Monday, November 09, 2009

Planes vs. high-speed vs. 'higher-speed' rail in Texas

This story on the Eurostar London-Paris high-speed rail caught my eye yesterday in the Chronicle Travel section. I have ridden it before, and it is a wonderful service. The speed is deceptively quiet until a train going the other direction passes by in the blink of an eye at a 300mph net speed difference. And London and Paris have great local transit connections at each end, of course. It was during my McKinsey management consulting days, and the travel department bought me a first-class ticket on a non-peak train, so I ended up with an entire first-class car, and hostess, to myself. Not bad at all...

But I digress. What jumped out at me from the article was the one-way prices:
  • First class: $425
  • Second class (i.e. coach): $300
  • Advance purchase restricted second-class/coach: $80-$160
Now, since the most touted route for Texas is DFW-Houston, let's look at comparable flight prices:
  • Continental first-class walk-up fare: $264
  • Southwest walk-up coach: $136-$151
  • Southwest advance-purchase restricted coach: $49-$106
So, for a route of roughly the same distance, HSR is roughly twice as expensive as current airplane service, which, by the way, is one of the most frequently serviced routes the country between Southwest, Continental, and American.

So tens of billions are spent to provide service that is twice as expensive as we already have? No wonder everybody wants the Feds to pay for it.

A more cost-effective alternative for Texas may be "higher-speed rail" running around 100mph on existing tracks (the 'higher' is relative to existing trains, not HSR, so we have the confusing situation of higher-speed rail being slower than high-speed rail). More here and here, as well as a Texas track map. This would also be compatible with the plans for 290 and Galveston commuter rail.

I've been collecting some other HSR links for a while now that are worth passing on:

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14 Comments:

At 9:10 PM, November 09, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Eurostar is unusually expensive for HSR. The problem is that it underperformed ridership expectations, so the first instinct was to raise prices to maintain revenue.

The successful services are cheaper. Riding the fastest train from Tokyo to Osaka, taking 2:30 to do 515 km, costs $140, both in advance and walkup. Riding the TGV from Paris to Marseille, a distance of 750 km done in 3:10, costs €72.50 in advance; the walkup fare is €81, but I've just seen a deal for €45.

 
At 10:56 PM, November 09, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apples to oranges. The major difference is the initial construction cost. The Chunnel construction was much more expensive than the Houston-DFW route would be, so naturally the ticket prices would be lower.

 
At 8:00 AM, November 10, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

I would guess a dedicated HSR system from Houston to DFW would cost nearly as much as the Eurostar line to construct (including the chunnel cost).

The shear amount of red tape and environmental crap that has to be overcome just to build a new line will make it take forever. On top of that, every river or stream crossing for a brand new line will have to go under extensive USACE review.

Often the reason Amtrak's ACELA uses for not building a proprietary track is because the existing corridor is congested. While that is true to an extent, the main problem they have is the shear cost due to red tape of building a new line.

 
At 8:04 AM, November 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have:

-design, construction, and ROW costs for the London-Paris line
-estimates for design, construction, and ROW costs for the Texas lines
-estimated (or claimed) ticket prices for the Texas lines?

Or is this too preliminary right now?

 
At 8:05 AM, November 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, if there has been any railroad that was built recently in the U.S., is there any data on how much that cost?

I realize that historically, there are way too many rail lines in most of the country, but wondering if any rail buffs could point to something that's been built in the last 15 years or so.

 
At 8:25 AM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Reposting my comment from the OU Chron blog:

I believe the additional international cost is taxes, which I don't believe apply on intra-EU travel. Yes, the tunnel was a big additional cost, but also remember that we're talking about circa-1990 construction dollars, whereas today we'd pay with 2010+ inflation-adjusted dollars. They already had the urban RoW and the stations - we would have to build both at very high expense.

As far as quality of life: I agree it's a more pleasant ride. The question is whether people are willing to pay enough more for that comfort. Almost double is a pretty big pill to swallow when we see an airline industry today where a small price increase relative to competitors creates a huge drop in demand.

Productivity: wifi and cell phone service is now being rolled out on planes.

Less pollution: only when the trains are relatively full, which will not be too often if they are going to run with adequate frequency. On the other hand, planes are flying 80-85% full on average.

 
At 1:16 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The TGV uses an airline-style yield management system to ensure trains are about 75% full. The Shinkansen is at capacity; its regional trains even have commuter cars with unreserved seats, where some people have to stand.

France has the same environmental crap as the US. And the US has existing track in urban areas, where freight rights of way are often wide enough for 4 tracks where 2 are enough for freight operations.

