Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Acela Proves High Speed Rail Can Succeed in America

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

One of the common criticisms of high speed rail is that "nobody will ride it, Americans are too wedded to their cars and to their planes." But Amtrak's Acela train, a sort-of high speed train that serves the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston, has recently increased its share of the travel market on the Northeast Corridor - from 36% in 2006 to 41% in 2007. That's a 5% bite out of air travel, along the nation's busiest air corridor.

(H/T to The Overhead Wire)

And that’s for a service that isn’t really HSR. Acela is a modern intercity train with a few high speed segments. The Acela is designed for 150 mph, but can only attain that speed in a few areas, thanks to aging overhead wiring. The CAHSR system would smoke Acela, by perhaps as much as 100 mph.

Wired Magazine explains some of the reasons for Acela's growing success:

The Acela is fast -- Hop on the train at Boston's South Station and you'll find yourself pulling into New York Penn three and a half hours later. Sure, flight time on the route is just under an hour, but add transportation to and from the airport, security screening, and waiting on the runway, and you could be looking at four hours or more.

You can get some work done -- On the Acela, you can use your cellphone (and service is decent for most of the trip), there are power ports at every seat, and you can start up your laptop without waiting for a flight attendant to tell you that the use of approved electronic devices is now permitted.

It's cheaper -- A roundtrip flight between NYC and Boston will run you between $350 to $425. The Acela will put you out $204, $325 if you upgrade to first class.

You might actually get there on time -- According to Amtrak, the Acela ran on time 73 percent of the time in 2007. Not great, but not horrible considering that Boston to LaGuardia flights scored a 67 percent on time record; Boston to JFK 61 percent; and Boston to Newark, a dismal 51 percent. If you're flying to New York, make sure you bring a book. If you're going to Newark, bring two.

Tasty snacks -- On the Acela, you have the option to scarf down braised short ribs with cheesy grits, four-cheese lasagna, pancakes or a variety of other culinary delights. The airlines certainly can't compete with that (though you do get free booze on the shuttle).

All these things hold true here in California, where HSR on the LA-SF route would be a very compelling attraction for travelers, for exactly these reasons. Leaving aside the concerns about sustainability, energy, and the environment, HSR is simply a better way to travel.

HSR demand is there. If we build it, they will come.


Anonymous said...

Amtrak Acela is a poor excuse of a High Speed Train! It's infrastructure wasn't built for High Speed. The California High Speed Rail Project is as far as I can see, built for High Speed. A big part in a efficient and properly built HSR line is the "Grade Separation" and few curves, perhaps wider curves too. Acela shares it's tracks with slower trains which then slows it down, and of course due to NO grade seperation it has to meet FRA's crash standards which adds more weight to the train and slows it.

I beleive the government purposely underfunds Amtrak so people will prefer air travel and Driving which will cause you to buy more fuel! Just my opinion, I may be wrong!

I want to remind everyone that says the cost to build the CHSR project will be more than it's estimated! Of course it will! I think everyone knows if you build a project over years it's expected to get more expensive over time! You can't freeze the economy and build it in one weekend! Everything in the past has shown this, it's obvious so when you try to put this project down, don't say it like we don't already know!

Finally, If some of you don't know (I think you should emphasize this a lot Robert) that the "Japanese Bullet Train" and "France's TGV" systems were built with very little to no support from it's people nor it's governments! People thought it wouldn't work, and thought it was too expensive, and just look at them now! They can't live without it! Also France's government then changed their story from "We don't want an Expensive train" to "We knew this train would work" after they saw how much people liked it and how much profit it made! The CHSR will be the same! And just like California led the way in Highways, they shall do the same with High Speed Rail! THERE IS NO WAY THIS WILL FAIL!!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Which is precisely my point - Acela has all those flaws you describe, yet it is continuing to succeed, and now has just under half of the market share on the nation's busiest travel corridor.

You're quite right about the TGV and the Shinkansen - same with Spain's AVE too. Now we're at a point in Spain where both the right-wing and the left-wing parties are clamoring for more lines.

And ultimately I do agree that there is very little chance of failure here. As long as we get an LA-SF line in the first phase, this thing is a surefire winner. It will get heavy ridership, will generate surpluses, and will spur construction of further routes, all while helping reduce dependence on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.

There are issues to work out, most definitely. But I don't see any huge downside. This is an idea whose time has come.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your last point: although transit advocates and environmentalists quite correctly point out the cost and environmental benefits of HSR as compared to airport and freeway expansion, there seems to be much less (if any) press on the lifestyle change HSR would bring, and I think the latter could be more persuasive to voters. Potentially, HSR could create an entirely new entertainment or recreation based market. With a hassle-free train ride, I could pop down to LA for a concert and return to SF in the same day. Easy on HSR, but it's a trip I would never contemplate under the current circumstances. This feeling of closeness and connectivity between state population centers is completely missing if your only realistic choices are driving or flying.

Nice work here, by the way. I'm really glad to see a blog focusing on CAHSR.

Robert Cruickshank said...


That makes a great deal of sense. And in my own conversations with people, the "quality of life" aspects of riding the train - allowing easier, more comfortable travel between our state's two main metro areas, has frequently been mentioned as an attraction. I'll be sure to incorporate that aspect more centrally into my advocacy here.

NorthEast Bob said...

The Acela is far cheaper and far more civilized than flying. I take it twice a week between Boston and Philadelphia. If I go into Travelocity, and put in BOS-PHL for this Friday afternoon, all of the flights are more expensive, and many of them take longer than the train.

Yes I can get a direct flight, but I am paying 4 times as much, and only gaining a couple hours (less if you compare time spent being hassled at the airport.)

Anonymous said...

Acela does NOT have 41 percent of the travel market between DC and Boston. You are misreading this article, which was misleading in the first place.

First, the says 41 percent of the market between New York and Boston. Last time I checked, New York and DC were two different places.

Second, by "travel market" they mean "for hire transportation," i.e., rail vs. air. They probably aren't even counting buses, and certainly aren't counting autos. When counting the total travel market, Amtrak is closer to 10 percent than 40 percent.

Third, Amtrak runs lots of trains in the NE corridor other than Acelas. The 41 percent refers to all their trains, not just the Acelas. Considering the steep fare, the Acelas are probably less than half. The Acelas I've been on were relatively empty; regular NE corridor trains are nearly full.

Anonymous said...

Amtrak's Acela is more of a "higher" speed train if any thing, wiht only a tiny blip at 150mph in RI.