Could High Speed Rail Be an Alternative to Air?

High speed rail

Just as obituaries were being written for Southwest Light Rail, a recent piece on NPR about the stubbornly high cost of international air travel caught my ear. Earlier reports blamed the airlines for being locked into higher-priced fuel contracts and therefore being unable to reap the benefits of more recent lower fuel prices.

However, this piece included a snippet from George Hoffer, a University of Richmond transportation economist, who raised the question of whether airlines will feel any need to pass those savings on to consumers. Hoffer blames the mergers over the past decade as having caused the industry to reach a point of oligopoly, with  little competition and little incentive for airlines to under-price each other.

This got me thinking: If flights were to remain high for an extended time (along with irritating TSA practices), at what point would alternatives–like high speed rail–make economic sense? (Yes, I’m aware that greater minds may have pondered this at least once recently…)  I’m thinking about medium-distance travel to cities that are close enough to make you think twice about automatically flying.

So here’s the scenario. First, forget about the budget traveler. There’s still Spirit Airlines and Megabus (or Craigslist) for anyone willing to get up at 4 a.m.  Let’s look at the business traveler. Pretend you work for a small firm. You’re fledgling, so you actually care about the cost of business travel and your time is valuable. (I know, right?)  You get a call. Maureen from iGlexMo wants you to come down to Kansas City and present next Wednesday morning.  You look at two options: flying or driving your own car.

Driving is fairly simple. It’s seven hours to KC (if you drive the speed limit, which of course you do), but you won’t be able to work on your presentation during that time–except maybe thinking/worrying about it while crankin’ The Doobies while blasting through Des Moines.

Flying involves a bit more. There’s no time for a 21-day advance ticket and direct flights are even more expensive. You settle for one with decent arrival and departure times (i.e., not 6 a.m.) with one layover. You’ll need to store your car at the airport and you’ll need a rental car when you land, since the iGlexMo’s cube farm is on the edge of a corn field and is not well-served by mass transit (and besides, do you look like a “bus person”?). Taking a plane will at least allow you to work–when you’re not standing in security or car rental lines.

So, it comes down to this:

Driving vs. flying

Bottom line: You’ll save a whopping $63 dollar by driving.  However, you’ll also lose 11 hours of possible (valuable!) work time. Which is really the better option?  OR… is there a “third way”? There are a couple of successful high-er speed rail lines out East…  Now, there isn’t even a regular (slow) Amtrak line from the Twin Cities to Kansas City, but might there be more demand if this scenario continued to play out?  Especially if the cost were significantly less and allowed persons to work the whole time, and not have to deal with security/no wifi/over-priced airport food/road construction/The Doobies, etc.?

The Amtrak from Chicago to Kansas City runs about the same distance as the Twin Cities are from Kansas City and takes about as long as driving.  It costs about $150 RT.  The high-er speed Amtrak (Acela) that goes from Boston to DC (also about the same distance) costs about $300–and I believe I heard this line is “profitable”.  I know, I know. We can’t even build a little light rail line through ugly office parks, and there would be significant start-up costs, etc., etc.  But could you attract short-distance business travelers who wanted to save a couple hundred bucks while being able to work?  Especially if it were truly high speed?


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9 Responses to Could High Speed Rail Be an Alternative to Air?

  1. Kedamono May 1, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

    I would love to have a First World rail system in the US. The biggest problem is that we didn’t invest in true passenger service when the US took over passenger rail. We decided to cut costs and use freight rail and have the passenger rail subservient to freight rail.

    Yes I know, “passenger rail has ROW over freight rail”. But in practice, the Amtrak train has to wait on the freight rail to get out of the way before it can pass. I’ve ridden on the Amtrak Cascades, the train line that links Seattle, WA to Portland, Ore, and it theoretically can hit 80mph. In practice, not so much. At that speed, the trip shouldn’t take any longer than driving. Most stops are just five minutes long. The trip should take 2 hours and 51 minutes. Driving takes 2 hours and 53 minutes.

    But according to the schedule it takes 4 hours, or in reality, 4 to 5 hours. Many a trip ends up late because of freight trains blocking.

