One of the objectives of the California HSR project is to provide effective connections to existing airports. This should allow airlines to offer connecting train journeys for their long-distance flights. It is also supposed to make secondary airports more attractive to air travelers, but success will depend heavily on getting the last mile transfer between platforms and terminal and other details right.
CHSRA claims the chosen route will achieve this for SFO, Palmdale and Ontario airports. Lindbergh Field (SAN) could now be added to that list, but the purpose of the multimodal transit terminal there is a different one: making it convenient for those arriving by car to take the train rather than fly to other California destinations. Freeing up slots for long-distance flights by displacing short-hop shuttles is another objective for California HSR, but other cities perceive downtown stations as more effective in that context. That is part of the reason why HSR trains will be not be tightly linked to Oakland, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Burbank, LAX or Sacramento airports.
So let's focus on SFO, Palmdale and Ontario: how exactly will long-distance flights and short-to-medium-distance HSR trips be combined into an attractive value proposition for the traveler? To answer this, we need to look at the following aspects:
- How many long-distance flights will be offered out of each airport?
In the aviation business, there is no formal definition of "long haul". In the US domestic market, it appears to refer to flights of at least 6 hours, e.g. coast-to-coast and transoceanic. California-Hawaii is borderline. Of course, some HSR customers will take a short train trip to connect to a much shorter flight, e.g. to the Pacific Northwest or the interior west. Unfortunately, airports don't publish their statistics down to that level of granularity - at least not free of charge.
SFO statistics reveal the airport handles 20,000-25,000 air carrier movements a month, 2.5-3.5 million passengers, of which 550,000-850,000 are international. The airport experienced robust growth in 2008 and now ranks among the nation's top 10, though passenger numbers still have not recovered to pre-9/11 volume. Note that in 2006/7, SFO commanded much higher fare premiums for long-distance flights than e.g. LAX. About 25% of all passengers flying in or out of SFO hail from or are headed to other California destinations. Factoring in aircraft size, this probably translates to ~1/3 of all aircraft movements.
Ontario is a much smaller airport, with just 7-8 million passengers a year. Most of the long-distance flights appear to be to domestic destinations, with just a few flights to Mexico and other Latin American countries out of the small international terminal.
Palmdale is another of LA's "world" airports, but it recently lost its one and only commercial service (United to SFO) when the subsidy ran out. There is now talk of converting part of the huge area to a solar thermal power plant, though it's unclear if that would prevent the resumption of commercial operations once HSR puts this airport within ~30 minutes of downtown LA. Note that the combination of elevation and high summer temperatures mean that air density at PMD is lower than at LAX, so any fully laden 747s or A380s would need an extra-long runway and a gentle ascent slope to take off.
- How many HSR trains will be offered to these airport stations?
In general, this is still very much up in the air. A great deal depends on how easy it will be to find attractive fares, get to the nearest HSR station and, transfer between HSR and flights at the airports. The number and ease of transfers is especially critical for passengers with more than just carry-on baggage.
In spite of the large volume of traffic at SFO, only a subset of HSR trains serving the Bay Area will stop at Millbrae. Expect fares between downtown SF and Millbrae to be artificially elevated to avoid low seat capacity utilization on long-distance trains and cannibalization of Caltrain and BART ridership. The purpose of the station is to provide connectivity for passengers hailing from or headed to destinations well south of SFO, e.g. Silicon Valley, the Central Coast and the Central Valley. Note that CHSRA expects just 3,000 boardings/alightings per day at Millbrae.
Ontario airport is supposed to be on the phase II extension between LA and San Diego via Riverside. HSR trips to and from LA Union Station are expected to take 25 minutes and, CHSRA expects 10,000 boardings/alightings per day. For reference, the FlyAway bus between LAUS and LAX currently takes 30-50 minutes, depending on traffic. However, a new light or heavy rail link via the Harbor Subdivision Transit Corridor could easily cut the budgeted transfer time in half.
It's too early to say what fraction of HSR trains will stop at Ontario, except that CHSRA is planning to use LAUS as a through station, with most trains continuing on to San Diego because of track capacity constraints between Fullerton and Anaheim. San Diegans may well decide to use HSR - possibly including Amtrak Pacific Surfliner at 110mph top speed - rather than fly within California, just so more long-haul flights can be offered out of Lindbergh Field. Taking HSR to catch a plane at Ontario would be an inferior solution for them, though perhaps not for residents of the Murrieta-Escondido area.
