This is the accessible text file for GAO report number GAO-09-560T 
entitled 'High Speed Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on 
Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear 
Federal Role' which was released on April 1, 2009. 

This text file was formatted by the U.S. Government Accountability 
Office (GAO) to be accessible to users with visual impairments, as part 
of a longer term project to improve GAO products' accessibility. Every 
attempt has been made to maintain the structural and data integrity of 
the original printed product. Accessibility features, such as text 
descriptions of tables, consecutively numbered footnotes placed at the 
end of the file, and the text of agency comment letters, are provided 
but may not exactly duplicate the presentation or format of the printed 
version. The portable document format (PDF) file is an exact electronic 
replica of the printed version. We welcome your feedback. Please E-mail 
your comments regarding the contents or accessibility features of this 
document to 

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright 
protection in the United States. It may be reproduced and distributed 
in its entirety without further permission from GAO. Because this work 
may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the 
copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this 
material separately. 


Before the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban 
Development, and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, House 
of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 


For Release on Delivery Expected at 2:00 p.m. EDT: 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009: 

High Speed Passenger Rail: 

Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other 
Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role: 

Statement of Susan A. Fleming: 

Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues: 


Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Latham, and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today as you examine the potential viability of 
high speed rail in the United States. Federal and other decision makers 
have had a renewed interest in how high speed rail might fit into the 
national transportation system and address increasing mobility 
constraints on highways and at airports due to congestion. My statement 
today is based on our report issued March 19, 2009, entitled High Speed 
Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial 
and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role.[Footnote 1] 
In preparing the report, we reviewed federal legislation; interviewed 
federal, state, local, and private sector officials, as well as U.S. 
project sponsors; and reviewed high speed rail development in France, 
Japan, and Spain. More detailed information on our scope and 
methodology appears in the March 19, 2009, report. We conducted our 
work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing 

In summary, high speed rail does not offer a quick or simple solution 
to relieving congestion on our nation's highways and airways. High 
speed rail projects are costly, risky, take years to develop and build, 
and require substantial up-front public investment as well as 
potentially long-term operating subsidies. Yet the potential benefits 
of high speed rail--both to riders and nonriders--are many. Whether any 
of the nearly 50 current domestic high speed rail proposals (or any 
future domestic high speed rail proposal), may eventually be built will 
hinge on addressing the funding, public support, and other challenges 
facing these projects. Determining which, if any, proposed high speed 
rail projects should be built will require decision makers to be better 
able to determine a project's economic viability--meaning whether total 
social benefits offset or justify total social costs. 

Like the report, this statement focuses on (1) the factors affecting 
the economic viability of high speed rail projects, including 
difficulties in determining the economic viability of proposed 
projects; (2) the challenges in developing and financing high speed 
rail systems; and (3) the federal role in the potential development of 
U.S. high speed rail systems. 

The factors affecting the economic viability of high speed rail lines 
include the level of expected riders, costs, and public benefits (i.e., 
benefits to non-riders and the nation as a whole from such things as 
reduced congestion), which are influenced by a line's corridor and 
service characteristics. High speed rail tends to attract riders in 
dense, highly populated corridors, especially where there is congestion 
on existing transportation modes. Characteristics of the proposed 
service are also key considerations, as high speed rail attracts riders 
where it compares favorably to travel alternatives with regard to door- 
to-door trip times, prices, frequency of service, reliability, and 
safety. Costs largely hinge on the availability of rail right-of-way 
and on a corridor's terrain. To stay within financial or other 
constraints, project sponsors typically make trade-offs between cost 
and service characteristics. 

Once projects are deemed economically viable, project sponsors face the 
challenging tasks of securing the up-front investment for construction 
costs and sustaining public and political support and stakeholder 
consensus. In the three countries we visited, the central government 
generally funded the majority of the up-front costs of high speed rail 
lines. By contrast, federal funding for high speed rail has been 
derived from general revenues, not from trust funds or other dedicated 
funding sources. Consequently, high speed rail projects must compete 
with other nontransportation demands on federal funds (e.g., national 
defense or health care) as opposed to being compared with other 
alternative transportation investments in a corridor. Available federal 
loan programs can support only a fraction of potential high speed rail 
project costs. Without substantial public sector commitment, private 
sector participation is difficult to secure. The challenge of 
sustaining public support and stakeholder consensus is compounded by 
long project lead times, by numerous stakeholders, and by the absence 
of an established institutional framework. 

