You hear a lot of talk these days about infrastructure from various politicians, and it’s probably a good idea to determine how much it would cost to improve passenger rail service, assuming that the financing was made available.

New single-level passenger cars cost about $4 million each. The new order of Viewliners being constructed by CAF run about $3.5 million each, so $4 million is a reasonable estimate. New double-decker cars would cost about $6 million each. Keep in mind that the last time Amtrak built new Superliners was nearly 25 years ago. New passenger locomotives cost about $7 million each. These costs are estimates and the actual construction cost may be higher, and if new equipment was ordered today it would probably take at least three years to enter revenue service.

New 110-mph track would likely cost about $10 million per mile. The estimated cost of 110-mph track for the Baton Rouge train 10 years ago was $440 million – so an $800 million estimated cost today is probably reasonable. When track is built/rebuilt for 110-mph passenger service generally everything will be concrete/steel, including the cross ties and bridges. The cost of a new rail bridge across a major body of water (like the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge) can easily cost $1 billion on its own. So, for example, let’s cost out a 110-mph route from New Orleans to Houston via Baton Rouge. It’s about 360 rail miles between the two cities, so that would be about $3.6 billion just for the new single track, and a new bridge would cost $1 billion, so $4.6 billion. Keep in mind that building across the Atchafalaya would need to be on a new concrete/steel bridge, so add at least a couple of hundred million. It would likely cost about $5 billion to complete the work in today’s dollars. That would allow a 5-hour transit time with probably 5 round trips per day.

True 220-mph high-speed rail can be extremely expensive. The best cost example we have is the Texas Central project between Dallas and Houston – they’re projecting the construction cost to be $10 billion for 240 miles of double track to be built on concrete platforms above the ground. That works out to be about $42 million per mile, so round up to $50 million per mile. Again, this estimate doesn’t include major water crossings. So using the same New Orleans to Houston example, the cost for 220-mph trains between New Orleans and Houston would be approximately $18 billion, plus the $1 billion Mississippi River crossing, so $19 billion. Might as well round up to $20 billion for contingencies. A high speed route between New Orleans and Houston would allow for about a two-hour transit time and hourly service. Keep in mind that high-speed rail costs can be exponential with California averaging about $90 million per mile and a new Northeast Corridor route would be about $275 million per mile (both due to high land acquisition costs).