The last-mile problem with high-speed railIn a Sunday Chronicle op-ed, Paul Mangelsdorf of Texas Rail Advocates laid out the case for high-speed rail in the Texas Triangle. I have to admit it sounds pretty cool, being whisked between cities at a comfortable 200-mph without most of the hassles of air travel or driving. But Texas has some key differences from Europe and Japan that make it a far riskier bet here - and we're talking about wagering many, many billions of dollars on this bet.
In telecom, they talk about the intractable "last mile" problem. It's relatively easy to run fiber optic trunk lines all over the country or even across a region, but connecting that "last mile" to every home is a very, very costly and difficult logistical problem - which is why we're still using our old cable and phone wire with relatively limited bandwidth. High-speed rail has the same issue: it can get you to the city, but what will get you that last 10-20 miles to your real final destination?
European cities were built at high-density in the walking age, and later had high-density transit systems grafted on top. Most of their key destinations - especially job centers - are usually in a relatively compact core. Using transit - or maybe taxis - for that last leg is not much of a problem.
Urban Texas was almost completely developed in the car age. Low density. Destinations spread out all over a large land area. Multiple job centers, many outside the core - not to mention long strings of offices and retail along freeways. It's simply not transit friendly. Yes, cities like Houston and Dallas are developing some rail transit, but they are very limited in the quantity of key destinations they can hit. The cities are just too distributed.
Even then, there's the cost of trying to bring that high-speed rail all the way into the core hub of the local rail network. I can't imagine what that will cost.
I know from a personal perspective, as cool as it would be, I would have trouble choosing high-speed rail to Austin for business and personal trips. I need to be able to get around Austin to multiple destinations . Taxis are unaffordable and a hassle, as is renting a car. Considering that an ultra-cheap one-way Greyhound bus ticket is at least $25, I can't imagine the rail ticket being less than 2-3x that. Pretty quickly, the math argues that I should just drive my own car there.
Lastly, not only does Europe have more population crammed into more cities that are closer together (perfect for rail), the airports in Europe are small and often overloaded - so trip shifting to rail becomes more attractive. All of the Texas Triangle cities have an overabundance of airport capacity for the foreseeable future.
The net is that Texas is not the ideal first candidate (also known as the "guinea pig") for high-speed rail in the U.S. Both California and the Boston-DC corridor have far stronger cases: more population, more density, more mature local transit, and more congested airports (and no, the Amtrak Acela does not count by this guy's definition of high-speed rail, averaging only 70-80 mph). The wise path for Texas in this case is to be a "fast follower" behind those two areas once they prove it can work, both technically and financially as well as ridership.