Like many people I love the concept... it's too bad the numbers behind high-speed rail just don't work.
High-speed inter-city trains (not commuter lines) travel at up to 250 miles per hour and are most competitive with planes and cars over distances of fewer than 500 miles. In a report on high-speed rail, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examined the 12 corridors of 500 miles or fewer with the most daily air traffic in 2007. Los Angeles to San Francisco led the list with 13,838 passengers; altogether, daily air passengers in these 12 corridors totaled 52,934. If all of them hypothetically switched to trains, the total number of daily airline passengers, about 2 million, would drop only 2.5 percent. Any fuel savings would be less than that; even trains need energy.
Indeed, inter-city trains -- at whatever speed -- target such a small part of total travel that the changes in oil use, congestion or greenhouse gases must be microscopic. Every day, about 140 million Americans go to work, with about 85 percent driving an average of 25 minutes (three-quarters drive alone, 10 percent carpool). Even assuming 250,000 high-speed rail passengers, there would be no visible effect on routine commuting, let alone personal driving. In the Northeast Corridor, with about 45 million people, Amtrak's daily ridership is 28,500. If its trains shut down tomorrow, no one except the affected passengers would notice.
Inter-city high-speed rail is a waste of money except in a limited number of high-density travel corridors. Trains are romantic, but not economical.