Palmdale will be included in phase I. In addition to passengers that would otherwise have used LAX or Burbank, there will be some from the Central Valley. Commercial services to Fresno Yosemite and Bakersfield do still exist, but they are expensive. Even so, it will take some aggressive lobbying of airlines and sweet flight/train bundle deals to build enough ridership, which CHSRA optimistically (?) estimates at 12,000 boardings/alightings per day.
Note that IFF a spur out to Las Vegas ever does materialize, Palmdale would be roughly 75min from Sin City, possibly close enough to serve as a relief airport for McCarran during crunch periods such as major conventions. Ontario via Cajon Pass would be a little further. The bulk of the relief would come from the gradual elimination of flights to California cities on the same bullet train network, comprising almost 1/3 of aircraft movements at Las Vegas.
- How will customers discover plane/train combo fares?
If it has not yet done so, CHSRA will presumably request IATA codes for all of its stations so they show up as destinations in airline flight reservations systems. Systems like SABRE are also used as the back-ends to many internet travel portals. It is far more likely that a passenger would discover an HSR trip as a connecting service for a flight than vice versa.
At many airports around the world (e.g. Atlanta, London Heathrow, Paris CDG, Frankfurt/Main, Amsterdam, Vienna, Oslo, Copenhagen, Geneva, Cologne, Leipzig, Kansai (Osaka)), the train platforms are within easy walking distance of the airport terminals. At others, there are frequent people mover connections (e.g. Birmingham UK) to those terminals that are beyond walking distance. However, IATA appears to permit code-sharing even if the train station is many miles away. This is disingenuous as it causes the reservation system to show the plane/train combo journey as having just two legs when it's really three. Many IATA codes for train stations not co-located with airports begin with a Q, X or Z, but this is also not enforced. The use of just three letters also means the most obvious combination may already be in use for an airport somewhere else in the world.
For a sense of how long-haul customers would book a connecting train journey, consider United's GroundLink service to most of France via Paris CDG and SNCF TGV. An enterprising airline could just as easily offer transoceanic service to e.g. Palmdale plus connecting service to any destination on the California HSR network.
In California, it would be desirable to use SFO for the Millbrae, PMD for the Palmdale and ONT for the Ontario HSR station. SAN could arguably be used for Lindbergh Field and BUR for Burbank IFF there's a courtesy shuttle bus. MER for Castle Airport would only be appropriate if CHSRA acquires part of the BNSF row for that segment and a terminal for commercial passenger and/or cargo flights is constructed.
- How will these be priced relative to connecting short-hop flights?
The question may not be all that relevant as most passengers will use HSR to connect to final destinations that are too close to be served by connecting flights. The exception will be those in the Central Valley, e.g. SFO - FYI (Fresno Yosemite, previously called FAT). However, those are far more expensive than HSR will be, so expect them to disappear from airline schedules quite quickly to free up slots for long-haul flights that can achieve high seat capacity utilization (aka "load factor"). Passengers will also prefer the trains because they will run more frequently, more than offsetting the longer trip time by cutting the layover interval.
- How will passengers get from the train platforms to their gates?
In SFO's case, BART really does run into the airport. However, anyone arriving at Millbrae by Caltrain currently needs to transfer to BART, execute a cross-platform timed transfer at San Bruno and then a third transfer to the Air Train to reach the check-in counters. See here and here for the gory details.
One of the reasons the BART shuttle between SFO and Millbrae was discontinued is that the unions insisted that it constituted a line in its own right, so drivers should be permitted to take a 15-minute break at the end of each journey. Alternatively, each train would have to be operated by two drivers, each twiddling their thumbs more than 50% of the time.
Running the AirTrain out to Millbrae would be very expensive, so either a BART shuttle or a SamTrans (?) bus would have to be paid out of airport taxes if that station is to share the IATA code with the airport.
