High-Speed Ground Transportation:

Issues Affecting Development in the United States

RCED-94-29: Published: Nov 17, 1993. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed issues concerning the development of high-speed ground transportation (HSGT) technology, focusing on: (1) the types of HSGT technology being developed in the United States; (2) how HSGT is financed; and (3) the social benefits expected from HSGT technology.

GAO found that: (1) the incremental HSGT approach provides a low-cost, near-term option for developing high-speed U.S. passenger service because rights-of-way between major cities already exist and funds for high speed rail systems are limited; (2) incremental HSGT costs will total about $10 million per mile and include the costs of eliminating grade crossing, improving track and signaling, modifying bridges, and electrifying rights-of-way; (3) many incremental costs will be avoided as more cost-effective technologies are developed; (4) freight railroads will likely request indemnification from liability for passenger train accidents and believe that incremental improvement programs outside the northeast corridor (NEC) will not significantly benefit their freight operations; (5) very high-speed rail and maglev systems will cost over $20 million per mile and require straight and level rights-of-way, substantially new infrastructures, and land acquisitions and technological development; (6) although the federal government has supported HSGT development in NEC and other areas, investors have avoided HSGT because it poses unacceptable risks; (7) substantial federal efforts to reduce HSGT risks might encourage private investment; (8) proposed legislation would increase federal assistance by $1.3 billion for HSGT corridor development and research over 5 years; (9) federal, state, and private-sector funds need to be strategically provided to a few, well-chosen improvement projects; and (10) the proposed legislation will require consideration of each project's estimated ridership, revenues, subsidy requirements, and social benefits.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: At the time of the recommendation, Congress was considering bills that would authorize about $1 billion to assist states in building high-speed rail systems. The bills were never enacted and no funds were appropriated. New bills have been introduced, but provide no funds for construction of high-speed rail systems. Hence, in spite of the agency concurring with the recommendation, there are no funds to focus.

    Recommendation: In addition to following through on the high-speed nonelectric locomotive and research on low-cost grade crossing systems, the Secretary of Transportation should focus available federal funds on a limited number of projects to ensure that combined federal, state, and private funding is sufficient to move these projects to completion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No current bills authorize federal selection and funding of high-speed rail systems. Therefore, there will be no corridor proposals to evaluate.

    Recommendation: In addition to following through on the high-speed nonelectric locomotive and research on low-cost grade crossing systems, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure that Federal Railroad Administration has the expertise to evaluate corridor development proposals to select those that could provide the most benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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