Tuesday, July 8, 2008

HSR Seizes European Short Haul Market

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

So reports The Times today on how soaring fuel costs are driving passengers to high speed trains:

The airline industry has been crushed by the price of kerosene and deserted by passengers fed up with delays. After decades of disappointment, false dawns and virtually bankrupt Channel Tunnels, we have finally arrived at the age of the train and the evidence is in the crowd at St Pancras.

Only eight months after opening its doors in November, the new station is choc-a-bloc at peak hours, an exciting but slightly nerve-wracking development for Eurostar and its biggest shareholder, SNCF, the French state railway.

Traffic growth on Eurostar is accelerating like an Alstom locomotive, increasing by 21 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the same period in 2007, and revenues are up by a quarter. Those figures were no flash in the pan, a boost from all the hooplah at last year's opening of St Pancras. Traffic in the second quarter has grown at similar rates, insiders say.

While Eurostar thunders through Kent, the competing service to Paris and Brussels is lost on a never-ending building site west of London. The Terminal 5 fiasco has not helped British Airways's short-haul European business, but by next year (assuming no new operational disaster) it should have ironed out the wrinkles.

Then, BA is left with the awful question of whether short-haul air traffic has any future in Europe. The answer has to be a resounding “no”.

There are a LOT of reasons for high speed rail and we've covered all of those and then some on this blog (no really - check the archives!), including economic stimulus, the environment, declining oil supplies, and air quality. But it may be that the airline crisis is the tipping point that convinces Californians of the value of high speed trains.

For many years, even at the beginning of this year, a common reaction to the high speed rail proposal was "why would I take a train when I can take Southwest for $50?" Until this year Californians assumed that cheap air travel would always be there for them within the state.

No longer. As more and more media outlets report on the airline crisis, and as Californians make the correct link between higher fares and the higher prices they pay at the pump, they realize that cheap airfare is about to become a thing of the past. And since driving isn't an attractive replacement, owing to cost and time, high speed rail is the perfect solution for shorthaul intercity trips within our state.

I promise this isn't going to become "the airline crisis" blog. You'll continue to hear more about the full range of benefits of the HSR project. But it may be that the airline crisis is what cements in the public mind the need for high speed rail. And it should put the final nail in the coffin of the ridiculous ridership debate - as if there's any doubt about HSR's ability to attract enough riders with this knowledge in mind...

CHSRA Meeting: The Authority held its public comment meeting on the Final EIR today in San Francisco. Owing to my obligations here in Monterey I wasn't able to get to the meeting until around 3 PM, by which point it was already over. If only there were some sort of high speed train to get me to SF...oh well. As rafael told me there wasn't much new - the usual pro and con comments ahead of tomorrow's vote to accept the EIR.

The real action on HSR continues to happen at the State Capitol, where the Senate Appropriations Committee was expected to debate AB 3034 yesterday - but instead postponed that until Thursday at 10 AM. It's anybody's guess what's going to happen to the bill. We hope to have someone there for the meeting on Thursday.


Rafael said...

"Then, BA is left with the awful question of whether short-haul air traffic has any future in Europe."

Considering that Heathrow may not get a third runway, is it really such an awful question? Isn't it better to use scarce take-off and landing slots for long-haul flights to destinations that cannot be reached by high speed rail in a reasonable amount of time - roughly four hours for business and six hours for personal travel?

The High Speed 2/3 plan proposed by Greengauge21 includes high speed connections between St. Pancras, Heathrow Terminal 5 and major cities along the west coast of the UK. High speed rail allows the airline industry to shift its business model to cope with the rising price of oil while still providing its customers with a large number of destinations.

crzwdjk said...

And keep in mind that airlines in Europe don't pay fuel taxes, so their fuel expenses are no higher than in the US, but railroads do pay taxes on their diesel fuel, though of course HSR, and many other lines besides, are electric.

Rafael said...

@ arcady -

unlike France, which generates virtually all of its electricity in nuclear reactors or at hydroelectric dams, the UK electricity market is very much exposed to fluctuations in world market prices for coal and natural gas. These are loosely coupled to the price of oil.

Nevertheless, electric trains represent diversification away from oil and toward a wide range of primary energy sources for the transportation sector. There is a long-term plan for a solar electric backbone network covering Europe, much of the Middle East and North Africa, but it's unclear if or when that will get built.

A Lynch said...

Hey, I ran across this article and thought it worked perfectly with your argument with the cost of highways vs. trains.