Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why high speed rail isn't a ridiculous fantasy

Randal O'Toole, bus fetishizing anti-rail author extraordinaire, has penned a new missive against high speed rail for the Cato Institute, taking the recent map gone viral by Alfred Twu of a national high speed rail network as an opportunity to slam on high speed rail in general. Now, I, like many others, think that that map is completely and utterly absurd, an absolute travesty, and evidence that anyone who supports that map has no business trying to advocate for high speed rail; it's simply that silly. However, O'Toole is not content with simply bashing a silly map, but feels the need to extend this into the realm of high speed rail in its entirety.

Twu’s map violates conventional wisdom among high-speed rail aficionados, which holds that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not 2,000- to 3,000-miles. By “most competitive,” of course, they mean “able to capture 5 or 6 percent of the market,” which–when all modes are counted–is all that Amtrak has in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.

This, quite frankly, is an entirely specious argument without any merit whatsoever. That Amtrak only has 5-6% of the market is an irrelevancy; it doesn't have the current capacity to do more than that as it stands. Look at the current Acela, the abominably slow train with a lower service speed than All Aboard Florida is planning for their service. It has a maximum capacity of 304 seats and currently runs at capacity, allowing Amtrak to rake in a rather substantial amount of revenue from these trains. Suppose it were replaced instead with what is a common sight in France, a pair of Duplex train sets coupled together for one 400m train with 1,090 seats. It would be an extremely odd assertion indeed to suggest that, between current unsatisfied demand and Amtrak revenue maximizing with ticket prices, market capture would remain unchanged.

Furthermore, this ignores the examples given by the extant high speed services in Europe. Even prior to the introduction of high speed rail, SNCF had a 40% market-share between Paris-Lyons and Renfe 16% between Madrid and Seville. Within three years of introducing high speed rail, these had climbed to 72% and 51% respectively (source, page 601), in large part from induced traffic, but also including a significant amount of diverted traffic. Certainly Europe has higher driving costs than America, but it is not sufficiently so as to invalidate such examples for America. In the Northeast, which is home to a significant number of toll roads and bridges, the marginal cost of driving is sufficiently high as to be comparable with European driving, further eroding the value of such a distinction.

But dreaming about faster trains does little to change the fact that the fastest trains in the world are only about half as fast as jet aircraft, nor the fact that more Americans live and work within a few minutes of airports than downtown train stations. Anyone who is really serious about speeding travel would find ways to speed airport security, which would cost a lot less and do a lot more to help a lot more travelers than building multi-billion-dollar rail lines.
Those jet aircraft themselves are only half as fast as the Concorde was, indicating that sheer speed is not the sum total of demand. Further, while airports are far more flexible in the destinations that they can serve, they do not necessarily serve all markets, or do so with schedules and prices that are grossly inconvenient. It's all very well and good to have a 90 minute flight, but if it requires me to drive for an hour to find an affordable airport for the trip, as is the case for many regional trips, the higher cruise speed of the airplane is lost in the background of overall trip time. Furthermore, while I have no objection to speeding up airport security, and would dearly love to wear my shoes the entire time, my own experience (which appears to be the norm) is that the wait time is only a few minutes. Indeed, checking in luggage or simply walking to the gate generally take me longer than TSA.

O'Toole ends his piece with the usual rigamorale about how "[s]ince high-speed passenger trains are not commercially viable, the only way to have them is for the government to build them." However, we have previously dispelled the myth in so far as regards operational surpluses and that is a terribly odd position to hold when JR Central is constructing a high speed maglev system without government funding. Then again, suggesting that New York City would be better off replacing subways with underground battery powered buses is a famous terribly odd idea of his as well.


  1. At this point, we can say this of Randall O'Toole: He Hate Trains. I'd swear it's beyond the professional, to the psychological. What did they ever do to him?

  2. High speed trains have a time advantage on relatively short corridors, but regular speed trains can also have an advantage with overnight trips of 8-12 hours, because you're sleeping while you travel and not wasting useful time. They're not more popular in Europe for the simple reason that trains tend to be run by national railroads, and most countries aren't quite bit enough to cross in 8 hours if the train runs at 125 mph.

  3. Indeed in Britain and many other countries the schedules of overnight trains (what few remain that is, thanks to HSR popping up all over the placE) is deliberately slowed down.

    I recently took the "Night Riviera" from London to St. Erth (second to last stop) and it was full to capacity despite the fact that the train sits stationary for rather long lengths of time and despite it being routed over any available route depending on engineering works.
    The only reason it is not longer is because it is now as long as the platforms at its country-terminus (non London) will take without horrifically difficult shunt moves.

    Once you haev a high speed line, you can potentially make the Chicago-NY run in four hours, and cover the Chicago-LA run in one night.

  4. Maximum speeds are not as important as connectivity and reliability. Now-abuilding for the Midwest and California are the next generation of California Corridor cars, capable of 110 mph plus operation. A coach seats approximately 100 people on two levels, thus a relatively short rake exceeds the capacity of an Acela or one of the French sets, and ten coaches plus a food service car or two and a business class car matches the French capacity, while taking up less platform space (a major issue in the Midwest, where stations away from the Chicago suburban zone, where twelve-car scoots are common, have short platforms). Trains running at 110-125 or so are only a few minutes slower, stop-to-stop, than the 200 mph European trains, and require a lot less by way of track and signalling.

    1. I agree that maximum speeds are not as important as connectivity and reliability, but I don't think it's accurate to say that trains running at 110-125mph are only a few minutes slower than the 200mph trains. You really can't get a 110-125mph train to average a higher stop to stop service speed than 80mph, perhaps 85, but Paris-Lyon sees average speeds of 132mph.

  5. Faster average speed service for 125mph I know of is the Pendos on Manchester-London, 88mph average speed.

    Meanwhile on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the "stopping" trains that stop every 20 miles manage average speeds of over 100mph.

    1. If we're being pedantic, this isn't the fastest "normal" service in the UK - Euston to Glasgow typically averages 89 mph, King's Cross to Edinburgh typically averages 90 mph.

      You can squeeze slightly more speed out of it if you remove nearly all the stops. There is one a day that stops only at Preston and averages 97 mph. The average from Euston to Warrington non-stop is about 105 mph; the same applies to the fastest non-stop runs from King's Cross to York.

      None of this is genuine "high speed" of course, and all of this comes at the cost of ruining the service to other towns on the route to squeeze out every possible minute of savings.


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