At Ontario, the last mile transfer depends entirely on the right of way CHSRA can obtain through the San Gabriel Valley. The plan of record is to leverage the UPRR Colton alignment that runs right past the gigantic car park in front of the three terminals on S Moore Way and E Terminal Way, respectively. Given how spread out the terminals are, the most likely solution would be a shuttle bus or people mover that also serves long-term parking. This approach is still viable if HSR ends up in the I-10 median. However, if HSR were forced even further from this secondary airport, e.g. to the CA-60 median, it could not act as an effective feeder. In that case, it would make more sense to extend the starter line from Fullerton to Riverside and San Bernardino, with a view to one day reaching Las Vegas. Any money saved should then be put toward upgrading the Pacific Surfliner route to higher speeds or else, on a spur down to San Diego at Corona.
In Palmdale, the existing terminal is located almost 3.5 miles from the Metrolink station. The most likely connection would be a shuttle bus. Of course, now that commercial operation has anyhow ceased, it might make sense to build a brand-new terminal near Sierra Hwy/Ave N with detour tracks for HSR trains at grade and check-in/baggage retrieval on a concourse level. Note that Palmdale could also serve as a high speed cargo transshipment point, as the northern terminus for HSR trains serving only Southern California and as a maintenance facility.
In essence, much the same logic would apply for Castle Airport in Merced county - right now, there's a long runway and a nearby rail line but not much else.
Remote secondary airports have little or no chance of commercial success without a high speed train station within walking distance of the airport concourse. Even then, some caution is in order: the spectacular Satolas station was built right next to the airport in Lyon, France, in the 1980s. The hope was that the TGV would attract additional passengers from south of Lyon to the airport such that airlines would offer more international flights.
However, in one of France's worst transportation planning failures, SNCF/RFF never constructed the turn-off that would have permitted regional TGV service between downtown Lyon (Part-Dieu), the airport, the Rhône Valley and beyond. As a result, Lyon was never able to emerge from Paris' long shadow. In 2010, a new express light rail service will finally provide a 20-minute transit link between downtown and the airport but that's no more than a consolation prize.
The lesson from Satolas is that a secondary airport without a substantial local catchment area will struggle to attract the flights that would prompt passengers to ride a train to the airport in the first place. It's a chicken-and-egg situation that can only be overcome with a plan for integrated service. This has to be driven by one or more innovative airlines collaborating closely with one or more rail operators to offer a combined service that is hassle-free, fast, punctual and competitively priced. The notion that a government agency like CHSRA or LAWA can "build it and they will come" is false.
- Where will check-in and security screening happen?
Some operators in Europe (e.g. Deutsche Bahn) do provide flight check-in facilities at selected train stations, but all security screening still happens at the airport. In 2010, the European rail networks will be opened to international competition. At that point, Air France and others intend to compete directly with Eurostar on the London-Paris route, where baggage and passenger screening is already performed at the train stations because the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement. However, the rail and airport security zones are currently not equally strict nor integrated, so passengers will still probably have to submit to screening twice.
Afaik, no rail operator anywhere allows passengers to take care of flight check-in formalities on board the train to save time. Reliable wireless internet connections are still a new phenomenon and there are also logistical issues, e.g. with weighing bags.
However, consider this scenario: you go online and book a train/flight combo ticket with XYZ airline, which has decided to operate out of a secondary airport with an integrated HSR station. You print out your ticket/write down your confirmation code. At the appropriate time, you board the train with your baggage. Once you're underway, you head to the cafe car, which features a courtesy desk where you can check in for your flight. In addition to your boarding pass(es), you receive self-adhesive baggage tags that you need to attach yourself. Upon arrival at the airport, you need only drop off your bags. The person there will check that your bags are in order (size, weight, condition) and scan the bar code before letting you proceed. The airline would not be responsible for lost bags prior to this point.
- Will baggage be checked through to the final destination?
Train stations that permit combined train/plane check-in on the outbound leg also provide the boarding passes and baggage labels for the flight. However, in most cases passengers still have to take their bags onto the train themselves. One exception is Vienna, Austria, where you can check your bags the night before or, up to 75 minutes before the shuttle train leaves for the nearby airport. Baggage is forwarded automatically to the airport's handling facility. Returning passengers do have to pick up their bags at the baggage carousels as usual, though.