David Grossman is USA Today's business columnist, a former airline exec and a California resident - and today he offers not one but two columns extolling the benefits of rail for business travelers, especially high speed rail. It's best to read these in sequence to get the full effect of his argument. First up: Is Amtrak a viable solution for business travelers?
When visiting the East Coast I often use Amtrak to traverse the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., instead of flying the air shuttles or driving the toll roads of I-95. The Acela Express and even the regional trains on those routes are often quicker than flying or driving, particularly if your origin and destination are within the city centers....
But that is only the Northeast corridor. In California, where I reside, and most other parts of the country, Amtrak is a completely different product offering. In the Northeast, trains attain operating speeds of 125 to 150 miles per hour, according to Black. On the 423-mile stretch between Oakland and Los Angeles aboard Amtrak's daily Coast Starlight train, the scheduled travel time is more than 13 hours. Though the train reaches 79 miles per hour on some segments, the average speed on this day-long marathon ranges between 25 to 35 miles per hour.
Slow travel speeds are caused by a combination of mountainous terrain and sharing the tracks with freight trains. Outside the Northeast corridor, freight railroads generally own the tracks. In most places double tracks have been removed because they are too costly to maintain. As a result Amtrak must continually wait on sidings for other trains to pass, and the freight trains operated by the host railroads that own the tracks often take priority over passenger trains.
My train sat for what seemed like hours at many places along the way and at one point was delayed 30 minutes after we rammed a shopping cart someone left on the tracks. With all these impediments it is no wonder few business travelers use Amtrak outside the Northeast corridor.
Grossman goes on to explain some of the problems he experienced on the Coast Starlight, problems that will be familiar to any of us who have used the trains before, from the late arrival time in LA to the lack of electrical outlets at all seats. But his main point is that speed and reliability are the key to make rail attractive to business travelers.
It's a point Grossman develops in his high speed rail column, The case for high speed rail in America:
Passengers fill every seat in the glass-roofed Parlor Car on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train en route from Oakland to Los Angeles. Running along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as it hugs the California coast, the Coast Starlight route offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the USA. But the mountainous terrain along the route is filled with steep grades, sharp curves, and a single track, making the travel time over 13 hours for a distance that can be flown in one hour or driven in eight.
Unless Amtrak can find a way to shorten the duration of this trip, few business travelers will abandon the crowded skies or leave their cars at home. This November, Californians will vote on a proposition to construct a new dedicated high speed rail line to bypass this slow but scenic route. If it passes, the new rail line will run across the open flat lands of California's Central Valley, allowing passengers to travel between the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, rivaling the famous French TGV or Japanese bullet trains. The new line would link California's two largest cities in just a few hours of travel time.
An obvious first point is that it's not just business travelers who will benefit from this, but all travelers period. Still, Grossman clearly applies the lessons he learned on his Coast Starlight trip to high speed rail - HSR solves all of the problems of the Starlight, by providing dedicated tracks to allow fast trains to speed travelers from one end of the state to the other in convenience and with modern conveniences that make a trip far more efficient than a flight or a drive.
The price tag for this new rail line: $10 billion, and there's the rub. To further compound the issue, that $10 billion would likely only cover the construction of one line from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles. Add in California's other population centers like San Diego, Sacramento and other cities and the final price tag will be considerably higher.
As we know, $10 billion won't be enough to cover the cost of the SF-LA line. That's more like $42 billion, and California is going to need federal assistance to make it happen. Still, columns like Grossman's in a major national newspaper certainly help that cause.
The proposal has sparked numerous fights within the state. There are many vocal opponents to the high speed rail project while others want to amend the proposition before it is even voted upon. Critics and those with a self interest in keeping the status quo maintain that America's suburban sprawl is different from Europe or Japan and that the trains will travel empty along the high speed route.
But past evidence would suggest otherwise. Since Amtrak beefed up its service in the Northeast corridor with the launch of the high speed Acela trains, their market share has grown fourfold, from 12% just a few years ago to more than 50% of the air/rail market in the Northeast Corridor today. And a huge proportion of those Acela riders are business travelers.
Of all the money-losing routes on the Amtrak network, the Northeast corridor is the one exception and a similar high speed service in the most populous state on the other side of the country would likely garner the same effect, relieving much of the congestion on the roads and in the skies that are the bane of California.
Grossman absolutely nails it here - I especially love his jab at "critics and those with a self interest in keeping the status quo." Because that's what those who oppose Prop 1 are inherently saying - that the way things are in California is just fine, there's no need to change, no need to build for the future. All is well!
And his use of statistics is quite effective, even if I'm not sure about the 50% share - the Acela was at 41% back in March, but the gas price spike may have driven the Acela's numbers even higher. In any case, the Acela is proof that high speed rail can work in the US - especially since Acela isn't true HSR.
If high speed rail is implemented correctly, as has been done in many European countries with rail lines running right into airport terminals, transfer from plane to train will be seamless and render the need for flights of less than 500 miles unnecessary in most cases.
The California HSR project gets this mostly right. There'll be stations at Millbrae/SFO, Palmdale Airport, Burbank (a mile from Burbank Airport), Ontario Airport, and as is being discussed in the previous post, perhaps one at San Diego Lindbergh. Obviously something needs to be done about LAX, but that's a regional solution, not something HSR alone can fix.
The fuel and emissions savings of electrified rail lines would be enormous and the productivity gains amassed from unclogging our skies and highways would be substantial if such a national high speed rail network could be implemented and fully integrated with the existing air transport system.
But this vision is way out there and it might have to happen one state at a time. I don't know if a majority of Californians will support the high speed rail initiative this fall, but as the saying goes, "as California goes, so goes the nation." So if high speed rail catches on here perhaps the rest of the country won't be far behind.
Well said. As polls continue to show a majority of Californians do support Prop 1, we may just provide the leadership that has otherwise been lacking in this country.
The status quo is not viable. If American business is to prosper, it needs a high speed boost. There are a lot of business folks who travel between LA and SF, and many of them frequently tell me they'd love a high speed train connection rather than fighting the airports and losing time that they might otherwise productively use.
So it's wonderful to see a major paper like the USA Today getting it right, and pushing out some common sense, obvious truths that will hopefully build nationwide support for high speed rail.