The raw power of the mighty iron horse has inspired music, art, and literature, but one has to wonder whether technocrats in Richmond are equally romantic in their pursuit of a “high-speed” rail connection between Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, North Carolina. The Washington Examiner reports today that public hearings are being held this week in the Richmond area to discuss the proposed alignments. The obvious question that ought to be asked is, “Why?”

The designation “high-speed” is dubious when we consider that the top speed of the proposed trains will be only 90-110 miles per hour. Genuinely high-speed trains in Europe and Asia are capable of breathtaking speeds in excess of 200 m.p.h. but the Acela train in the Northeast Corridor only achieves its top speed of 150 m.p.h. on two small stretches of track in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and frequent stops bring the average speed down to 72 m.p.h.

Without overhead electric wires, trains in the Southeast Corridor will have even slower average speeds, so the roughly 430-mile trip from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte will easily take more than six hours. The same trip by airplane only takes 90 minutes.  For trains to be competitive, they must shorten the travel time relative to driving by enough to make the airplane level ticket price reasonable.

Ironically, a report published on the Southeast High-Speed Rail consortium’s own website includes statistics which show that Amtrak has only 55% of the market share of the much shorter 225-mile trip between New York and Washington, D.C., but longer trips have a drastically lower market share for trains. Nobody is going to pay upwards of $100 for a train ticket when the same trip by car only costs $50 in gasoline and the train ride is only an hour shorter.

So the question for train-loving officials is, “Why?” At a time when state budgets are deep in red ink and the federal deficit has broken the trillion-dollar mark, why spend money we don’t have to improve a rail corridor that is already unprofitable and heavily subsidized for existing Amtrak service? Trains may be a romantic and exciting part of our history, but so are the horse-drawn buggy and the stagecoach. The reality is that for long distance travel, Americans would rather fly.