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Sunday 3 March 2019

Track for your buck

Most things get cheaper. Not building railways. Take a look and see how much it now costs to build a stretch of track by comparison with other railroads around the world

By Chris Newell and Ella Hill

California has been forced to put a $77 billion high-speed rail project on hold because President Trump considers a Mexican border wall a better use of federal money.

The LA-San Francisco bullet train would actually be less than a quarter the price per mile of HS2, which the UK government has committed to building between London and Birmingham.

Compared with high-speed rail elsewhere, including in Japan and France, both these lines are wildly expensive – because of the cost of tunnelling through the mountains north of LA and under north London respectively. Compared with low-speed lines from history, they look downright prohibitive. Railway builders used to get so much more track for their buck that the difference is almost impossible to show on an app. Almost, but not quite. (Just keep scrolling.)

So is rail now so expensive that it has to be considered an endangered species in the transport ecosystem? We asked the railway guru Christian Wolmar, and he said: no.

“High speed rail may look expensive when expressed as a cost per mile but it will last for a century or longer and take millions of people off the roads, alleviating congestion and resulting in more environmentally sustainable transport. On the right routes where it can serve huge numbers of travellers, it is definitely worthwhile. The problem for politicians promoting it is that inevitably the costs look high. The alternative though, will be more congested roads, more pollution and less pleasant journeys.”