Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: the myth of the 400 mile cap

Recently, we began to consider interregional high speed rail, or, in other words, high speed rail spanning more than the current corridors proposed. Before we delve in to details, it's time to dispel some myths. The first one is that high speed rail is not competitive over distances of 400 miles.

No, I'm not making that up. Obviously, as distances become longer, air travel becomes more competitive, since when they are flying at cruise level, planes are faster than trains. However, making up a number, in this case 400 miles, is just not true. The problem is that very important economists writing for very important newspapers (in this case, Ed Glaeser for the Times and Robert Samuelson for the WaPo) make stuff up, and because they have degrees from places like Harvard, people believe them.

Both writers pieces have been thoroughly discredited (and there are many more such posts, like this one), but no one has mentioned one of Samuelson's rather-blatant misrepresentations. In his piece, he states as fact (without any source, of course), that
Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes.
. This is rather interesting. Why? because not only does he fail to mention places where trains compete comfortably with planes in a 400-500 mile corridor, but he doesn't mention either a 500+ mile corridor where a train line doesn't compete or offer any rationale about why they couldn't.

So, I'll do his dirty work for him. First of all, let's find a city pair with high speed rail of greater than 400 miles. Say, Paris to Marseille. By air, it's 406 miles, by road, it's about 482. Either way, it's in Samuelson's not-really-competitive range. Here's the interesting thing. Of the air-rail market on the Paris-Marseille route, the TGV has taken 69% of the traffic. That's up from 22% before completion of the line. I think that's competitive.

In fact, it's time, not distance, that governs competitiveness, and the time is definitely more than three hours. According to SNCF's Guillaume Pepy
High-speed rail has historically captured the major share of combined air/rail traffic along routes where train journeys are under 3 hours. But this is changing, says SNCF's Pepy: "With air travel becoming more complicated and increasing airport congestion, high-speed rail now wins 50% of the traffic where rail journeys are 4.5 hours or less," he said. On the Paris-Perpignan route (5 hrs by train), TGV has 51% of the air/rail market, on Paris-Toulon (4 hrs) 68%.

It seems that, even for trips of four or five hours, high speed rail can be competitive. In that amount of time, a train averaging 160 mph could cover 640 to 800 miles. If that is the case, then a lot more corridors are plausible for consideration for high speed rail including a route between the East Coast and the Midwest. Especially between cities with congested airports. In other words, New York and Chicago.

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