Tuesday, April 29, 2008

United Airlines Demonstrates the Need for High Speed Rail

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

When I wrote about the future of air travel last weekend and predicted that it would soon fail to meet California's intercity travel needs, I was making an analytical prediction based on a range of long-term factors. Little did I know that intercity air travel is right now facing major strains here in the state. In the comments to that post the "other Robert" pointed me to an article from the LA Times business section last week on United Airlines' growing financial losses.

The article quoted some analysts as saying "there needs to be a minimum 15% across-the-board hike in fares to offset higher fuel costs" and generally focused on the technical details of UAL's $542 million loss. Buried in the article, on page two of the online edition, was this rather stunning item:

UAL also said it would cut capacity by 9% this year, on top of a 5% reduction in the fourth quarter of 2007, and remove as many as 15 more narrow-body aircraft from its operating fleet, for a total of 30 grounded planes.

Heavily traveled "shuttle" markets, such as L.A.-San Francisco and New York-Washington are prime targets for schedule cuts, analysts said.

Truth be told, I didn't expect to see this for a couple of years, but here we are. United is one of the major carriers on the LA-SF shuttle route, along with Southwest. If United has to make cuts on that route, it's going to provide reduced travel options and will make it easier for Southwest to raise their own fares.

More importantly, it raises the fundamental question of whether airlines will be able to serve the needs of Californians who wish to travel between the two halves of our state. As I noted over the weekend, I'm not predicting air travel will vanish anytime soon, and there will be carriers flying the LA-SF shuttle route for many years to come. But if their service options are reduced and their fares rise (and trust me, this is but the beginning of airline fare increases) then California is going to need another method to provide rapid travel between LA and SF.

Numerous critics of HSR point to "cheap Southwest fares" as a reason we don't need HSR. This article ought to suggest that reason is losing what little validity it had, and losing it fast. California cannot afford to watch the airline industry collapse without an alternative plan already under construction. High speed rail is that alternative.


Anonymous said...

Higher prices for intracity flights may also mean HSR train fares can be set at levels that increase operating profits. It would also discourage long-distance commuting and frivolous travel.

Striking the balance between ridership and profits is something airlines have actually become rather good at. It might make sense to operate HSR as a "groundline" using IATA and ICAO codes for the train stations. This would let travel agencies all over the world book California HSR train tickets using existing reservations systems like SAABRE and the rating engines they implement.

Moreover, it would make it easy to offer long-haul flights to secondary airports with HSR connections - including line items for the niggling connections between airport and train stations.

Example 1: Modesto to New York City via San Francisco

XMO - XSF HSR train to Millbrae
XSF - SFO local connector*
SFO - NYC long-haul flight

*ticket for BART or shuttle bus. Not that this line would have to be there even if the connection were provided free of charge, because there are time and capacity constraints to consider.

Example 2: Modesto to New York City via Castle Airport (admittedly, a bit cheeky given that CHSRA has nixed the idea of an HSR station there for now)

XMO - MER HSR train into terminal
MER - NYC long-haul flight

Anonymous said...

Southwest also hedges their fuel, so they haven't been impacted fully from the recent increase in the price of oil. As time passes, they will be forced to raise their fares much higher. Plus, the shorthaul flights, as they are smaller, tend to be less fuel-effecient. Like you said, everything points to HSR.

Rafael said...

One possible alignment for a regional rail shuttle between LA Union Station (XUS) and LAX is here.

Total length is about 18.5 miles, of which ~14.5 mi follow an existing freight line, which is currently single track and mostly at grade. Whether the grade separation afforded by cutting a trench is required depends on expected ridership.

However, the remaining ~4 mi do not follow an existing rail alignment and would therefore need to be put underground using cut-and-cover and/or tunneling construction - which is expensive.

Robert Cruickshank said...

LACMTA is still investigating a fixed rail link to LAX, ideally an extension of the existing Green Line. That would seem the easiest way to connect to LAX. And of course, HSR's stop at LA Union Station puts HSR at the center of SoCal and its transit network, so whatever LACMTA wants to do about LAX shouldn't impact our project much.

Anonymous said...

Extending the LA Metro Green Line east to connect to Norwalk station would be useful, but you'd still have to disembark at Aviation Blvd. and wait for a shuttle to take you to LAX.

If HSR is supposed to to be a complement to rather than a competitor of the aviation industry, then LACMTA needs to deliver a shuttle between LA Union Station and LAX. That trip really shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes - Metrolink + extended Green Line + shuttle bus isn't going to cut it.

If no such shuttle materializes, HSR can and should still go ahead. However, ridership would be higher if it existed, because even with HSR connecting to Ontario and Palmdale, LAX will remain the primary LA airport - especially for coast-to-coast and intercontinental flights.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Actually, the LACMTA Green Line extension plan involves a rail extension to LAX and Westchester. Dunno if a Norwalk extension is even on the books any longer.

And a shuttle bus service DOES exist to connect Union Station to LAX (there are also shuttles to Westwood and Van Nuys).

Ultimately what folks are saying here is that for HSR to be maximally effective we need good transit connections in the cities the HSR system serves. I couldn't agree more strongly.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit of a stretch to say that United is one of the major shuttle carriers between the SF and LA markets. UA ceded this city-pair market to Southwest after the whole Ted/legacies-can't-competing-with-the-lowcost-airlines debacle of the mid-1990s. UA initially tried to compete, found it couldn't, gave up. Now the only people who fly UA on this route are people who care about miles, business class, or are making a connection. A more valid test of whether there is trouble in the SF-LA markets would be whether Southwest is reducing capacity (which it isn't doing).