In addition, the recently enacted Passenger Rail Investment and 
Improvement Act of 2008 will likely increase the federal role in the 
development of high speed rail, as will the newly enacted American 
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.[Footnote 2] In the United 
States, federal involvement with high speed rail to date has been 
limited. The national rail plan required by the Passenger Rail 
Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 is an opportunity to identify 
the vision and goals for U.S. high speed rail and how it fits into the 
national transportation system, an exercise that has largely remained 
incomplete. Accountability can be enhanced by tying the specific, 
measurable goals required by the act to performance and accountability 
measures. In developing analytical tools to apply to the act's project 
selection criteria, it will be important to address optimistic rider 
and cost forecasts and varied public benefits analyses. 

In our report, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation, in 
consultation with Congress and other stakeholders, develop a written 
strategic vision for high speed rail, particularly in relation to the 
role that high speed rail can play in the national transportation 
system, clearly identifying potential objectives and goals for high 
speed rail systems and the roles that federal and other stakeholders 
should play in achieving each objective and goal. We also recommended 
that the Secretary develop specific policies and procedures for 
reviewing and evaluating grant applications under the Passenger Rail 
Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 that clearly identify the 
outcomes expected to be achieved through the award of grant funds and 
that include performance and accountability measures. Finally, we 
recommended that the Secretary develop guidance and methods for 
ensuring the reliability of ridership and other forecasts used to 
determine the viability of high speed rail projects and to support the 
need for federal grant assistance. The Department of Transportation 
(DOT) said it generally agreed with the information presented but did 
not take a position on our recommendations. DOT said the strategic plan 
required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 may 
include a vision for high speed rail. DOT also said that this act will 
accelerate its involvement with high speed rail. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks. I would be happy to 
answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have. 

For future contacts regarding this statement, please contact Susan 
Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or Contact points for our 
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Relations can be found on 
the last page of this statement. Andrew Von Ah, Assistant Director; 
Catherine Kim; Richard Jorgenson; and Gretchen Snoey also made key 
contributions to this statement. 

[End of section] 


[1] GAO-09-317 (Washington, D.C.: March 19, 2009). 

[2] Pub. L. No. 110-432, Div. B (2008)(PRIIA) and Pub. L. No. 111-5 

[End of section] 

GAO's Mission: 

The Government Accountability Office, the audit, evaluation and 
investigative arm of Congress, exists to support Congress in meeting 
its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance 
and accountability of the federal government for the American people. 
GAO examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and 
policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance 
to help Congress make informed oversight, policy, and funding 
decisions. GAO's commitment to good government is reflected in its core 
values of accountability, integrity, and reliability. 

Obtaining Copies of GAO Reports and Testimony: 

The fastest and easiest way to obtain copies of GAO documents at no 
cost is through GAO's Web site [hyperlink,]. Each 
weekday, GAO posts newly released reports, testimony, and 
correspondence on its Web site. To have GAO e-mail you a list of newly 
posted products every afternoon, go to [hyperlink,] 
and select "E-mail Updates." 

Order by Phone: 

The price of each GAO publication reflects GAO’s actual cost of
production and distribution and depends on the number of pages in the
publication and whether the publication is printed in color or black and
white. Pricing and ordering information is posted on GAO’s Web site, 

Place orders by calling (202) 512-6000, toll free (866) 801-7077, or
TDD (202) 512-2537. 

Orders may be paid for using American Express, Discover Card,
MasterCard, Visa, check, or money order. Call for additional 

To Report Fraud, Waste, and Abuse in Federal Programs: 


Web site: [hyperlink,]: 
Automated answering system: (800) 424-5454 or (202) 512-7470: 

Congressional Relations: 

Ralph Dawn, Managing Director, 
(202) 512-4400: 
U.S. Government Accountability Office: 
441 G Street NW, Room 7125: 
Washington, D.C. 20548: 

Public Affairs: 

Chuck Young, Managing Director, 
(202) 512-4800: 
U.S. Government Accountability Office: 
441 G Street NW, Room 7149: 
Washington, D.C. 20548: