One common claim doubting high ridership estimates for American high-speed rail lines is that the Northeast Corridor gets little ridership. For example, commenter Gelboak says,
How plausible is a 51-77 million px / year ridership?
I believe the NE corridor currently has a ridership of approximately 10 million px / year, and I think the CAHSR and the NE Corridor have not all that different population sizes in the respective catchment areas. And many of generally the metro areas in the NE Corridor have larger shares of their population in dense urban cores than is the case in the Bay Area, Sacramento, LA/Orange County & San Diego.
This line has also been repeated elsewhere, among serious urban economists like Ed Glaeser as well as among commenters and journalists. It is a bad comparison, for one reason: the Northeast Corridor does not have high-speed rail. The Regional averages 110 km/h between New York and Washington and 85 km/h between New York and Boston; the premium-priced Acela averages 130 and 100 km/h respectively. This is the speed of mildly upgraded legacy lines – faster than the lines full-fat HSR replaced in Japan and France, much slower than actual HSR or heavily upgraded lines in Germany and Britain. It’s not much faster than a bus, which is why Megabus and Bolt have been so successful in the Northeast, while no comparable service exists on Tokyo-Osaka or Paris-Lyon.
In contrast, express Shinkansen trains average 200 km/h or more on the three main Shinkansen routes. So do TGVs running between cities served by LGVs, without needing to use legacy lines except in immediate station areas. For example, the fastest bi-hourly TGVs from Paris to Marseille average 230 km/h. Upgraded legacy lines are also fast by NEC standards: Britain’s East Coast Main Line and West Coast Main Line trains from London to the major cities in Scotland and the north of England usually average 140 km/h, and in one case (London-York) close to 160 km/h. For a selection of fastest-train speeds in Europe, see DoDo’s analysis at EuroTrib.
If we look at ridership on full-fat HSR, we get much higher numbers than NEC ridership. The Tokaido Shinkansen had 141 million passengers in fiscal 2010. The Sanyo Shinkansen gets 60 million passengers per year. The LGV Sud-Est and Atlantique each got 20 million annual passengers within 10 years of opening and the Madrid-Seville AVE line 6 million (see p. 109 of the new CAHSR business plan) , and although I have no link at hand, I’ve read the LGV Sud-Est is up to 30 million by now. Taiwan HSR and the KTX both significantly underperformed expectations, but each gets about 35 million annual passengers now.
If we measure the populations of the cities connected, the Northeast Corridor is easily the busiest potential HSR line in the West. New York is larger than any other Western city, and nowhere else in the first world is such a city connected to three second cities as large as Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington. Using the KTX as an analogy, New York and Seoul have about the same metro area populations, each of Washington and Boston is about the same size as Busan or a little larger, and the smaller intermediate cities, such as Baltimore and Providence, are about the same size as Daegu and Daejeon. The NY-DC and NY-Boston distances are slightly shorter than Seoul-Busan, reducing HSR’s advantage over the highways, but conversely the KTX is quite slow, averaging about 170 km/h as of 2009. The ridership on the NEC may be 10 million with today’s service levels, but it should be far well above 50 million with higher speeds and good punctuality.
Together with the fact that international links underperform, the result is that the two lines most frequently used by critics as examples of low ridership – Eurostar and the Acela – are not comparable to the HSR systems proposed. Thus sanguine expectations of ridership are realistic, issues with connecting transit and low road tolls aside. The Northeast Corridor competes with congested, tolled roads and feeds into cities with regional rail systems that suck except for when they need to serve the Amtrak station; it is not the example one should use to rebut American HSR proposals. Let an American HSR line open first before criticizing.
The upshot is that although the costs of HSR in the US have blown out of proportion, the benefits are still high. Maybe not high enough to cover the costs, but higher than the critics think. Agency turf battles and general contractor incompetence give high-cost, high-maintenance projects, but they don’t make passengers not want to ride the lines.