2012 Core Files p. 1
HIGH-SPEED RAIL AFFIRMATIVE
The United States has virtually no high-speed rail systems now. There is only one route and that
is the Amtrak Acela Express in the Northeast and even it isn’t very high-speed.
President Obama initially provided support for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act (stimulus) bill, but Congress subsequently stripped the money down to zero.
Most of the money ended up going to status quo rail systems to buy new trains, improve
stations and conduct engineering studies, but not to build a high-speed rail system. In essence,
the administration has given up on high-speed rail.
The money that was provided would likely not have gone to true high-speed track and
equipment. In other countries, high-speed trains travel 150 miles per hour or above. But the
proposals for President Obama’s routes are much lower. For example, the proposed Ohio route
between Cleveland and Cincinnati would have traveled fewer than 100 mph.
With unpredictable support from the Federal Government, no state or local government or
private sector entity will be willing to make the long-term investment in track and equipment
needed to start up high-speed rail. While these systems can be profitable eventually, they earn
the returns based on passenger fares. But those revenues are years into the future. Federal
involvement is necessary to create confidence in the mission of high-speed rail, to assure
investors and to address inter-state issues.
High-speed rail in America can help fight global warming by reducing greenhouse gas
production. Transportation systems play an extremely large role in overall energy consumption.
Currently they are one of the major contributors to carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse
gas emissions and thus to global warming. Current modes of transportation such as
automobiles and short air routes are extremely dirty energy intensive. Fighting greenhouse gas
emissions involves shifting to better modes of transportation, like high-speed rail.
Because high-speed rail is more energy efficient and can use electricity from less polluting
forms of energy, it can deliver large reductions in air pollutions and emissions. This has been
proven in Europe where high-speed rail lines exist. For a typical Monday morning business trip,
emissions reductions compared with air travel range from 77 percent for a trip between
Germany and Switzerland, to 90 percent for a trip inside France. These improvements can add
Experts from Spain estimate that the savings from one line alone, Madrid-to-Barcelona, saved a
quarter-million metric tons of CO2, which is the same as taking more than 45,000 of today’s
American cars off the road. Studies by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies found that
high-speed rail lines in Europe and Japan released less than half the CO2 per passenger-
kilometer compared to automobiles or airplanes. In the longer term, converting train energy from
oil to electricity might reduce emissions down to zero. In Sweden, the country’s high-speed
trains are powered entirely with renewable energy, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 99
2012 Core Files p. 2
The real debate about climate change has been settled. What remains is pure ideology or
political partisanship. Climate change is real, it is based on scientific fact and has been
recognized by many of our nation’s most prestigious international scientific panels such as the
National Academy of Scientists. What we know about the rate of climate change today is the
result of massive scientific study and direct observation. Major international scientific
organizations in disciplines from geophysics to geology, atmospheric sciences to biology, and
physics to human health all have concluded that human activity is changing the climate.
The assertions of climate deniers should not be given the same scientific weight equal to the
comprehensive, peer-reviewed research presented by the vast majority of climate scientists.
Billions of lives are at risk from extreme climate change. Without action, the scientific consensus
shows that a climate catastrophe that threatens billions of lives will almost surely occur. It’s a
serious threat to the United States and the rest of the world. The most extreme scenario is
what’s called a “runaway greenhouse” effect where positive feedbacks between growing
temperatures and water vapor in the atmosphere lead to burning everything up. We could heat
the atmosphere to the temperature it was millions of years ago when crocodiles lived at the
poles of the earth and all of our biosphere collapsed.
Another dire possibility is how global warming will threaten food supplies. Climate change will
cause droughts, storms and changes in rain patterns. We are already seeing the beginning of
this effect on global crop yields. Over time, supplies of central food crops, like corn, rice and
wheat will become unstable from year to year. Shortages and price spikes can threaten the
access of hundreds of millions of people to essential food.
The United States federal government should establish a national infrastructure bank for the
purpose of funding a nationwide system of high-speed rail. Loans and bonds can help with the
There are many regions of the United States that could benefit from high-speed rail. These
corridors would replace air travel and highway congestion and are connected to enough other
regions that it would multiply the positive effects. Regional high-speed rail systems could help a
great deal with greenhouse gas emissions. It could run from overhead electric wires or with
diesel power, either of which offer great emission benefits compared to airplanes and
automobiles per passenger mile. Even a small shift from road and air to rail travel can have an
impact on global warming.
Even taking into account the energy needed to lay the track, high-speed rail reduces energy
consumption compared to alternatives. We would not need to build new highways or airports to
accommodate greater transportation traffic in the future. Savings in these areas would offset the
costs of building the new rail system. Emissions improvements in the U.S. would actually be
greater than those abroad as our current energy mix is more heavily tilted toward oil, the dirtiest
A national infrastructure bank could be used to finance the program at little cost to the taxpayer.
The NIB works this way: a state or local government, or a private sector entity would borrow
money from the NIB and repay it over time. Existing loan programs in the transportation sector
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have worked. Bond programs, where the government sells bonds to investors who will be paid a
rate of return, can also raise revenues to get the program started.
Sustainable federal financing will motivate the private sector to invest money in the expectation
of profits from passenger fares. This kind of a NIB approach has worked in Europe. Over time,
high-speed rail would become popular and used widely. Trains would be full and profitable.
