Unlike the benefits from time savings, which are somewhat difficult to measure definitively and probably impossible to forecast accurately, the construction and operation of a national rail system has a definite and observable impact on the economy, both regional and national. Research has found that every $1 billion of federal investment supports 36,000 jobs in public transportation and related industries. These jobs are estimated to make a $1.8 billion contribution to the GDP annually.
A number of studies demonstrate the economic impact of both the construction and maintenance of a national rail system and the impact of train stations on the value and quality of a geographic area. Improving train stations and railroad/public transportation efficiency is consistently found to lead to increased property value, employer labor access, and the average income of the area serviced by these improvements.
The UK transportation consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave found that investments in the Sheffield train station in England resulted in a 67% increase in local property values. Investments in the Manchester Piccadilly station produced a 33% increase in local property values and created 650,000 square feet of new and refurbished office space.
In New Jersey, three railway improvement projects, including the construction of the Secaucus Junction station, reportedly led to an $11 billion increase in the value of homes located within two miles of the improvements. The proposed ARC project could cut commute times by 10 minutes and raise the average home's value by $19,000.
A 1994 report by Hiroshi Okada says the construction of a Shinkansen (or "Bullet Train") station in Kakegawa, Japan, resulted in an influx of tourism; increased production, employment, and sales; and provided easy access to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
There are problems with using rail projects in the Northeast and Japan to demonstrate the possible economic benefits of a national high-speed railway in the United States.
First, public transportation is established in the Northeast and Japan. Traveling to New York City from the suburbs via train is common recreationally and professionally, because it eliminates the need to find parking, pay tolls, and navigate city streets in a car. Further, buses, taxis, and the subway make it easy to travel quickly and cheaply around the city. Much of the nation does not have such a public transportation system. In Japan, rail travel never went away the way it has here. There is still significant competition between rail and air service. The choice of either service depends largely on the time spent on a commute.
Second, as illustrated by the success of the Shinkansen, trains have to operate exceptionally well to steal away frequent fliers. In America, it's assumed that a high-speed railway will present an attractive alternative to high airfare and the post-9/11 security system that clogs airports. However, unless comfort, travel times, and service frequency are comparable or superior to what airlines are offering, it seems unlikely that trains will compete with airplanes on a national level.
Will such a project ever truly pay for itself? If used, the answer is yes. People are willing to use public transportation, as its record use in recent years shows. The question is how much money and research it would take the railways to regain recognition as a viable, comfortable, and efficient means of cross-country transportation.