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?

About Paul Strebe

Paul is a Twin Cities-based healthcare consultant with an interest in healthy communities and aging issues. He lives with his wife and daughters in the South Minneapolis neighborhood of Cooper. He tweets at @paul_klared