The U.K. Moves Ahead With High-Speed Rail. Can the U.S. Follow?

While high-speed rail has struggled to secure adequate financing in the U.S., in Britain, the government has given the green light to begin construction on the country's second bullet train. The U.K. government's decision to move forward with the controversial project offers important lessons as the U.S. pursues its own high-speed rail corridors in California and the Northeast.

In proposing the new high-speed line, which will link London to Birmingham in under an hour, the U.K. government sought to emphasize the project's lasting economic and environmental benefits. A government evaluation analyzing the economic costs and benefits of the project showed that every $1 invested in the $29 billion first phase of the London-Birmingham line will generate $1.70 in overall economic benefit. That figure includes a category dubbed "wider economic impacts," a measure used commonly in Europe, but far less often in the U.S., to calculate indirect benefits to society. For example, it might factor in the economic gains that emerge when high-speed rail increases a region's competitiveness and productivity and draws businesses to concentrate along the rail corridor.

With that assessment in hand, economists and transportation planners were able to make a case to the general public and business communities that the decades-long project would pay huge dividends over the long term. Including a measure of wider economic benefits in studies in the U.S. would make it easier to make a more complete case for high-speed rail projects.

One advantage the U.K. has is that it has already successfully built high-speed rail. The first line, known has High Speed 1, opened in 2007, connecting the Channel Tunnel to London. The line's operations and maintenance responsibilities were sold as a concession in 2010 to a consortium of Canadian pension funds, allowing the U.K. to recoup about one-third of its initial investment. The train operators pay fees to use the tracks, creating a revenue stream that is then used to maintain the infrastructure and provide a return to the investors. This deal demonstrates the feasibility of attracting private financing to high-speed rail projects.

In contrast, the U.S. is still awaiting its first high-speed line. The Northeast Corridor stretching from Washington, D.C. to Boston has characteristics similar to the U.K.'s busiest rail route, the West Coast Main Line. The two corridors have comparable lengths: the Northeast Corridor is 455 miles long and the West Coast Main Line stretches nearly 400 miles from London to Glasgow. They also serve similar-size populations and economies: the Northeast megaregion is home to about 52 million people and has an economy valued at $2.9 trillion; England has 52 million residents and a $2.2 trillion economy.

In the late 1990's, the U.K. decided to upgrade the West Coast Main Line at a cost of $20 billion, disrupting traffic on the corridor for more than 10 years. When the overhaul was completed in 2008, the line was already near capacity again. To address future demand on the line, the U.K. has now chosen to embark on its High Speed 2 project, building two dedicated tracks connecting London, the West Midlands and northern England, securing much-needed capacity and transforming intercity travel in the U.K.

The Northeast Corridor also is operating at or near capacity along several segments and has an enormous backlog of critical infrastructure projects. In 2010, Amtrak and states in the Northeast completed a report that concluded $52 billion of investment is needed to bring the corridor back to a state of good repair (much of the normal maintenance on the corridor has been neglected for years, due to battles over Amtrak funding in Congress) and meet capacity needs over the next 20 years. These improvements would probably take until 2030 to complete on the corridor, which serves nearly three-quarters of a million passengers each day. What the U.K. experience upgrading the West Coast Main Line shows is that incremental improvements alone might not suffice, and that pursuing high-speed rail is the most effective way to deal with capacity constraints on the corridor.

In 2011, Amtrak released a high-speed rail plan for the Northeast, proposing two dedicated tracks to run the length of the corridor. The new line would dramatically increase passenger capacity and reduce travel times to 90 minutes from New York to Washington, D.C. and to 100 minutes from New York to Boston. The project is estimated to cost $117 billion over 20 years and is still in the conceptual phase.

Whether the U.S. and the Northeast opt for an ambitious vision of high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor will be determined by a variety of factors, including the outcome of the presidential and congressional races, progress on the California project, and an environmental impact study on the Northeast Corridor to begin this year.

As the U.S. endeavors to introduce high-speed rail, the U.K. government's push for the London-Birmingham line suggests that a concerted effort to explain the economic benefits could jump-start the effort here. But as in the U.K., proponents of high-speed rail in the U.S. will need to overcome major concerns about the country's financial constraints and deep skepticism about infrastructure projects that take decades to complete.