarianism. This is more of a philosophical objection, but the argument is that it’s not the government’s responsibility to fund projects such as HSR and that doing so forcibly steals tax dollars from people.
Rare Earth Elements/Minerals Dependence Bad. In order for HSR to reduce CO2 emissions from coal and oil, the electricity that powers HSR will have to be generated with renewable energy (solar, wind, etc). If HSR increases the demand for renewable energy, teams can argue that building solar and wind facilities will require greater use of rare earth elements (REE). Since most REE are found in China, and all are processed in China, this could strengthen China’s dominance in REE If China ever cuts the supply, this could threaten our entire economy the same way that Russia’s threat to cut-off gas exports to Europe threatens Europe’s economy.
The other Public Forum topic option (rare earth metals) is about this issue.
State alternatives better. This argument claims that it would be better to let the states design the HSR programs rather than the federal government. The Chicago Tribune claims that states can do it better, and with less waste and corruption. Prock (2009) claims this is primarily an area off state responsibility and Pearl (2010) claims that states have been successful at building rail service. There is an old HSR states counterplan policy file here. Obviously one cannot make this argument and “HSR bad” at the same time, but it does create an option. Puentes (2010) claims that multistate cooperation is already occurring in the area.
General Defensive Arguments
Practical problems. There are many practical reasons that HSR won’t be heavily utilized. If it’s not, then it just ends up being really expensive to build while creating damage to the environment for no gain.
*Dispersion. People in the US don’t live close enough to rail stations to use HSR and those that do would still need a car after they exit the train station at their destination.
*Automobile culture. People in the US are sort of addicted to their automobiles, which are a core part of their culture.
*Property rights. All the Pro can argue for is greater financial investment, but strong local property rights claims will prevent the rail lines from being built. These are compounded by jurisdictional conflicts (disputes over who/what entity) gets to decide.
*Lack existing networks. There is simply a lack of existing rail networks to build on.
*Corruption. With this amount of government money being spent, corruption is almost certain and has been found to be widespread.
Despite lots of spending, property rights, lack of networks, corruption, and the difficulty of getting permits has meant the lack of construction of almost anything built in California.
Glenn Luk, 15 years of PE/VC and Public Market Investing Experience, Forbes, March 11, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/03/11/why-doesnt-the-united-states-have-high-speed-bullet-trains-like-europe-and-asia/?sh=636f12e5c080, Why Doesn’t The United States Have High-Speed Bullet Trains Like Europe And Asia?
Network effects. Another important facet of high-speed rail is the value of network effects. It is a far more attractive proposition to build a HSR system that looks more like a web instead of a point-to-point line. This is because webs tend to result in much higher utilization than point-to-point systems. And utilization is the most important determinant behind the economics of high fixed-cost businesses like high-speed rail.
For example, look at the HSR rail map of Europe:
That’s one tangled and messy spider web and is surely one contributor to the more favorable economics behind high-speed rail in Europe.
Now let’s look at China:
Again — especially if you factor in the gray lines, many of which are candidates to be upgraded to high-speed rail lines — this is a pretty intricate web of cities, and once again supports the economics of high-speed rail. Now you will notice a few lines (such as the ones extending out across the Silk Road to Urumqi or towards Lhasa) that are more point-to-point in nature. But these lines are probably subsidized to a large extent by the much more highly utilized lines in the Eastern half of the country. Finally, let’s look at the United States:
Much less web-like, for sure. I can probably count on two hands the amount of demand for a 1,000 mile rail trip from Omaha to Salt Lake City that cannot be served better by existing options. I simply cannot see how many of these proposed routes — especially in the middle of the country — can sustain the minimum economics needed to justify the tens of billions per year necessary upkeep and operating costs let alone the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to build those lines in the first place.
And since these tracks can’t support HSR, there is no way to build on them.
Population density. The lack of networks is compounded by the fact that the population density is simply too low.
Length of time. It will take so long, at best, to build HSR in the US that the networks may become useless, as driverless cars begin to take over. We’d also have to buy most of the materials to build the network from abroad.
These reasons all show that just because HSR worked in other countries that doesn’t mean it will work here.
Answering Pro Contentions
Economic competitiveness. The problem with the economic competitiveness argument is that air transportation of goods is cheaper.
Energy efficiency. HSR isn’t more energy efficient than other forms of transportation.
Climate change. As discussed at various points in the pro and con essays, the core problem with any pro climate change argument is that electricity that powers HSR is likely to be produced with fossil fuels; hardly any renewable energy powers transportation. See also: Lin (2020); O’Toole (2009). It’s really not even feasible to produce more power with renewable energy because there isn’t enough copper.
And the construction of HSR will also generate emissions. Studies that claim HSR reduces emissions do not assume these offsetting factors.
More defensively, the majority of CO2 emissions are produced by industrial uses of energy and the US military also emits a massive amount.
Climate change files and free daily update.
Oil dependency. There are multiple problems with the oil dependence argument
*Few people would use HSR (see above)
*As long as the US still consumes oil it will be tied to the global oil market. This means it will still be vulnerable to high prices (oil prices are set globally) and would still have to defend its oil interests.
Urban Sprawl. HSR has not reduced urban sprawl in areas where it has been built and has even increased it, as people have found it easier to move outside of cities.
Employment. HSR is unlikely to increase jobs because few cities have many jobs around train stations. Given how long it would take to build the HSR, any job gains would be very long term. Any job benefits are swamped by the costs of taxpayer subsidies
Economic development. HSR is not likely to increase economic development for a number of reasons.
*Any development that occurs in cities is likely to trade-off with development elsewhere. (O’Toole)
*There won’t be a net increase in shipping, so any shipping that does occur will just trade-off with shipping on other systems (rail, truck) (O’Toole)
*Increase debt from financing will overall hurt economies (O’Toole)
Convenience. Any convenience benefits are offset by the fact that there aren’t enough stops.
Traffic congestion. A better way to reduce traffic congestion would be to improve roads. HSR has not reduced traffic congestion in Japan at all.
US leadership. There is nothing really special about HSR technology that a country would want to be a leader in and any leadership benefit could only be accrued if the US built it nation-wide (costing $4 trillion).