    But if there was a dedicated high speed rail from Vancouver B.C. to Los Angles, (Average speed 149 MPH) from Seattle to Portland would take about 2 hours, if you include all the stops along the way, or 1 hour and 10 minutes nonstop.

    Right now it takes 46 hours for the Empire Builder to go from Seattle to Chicago at an average of 50 MPH. With an average high speed rail line, it would be a 16 hour trip. With the faster trains, 224MPH, it’s a 12 hour trip. Leave at 6PM, arrive at 8AM in Chicago, ready to start the day.

    We really need a First World rail system in the USA.

    • Alfonso May 1, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

      To be fair, we never really had dedicated passenger rail in the US, leaving both freight and passenger service to the same companies, with freight always the more profitable of the two; and since Amtrak was formed when the private rail passenger service was going to Hell in a handbasket and subsidies were being flung at The Future (jet planes and cars!) it’s not exactly a surprise that politicians were incapable of doing anything meaningful on that front.

      We’re also challenged by our own stupid geography. You mention the Empire Builder, which I haven’t yet had the privilege to ride: it’s nearly twice as long as the Orient Express, which ran from Paris to Istanbul; but in terms of population served, it’s probably more like some of Russia’s far eastern trains. The US is just so big and sparse compared to any country that isn’t Canada or Russia (China’s big but not as sparse except in the west) that building a big useful network is going to be like rebuilding the Interstates, but for a technology with a local image problem.

    • Daniel May 5, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

      Amtrak Cascades is very slow, but the trains are modern, cheap, and frequent enough that they are reasonably popular in the Northwest. There is nothing like that in the Midwest. If we had passenger trains 5 times a day from Minneapolis to Chicago for $50 a ticket, with big comfy seats, Internet access, meal service, and real bathrooms, people would probably use it even if it took 8 hours to get there.

  2. Jesse May 1, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

    In Europe, it’s often cheaper to fly than take the high speed intercity rails. Better to wait until the Hyperloop gets going to see if that provides cheaper infrastructure as it’s currently believed.

    • Nathanael May 11, 2015 at 11:43 am #

      Well, airlines are routinely bankruptcy-financed (subsidized by investors who lose their shirts during the first bankruptcy, leaving the next round of investors to scoop up the assets cheap), which provides large subsidies. And the airports are usually provided by the government too. If it weren’t for the crazy miasma of subsidization (often from the private sector as well as the public) I don’t think the cheap airline situation would be around, and I do think it will go away within my lifetime.

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell May 1, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

    Paul, great post. In Europe we’ll take rail unless it’s at least 2 to 4 hours longer than flying. As you mentioned, there is a lot less wasted time with rail so even if total travel time is greater wasted time in lines is much less. Travel time to the station is usually less and if you time it right you can walk right on to the train, sit down, and begin reading or working or whatever.

    Rail is more comfortable with larger seating areas and often tables. Rail has fresh air at ground pressure vs scrubbed air at varying pressures that leave you tired and yucky feeling. Overall a much better experience.

    It takes a fairly long journey for air to win over rail especially with the higher speed rail between many European cities.

  4. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman May 2, 2015 at 6:09 am #

    I’ll through out the obvious observation that a lot of what makes sense depends on your travel preferences.

    Scenario 1: A car-free person living in downtown St. Paul goes to Chicago, stays in a hotel downtown, and uses the CTA while there.

    Scenario 2: I go from Bloomington to a hotel in Rolling Meadows, I own a car and want a car there.

    I’m not sure business travel can sustain high speed rail without picking up at least a subset of recreational travel, and with either $89 airfares or the ability to have your own car that may be a tough sell.

    • Paul Strebe May 2, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      Yep. Would likely need to pick up a chunk of recreational travel — at least the flying-phobic. Would love to run the numbers using existing travel habits. Would be interesting if rail were to move to demand-based, variable pricing the airlines use. Megabus uses this right now. I just think it’s funny that we pretty much just have two forms of distance transportation to choose from.

  5. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman May 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    Probably a game changer would be if something like the auto-train were actually affordable. Drive from anywhere in the city to the train station, take a nap on the train, drive from the train station to anywhere. It wouldn’t even have to be fast. For people like me that always travel around locally by car, right now trains combine the worst of both worlds of the slowness of auto travel with dealing with cars on either end like air travel.