Monday, July 7, 2008

Air France Looks to HSR for its Future

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

I've been meaning to get to this article for a few days now, and though our friends at Trains for America and The Overhead Wire have mentioned it, I hope you won't mind if I bring up the rear, so to speak. Air France is looking into entering the HSR business when the EU deregulates it in 2010:

With the high price of fuel raising the cost of flying, Air France is looking into replacing some of its short-haul European flights with high-speed rail service in partnership with a French train operator, a move that analysts said could lead to significant savings.

HSR would provide Air France with better service by bringing passengers to Charles de Gaulle from around the region for their long-haul flights; and would help their profit margin by lowering costs:

The main advantage for the airlines would be improved profitability, Van den Brul said....

Shifting passengers onto trains from planes would result in "significant" cost savings, a particular concern for airlines struggling to cope with record high oil prices.

Energy accounts for about 40 percent of an airline's total costs, against only around 10-15 percent for rail.

So it makes perfect sense for Air France to look into this model. SNCF has found a cash cow in their TGV system, which has generated so much operating surplus that the French national rail operator can use that to subsidize other services and even give some money to the French treasury. Air France recognizes that HSR is vital to a strong, reliable, and affordable transportation system - that it helps the airlines do their jobs better and more profitably.

Trains for America notes that this model would work well here in the US:

New York-Los Angeles, Miami-Seattle, any overseas travel for obvious reasons… some routes are too far for even fast trains to really compete with air travel. But Minneapolis-Chicago, Boston-Washington, Los Angeles-San Francisco, these are the lengths where high-speed trains are eminently more practical than planes.

And they're absolutely right on that point. Mineta-SJC's woes might be eased by HSR, allowing passengers easier access to it and allowing airlines to focus on the long-haul routes that trains aren't going to be able to displace. HSR can connect cities like LA to SF in roughly the same amount of time as it takes to fly, considering door-to-door time and time at the airport terminal. HSR also has a significant cost advantage as it isn't dependent on the constantly rising price of oil.

American carriers would find this especially valuable. Our dollars bring less purchasing power on the global market and already airlines like United and Delta are cutting service. Southwest hasn't yet been impacted, but that's not because they are magically immune. Instead Southwest, which dominates the intrastate air market in California, benefits from massive use of fuel hedges. They locked in much of their fuel costs at around $51/bbl - but those hedges expire between 2010 and 2013. By that time Southwest will no longer be able to offer cheap fares and will have to cut flights just as everyone else is doing.

HSR would be a boon to these airlines. And that explains why, in contrast to the shenanigans we saw in Texas in the early 1990s, the airlines haven't opposed HSR here. They recognize its value because it helps them make a profit. In turn HSR will help Californians afford to continue traveling within the state as well as connecting to airport hubs to take them around the continent and the globe.


Rafael said...

United Airlines already leverages the French TGV network for its transatlantic flights into Paris CDG via the GroundLink service.

The German railroad operator DB uses its ICE trains to provide connecting service from Frankfurt/Main to Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin etc. The stations have IATA codes, so it should be possible to buy the train tickets via the international airline reservation systems (I haven't tried).

In Holland and Austria - possibly other countries as well - you can at least handle flight check-in and baggage drop-off at selected train stations. Security is still handled at the airports.

In the UK, Europe's only deregulated train operations market, the Virgin group already operates intercity trains along the West Coast. If High Speed 2 becomes a reality, it's a fair bet they will pursue a franchise to offer their airline customers connecting intercity train service as a package deal - much like Air France is now considering.

However, one feature is absolutely worth pointing out: London Heathrow Terminal 5, Paris CDG, Frankfurt/Main, Amsterdam Schiphol, Vienna Schwechat - quite possibly others - all have train stations that are co-located with the airport terminals. There is no clunky shuttle service between the airport terminal and rail station buildings, which greatly facilitates selling the intermodal connectivity as an asset.

In the California system, only Palmdale and Ontario airport will offer similar convenience. CHSRA opted to run its tracks through downtown Merced rather than into Castle Airport in Atwater, which could support long-haul flights. SFO has a BART station, but getting there from Millbrae is cumbersome. LAX is over 30 miles from LA Union Station and afaik there are no plans for a fast, punctual and direct heavy rail shuttle between them.

Anonymous said...

rafael - There's currently a light rail line that passes near LAX but doesn't go into it. There are plans to make a branch line into the airport so people don't need to be shuttled to the light rail station.

Anonymous said...

SFO can be tied in to Caltrain/HSR if they recycle the now-unused Millbrae-SFO leg of the BART wye for use by SFO's Airtrain. And it's SFO that has flights everywhere, and lots of them.

If you're realistically gonna get the greatest synergy between HSR and air, it's gonna be at SFO. SFO is an established international airport. Palmdale is ..... and Ontario isn't in the first phase of the system, nor is it an international hub.

Anonymous said...

Gotta say I had the same initial reaction as Michael - why not convert the stupid Millbrae-SFO structure into Air Train if HSR passes. BART isn't even using it now anyway. One problem, however, is that I think there are only two tracks in the ridiculously unnecessary tunnel that runs from Center St. to Millbrae Intermodal. Realistically you might need to put the Air Train above ground for that section...which means more fights with the NIMBYs, though adding some rubber tired vehicles really won't make any meaningful contribution to noise.

Rafael said...

@ nikko pigman -

the light rail line you refer terminates quite some distance from the Norwalk Metrolink station, which will also be a secondary HSR station. It will not be served by nearly as many trains as LA Union Station. Now that the Alameda Corridor carries virtually all of the freight rail traffic from the ports as far as downtown LA, it might be possible to plan a proper LAX shuttle train.

Brandon in California said...

Let us keep in the back of our minds... people are not destined to airports, they are destined to a city (think urban core).

People should avoid prioritizing HSR linked to airports over city centers. If it's conveinent, fine. HSR-airport connections being linked by other rail is fine too.

Rafael said...

@ michael kiesling, mike -

politics and money aside, I don't know if the air train could handle the gradient of the track. In retrospect, it would have been much smarter to terminate the BART line in San Bruno at a three-level intermodal station with Caltrain and the SFO Air Train. Unfortunately, some mistakes are built to last.

Once passenger traffic is heavy enough, I expect BART will simply resume its shuttle service between SFO and Millbrae. An alternative would be to have trains bound for SFO stop at Millbrae on the outbound leg and vice versa. Either way, it's inconvenient because passengers arriving on Caltrain or HSR will have to change trains twice to reach their terminal and purchase a BART ticket at a vending machine. That means airlines cannot include this short but essential shuttle trip on a paperless e-ticket covering both the flight and connecting HSR or Caltrain service.

Anonymous said...

Rafael wrote: "In retrospect, it would have been much smarter to terminate the BART line in San Bruno at a three-level intermodal station with Caltrain and the SFO Air Train. Unfortunately, some mistakes are built to last."

That's more or less what the Coalition for a One Stop Terminal (COST) was advocating. But Quentin Kopp insisted that BART itself go into the airport.

For a while, BART mothballed the San Bruno-Millbrae leg of the wye. Now they're using that leg but have mothballed the Millbrae-SFO leg.