Critics of high-speed rail fail to see the way it would be better in the future. By their logic, the
U.S. should never have built the transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system
because no one was using anything like that before they were built. The fact that only a few
wagon trains crossed the continent was not a reason for President Lincoln to spend taxpayer
money on a steam railroad system.
High-speed rail has an excellent safety record in places where it currently operates. Air pollution
in those regions has been reduced as has land used for transportation. Land requirements are
smaller for high-speed rail than they are for highways.
High-speed rail would revitalize cities and help people who lived in cities travel throughout a
region, even if they did not own an automobile. The local stations would provide jobs through
direct construction and at the businesses, which sprung up in nearby areas. One can also make
the argument that high-speed rail would increase economic competitiveness of America by
reducing travel time, expense and congestion.
2012 Core Files p. 4
HIGH-SPEED RAIL NEGATIVE
Many changes in America’s energy use practices will take place over the next few decades.
High-speed rail might produce some benefits in greenhouse gas emission reduction over
several decades, but it is far from the only potential source. The fleet of American automobiles
is becoming much more energy efficient. Given that trains and planes tend to be 25-30 years
old before they are scrapped the turnover in this area is much slower than it is with automobiles
Electric vehicles that have very durable engines may be in place before we can exchange the
stock of train cars. Future regulations will surely spur greater innovation in cars and buses.
Tailpipe emissions have been drastically reduced in the past 15 years and will continue. By
2025, new vehicles may be expected to emit so little that the total impact from the car fleet will
be very small. Similar improvements will take place in the airline industry. Over the same time
span that it would take to build an extensive high-speed rail system, improvements in the
electric car could easily achieve the same emissions savings. New vehicles and engines may
look very different 30 or 50 years from now.
Contrary to the affirmative claims, we have no reliable way to predict climate change. Models
are terrible and we can’t even make one that can accurately predict past temperatures. There
are many observations which show the impact of global warming is small or non-existent. Many
measurements in out in nature show there is no warming. Those areas where temperature has
increased can be attributed to the effects of urbanization not the atmosphere.
Scientific advances are improving the reliability of crop supply and this will continue for the
foreseeable future. New crops are being developed through genetic engineering to withstand
greater heat and less water. They will be able to cope with extreme weather and climate
change. There are already examples where global crops have proved quite resilient to sudden
There are also benefits to higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Plants breathe in CO2 and
studies in greenhouses show that when levels of CO2 are increased, plants thrive. More CO2 in
the atmosphere may be exactly what global crops need to overcome water shortages and soil
erosion. The world might actually see an increase in global crops from CO2 and cutting down
on those gases may threaten the very increases in food supply needed to feed new populations.
Emissions decreases from high-speed rail will be small and take many decades. In the short
term, more energy burning will be required to install an entire new system of rail track and build
more rail equipment. By the time the initial energy expenditures from building the track and
trains are offset, it will be time to build them all over again.
2012 Core Files p. 5
Claims by the rail industry about greenhouse gas reductions have not been supported by
independent research. Faster trains need more energy to accelerate. There is doubt about
whether high-speed rail traffic will reduce automobile travel.
Most destinations aren’t to inner city hubs, so travelers will still have to rent cars or use some
other form of transportation once they arrive to the high-speed rail station. Experience in Europe
shows that most travelers still prefer cars. Inter-city travel in the U.S. is such a small part of the
overall transportation pattern in the U.S., its effects on energy and pollution are small. If
anything, European experience proves that high-speed rail won’t meet passenger targets. The
theory of “build it and they will come” has not always worked.
There are very few routes in the U.S. where high-speed rail travel can even reach high-speeds.
The area between Cleveland and Cincinnati, for example, is so built up that the train would not
come close to averaging high-speed. Some estimates are that it would take less time to drive. If
ridership is low, then the benefits won’t happen. Cars would still be on the road. Plus the rail
lines would not be profitable without enough passenger fares.
High-speed rail will be more expensive than planned. With ridership not expected for many
years into the future, regardless of the ultimate success of the program, there will be substantial
initial outlays in cash and that will come from the federal government. The announcement of
another round of controversial federal spending on high-speed rail will create the perception the
government isn’t interested in fiscal responsibility, leading to market reactions.
High-speed rail programs are very controversial politically, which we’ve seen in the reaction to
President Obama’s initial proposal. Transportation loans would remind people of the Solyndra
scandal where the federal government invested a lot of money in a solar industry and it went
bankrupt. Huge sections of the country, primarily rural areas, would not benefit at all. Many
urban and suburban areas would mainly feel the impact of the construction sites. Proposals in
California and elsewhere prove how unpopular high-speed rail can be in America.
A federal program to require the building of and state spending on high-speed rail would take
over the responsibility and choice from states. In the current system, Governors had the option
to refuse the high-speed rail lines, as several did notably in Ohio and Florida. While others
accepted like in California. The affirmative plan would destroy this state flexibility, linking to the
High-speed rail is too expensive for most people to ride and would represent another example
of the federal government taking care of upper-income travelers at the expense of poorer
communities who live in cities and need local transportation. There is even evidence to suggest
that high-speed rail programs would trade off with local transit programs, like buses.
A massive high-speed rail program would be exactly the kind of neoliberal project that has
legitimized state involvement in capitalism in the past. The government would become even
2012 Core Files p. 6
more deeply involved in economic decision making about transportation routes. High-technology
corridors would also conform to the neoliberal worldview of speeding up the transportation of
inputs and products.