Thursday, August 28, 2008

Travelers Seeing Rail As Superior to Planes

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

It's a frequent canard raised by the HSR deniers - that nobody would choose even a bullet train over a plane to get between the two halves of our state. Soaring passenger rail ridership belies this argument, as travelers see the benefits - in terms of comfort and economy - of rail travel. The Washington Post explored this dynamic in today's paper, interviewing Acela riders to explain the shift:

Jada Golden stood in the waiting lounge at Union Station, explaining why Amtrak is a better way to travel than an airline.

"It's as heavy as we want," Golden said, pointing to an oversize suitcase. "We can put it on a rack in the rail car and get things out of it."

Golden, 36 and a Boston schoolteacher, pointed to another bag -- a large paper grocery bag filled with sandwiches, salads, water and fruit. "You can bring food," she said.

She continued. On the train, she's free to pick her own seat and doesn't have a flight attendant telling her when to use electronics. And then there's the airline stress factor -- the security headaches and the delays.

"You're always delayed in the airport," Golden said. "You always have connecting flights."

Security theater, high fuel prices, an aging infrastructure, and corporate nickel and diming are all driving passengers away from planes and to the trains. On the Acela passengers are free to talk on their cell phones, getting work done that they couldn't get done on a plane. It's a superior method of travel, as more and more Americans are discovering.

Of course it helps that the Northeast Corridor has something like the Acela, a quasi-high speed train that is competitive with flying times between DC and NYC. Here in California we just don't have that option. The Coast Starlight, which I'm riding to LA tomorrow, takes about 12 hours to get from the Bay Area to SoCal. There's just no way that can ever shift travel habits in any lasting or meaningful way. I love riding it, but most Californians can't afford to take two whole days to get between LA and SF. Compared against the Coast Starlight, yeah, flying is generally the better option.

And that's where high speed rail makes such an enormous difference. Two and a half hours on a train is certainly competitive with flying, especially when the security theater, travel time to and from the airport, waiting in the terminal, and frequent flight delays are considered. You can conduct business on the train, with a cell phone and likely by wi-fi once our project is built. It provides a stable cost of transportation, as opposed to flights which are dependent on an ever-rising cost of oil.

Already airlines are cutting flights between LA and SF, which is likely to continue as fuel costs eat into profit margins. To believe we can rely on airlines to handle our intrastate travel needs is to deny reality. Americans are already demonstrating that they WILL take high speed rail if it's an option, just as Californians are riding the Amtrak California lines in massive numbers. Put together it's a solid argument for high speed rail in California.


Anonymous said...

As I just posted in the non-airline-related thread, anyone who thinks HSR can't beat planes should try talking to the airline executives that have to compete with HSR on sub-3 hour route. The execs will laugh him (or her) out of the room. The airlines get absolutely slaughtered.

Aaron said...

I moved from Boston to LA, and that's one thing I really miss.

I still remember regularly taking the 6:40am Metroliner (not Acela) from Boston's Back Bay Station to NYC... I'd get to Back Bay maybe 20 minutes before the train got there (and be far too early). I'd board the train as soon as it got there, not have to queue with so many other people - pick an open door and just get on. I'd get to my seat, put everything down, spread out - and promptly get up to go to the café car to buy a hot breakfast. All the while, listening to my iPod or working on my computer (which could frequently be plugged into the outlets at the seats).

The trip was so much more enjoyable - I didn't dread the process the same way you come to dread flying. The moment HSR runs between LA and SF, I'll never fly that route again. I only wish Amtrak from LA to Phoenix was viable, but the trip is so long and they've diverted the line outside of Phoenix to a fairly rural community.

Rafael said...

Relative to population size, the places HSR will be most popular are those that are poorly served by airlines, leaving long drives as the only alternative. In practice, that means the Central Valley - provided cities there make their HSR stations easily accessible.

However, there is a flip side to the expected shift from air to rail for distances of 100-500 miles: the secondary airports in the Central Valley will wither on the vine. The overheads of running a safe commercial airport are so high that commercial airline service at Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton may even terminate altogether within the first decade of HSR operation there.

Eventually, Central Valley residents will have to choose between Sacramento, San Francisco and Palmdale airports to reach out-of-state destinations. Of these, Palmdale will offer by far the most convenient connection between train platform and air terminal. Note that even the airports in Burbank, Orange County and San Jose may well struggle to remain open, especially if canny HSR operators figure out how to handle check-in and security while the train is in motion.

Forward-thinking secondary cities should accept this writing on the wall rather than fight it. After all, airports located near city centers require vast amounts of land and blight nearby residential neighborhoods with noise and NOx pollution. With intelligent long-term planning, that land can be turned into brand-new transit-oriented districts featuring some of the most valuable commercial and residential real estate on the market. This approach will also enable significant population growth without creating additional sprawl.

Carfree in San Diego said...

Has anyone thought about the potential for HSR to eventually have the same type of security procedural requirements that airlines have? It would take one terrorist attack on an HSR train and there you have it, retrofitted stations to include x-ray machines and TSA's running the show. I know there are a plethora of other benefits to choosing HSR over flying aside from avoiding security but is it only a matter of time before that changes?

Spokker said...

"Has anyone thought about the potential for HSR to eventually have the same type of security procedural requirements that airlines have?"

Yes, and if rail ever sees those types of security measures, I will go back to driving.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ In short, no.

However, there has already been a train station bombing in either Madrid or Barcelona. But airline travel and the CHSR system are very very different.

For one, the California system is not international, whereas every airport is essentially an entry point into a system that crosses international boundaries.

Secondly, airplanes are much more sensative to disruption than trains... necissitating greater protective measures.

Third, the greatest threat comes from international terrorism. HSR operating only in the state of California really does ot provide a marquee target.

And finally, California really does not generate a lot of ill will on the international scene and for the most part predominantly reflects the necessary sensativity needed to get along with others than chaffe on other cultures. The entertainment industry and Hollywood could be the only exception; however, likely very very minor relatively speaking.

Anonymous said...

First and formost though, a train can't leave its guideway and carries no fuel, thus it hardly makes the ideal weapon a plane (aka flying bomb) does.

Spokker said...

How about we build a rail system worth bombing before we worry about securing the damn thing?

無名 - wu ming said...

i'm getting this image of a would-be train hijacker:

"i want one million dollars, and this train to go to mexico. what do you mean this thing can't change directions? oh." [slaps forehead]

perhaps a vignette in one of raphael's youtube HSR soap opera?