For construction costs in Texas, I'd defer to SNCF's judgment, which is that a Fort Worth-Dallas-San Antonio line would cost $10.8 billion in 2009 dollars and have an annual ridership of 11 million within five years of the line's opening. The line would mostly be constructed LGV-style, following the right of way of I-35 in order to minimize impact and reduce grade separation costs.

 
At 1:19 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Less pollution: only when the trains are relatively full, which will not be too often if they are going to run with adequate frequency. On the other hand, planes are flying 80-85% full on average.

Seems to me like frequency is adjustable for both air travel and trains - depending on economic conditions / demand, etc. If we want to run the trains every 2 hours instead of every hour, we certainly could do that, just as certain airlines have been dropping frequencies in various markets recently. Also, much easier / more efficient to add another car to a train to increase capacity than it is to add another flight on a route.

>>They already had the urban RoW and the stations - we would have to build both at very high expense.

It's either that or get ready to expand I-45, 290, add capacity to Hobby, etc. I think the additional ROW for rail is cheaper in the long term than the alternatives (including the now dead Texas Trans Corridor idea).

 
At 2:48 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

But when you reduce frequency, you also reduce the appeal, esp. for business travelers. They love the fact they can go to Hobby and catch a flight every half-hour to Dallas. No planning required - it always fits their schedule.

No major Texas airport is anywhere near its capacity limits (inc. Hobby), so expansion is not an issue.

Freeways are a differnt story, esp. I-35. The question is whether the train will attract enough people not just from planes, but who would otherwise drive their own car. I know in my own case, there's no way my wife and I would spike $400 RT (2 x $200RT) to ride the train to Austin instead of drive (to visit our daughter at UT). I imagine that for anybody who does think it's worth it (i.e. mostly biz travelers), they're already flying today, so putting them on a train doesn't reduce the traffic load.

 
At 3:51 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, read the SNCF proposal. SNCF believes it can reliably run a train every half hour at peak periods, and every hour off-peak, and runs ridership projections based on those frequencies.

It also believes it will attract people from both cars and planes. It won't attract most drivers, but it should attract enough to have a small congestion reduction benefit and to increase ridership far beyond the size of the air market.

You should read the SNCF study. On pages 29-34 it gives some estimates of total travel time and costs, including station access and waiting, on several sample markets, comparing the modes of transportation. HSR wins on time hands down, but costs more than driving for non-business purposes. SNCF's ridership numbers incorporate this data; it's done those comparisons for decades, and generally its projections have been either correct or underestimates.

 
At 4:42 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>But when you reduce frequency, you also reduce the appeal, esp. for business travelers. They love the fact they can go to Hobby and catch a flight every half-hour to Dallas. No planning required - it always fits their schedule.

Nevertheless, airlines have had to reduce frequencies on many routes during the downturn. The same rules apply for trains. If it is a popular route under any economic circumstances (like Dallas / Houston), there will be no need to reduce frequency.

>>No major Texas airport is anywhere near its capacity limits (inc. Hobby), so expansion is not an issue.

Yet we have spent and are still spending billions to expand Hobby and IAH. $1.2 billion announced just last year at IAH, for starters, and many upgrades and expansions at Hobby over the past decade. That money would be better spent on rail infrastructure. I know your response: this is a sunk cost, might as well live with it. To me, sunk cost is a poor argument. Like "slippery slope" arguments - it is pretty lame. We still need to evaluate all present options regardless of sunk costs.

 
At 5:04 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'd appreciate a link to the SNCF study. Do they propose to pay for it themselves, or do they want the capital costs covered by govt?

Airports: I meant runway capacity. Because airports get such a huge cash flow off of passenger ticket fees, I think they tend to be a bit too aggressive with gate expansions and remodeling. They all compete on who can have the most modern terminals, but I'm not sure it's the highest/best use of that money. Setting that aside, the vast majority (95+%) of the planned gate capacity expansions are for flights beyond the HSR range, so they're not really comparable infrastructure investments.

 
At 6:29 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I linked to a mirror of the SNCF study further upthread. It's in my 1:16 pm comment.

No, SNCF doesn't propose to pay for the system itself. It proposes for it to be publicly owned, to be built and operated by SNCF under contract. A lot of consultancy firms suggest such things; SNCF's proposal is unique in that SNCF has experience in running trains.

 
At 1:49 PM, November 11, 2009, Blogger dpward said...

A simple comparison with air fare from London to Paris would have revealed that there is no story here. The air fare for a similar trip is virtually identical.

Why one would compare a train trip from London to Paris to a plane trip from Dallas to Houston and argue that it means anything at all is beyond my comprehension.

 

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