Sunday, April 29, 2012

New reasons to be skeptical of high-speed rail

I know I'm probably beating a dead horse here, since HSR is all but dead now in this country, but I recently engaged in a Facebook debate on HSR that uncovered some arguments beyond the usual.  It started with this story of a TXDoT study of MSR (medium/mediocre speed rail ;-) to Austin, followed by my response on how inter-city luxury buses undermine the case for HSR.  What follows are some of those new points:

Here's a core problem with rail that really undermines the economics. When you build a road between two cities, it serves both people and cargo between those two cities, as well as all points in between and the entire road network beyond (i.e. going north on 45 from Houston can take you to any city on the way to Dallas, to Dallas, or beyond Dallas). When you build a multi-billion dollar airport, it can serve flights to just about every other airport in the world. Both of those lead to very high utilization and lots of passengers to spread the costs over. Now think about rail between two cities like Houston-Austin or Houston-Dallas. If you put many stops along the way, it really slows the net speed, so it doesn't really serve points in between (esp. since they're low population). And if your final destination is beyond that city, you're probably going to either drive or fly - so you don't get the network effects/benefits. So, at the end of the day, those very expensive tracks (and trains) only really serve people going specifically between those two cities, which vastly limits the number of passengers to spread the costs over. The only scenarios where trains really work economically is when there are a linear string of population centers relatively close to each other so the tracks can serve multiple origin-destination pairs, like the DC-Baltimore-Philly-NJ-NYC-CT-RI-Boston corridor, or the country of Japan.

CA has vastly more people than TX in a nice linear city configuration, but is struggling to figure out how to justify cost estimates that have soared north of $100 billion. I agree there is a productivity boost for riders, but 1) would it be for enough people? and 2) will they pay for it? Would you pay $100 each way to visit Austin? Especially if you could pay $30 on a luxury bus with wifi and get the same productivity boost? Or if you could just drive and improved voice recognition in your phone could keep you productive? (it's coming fast) And the environmental benefits are only good if the trains are reasonably full. That usually means reduced frequency, which further inhibits ridership. Buses get the same or better environmental benefits and can perfectly tailor capacity to demand while keeping up frequency (because of the smaller capacity increments than trains).

There's also technology risk: what happens to rail ridership when we have very high MPG, self-driving Google-cars in a decade? I'm not sure when the self-driving will be really reliable on local streets, but I have no doubt they'll get it pretty solidly reliable on long-distance suburban/rural interstates.

Another thought experiment. Two options to connect two cities. Option 1 goes 200mph and requires billions of dollars of infrastructure between here and there, including cutting through landowners and making absolutely sure no vehicles or cattle/large animals can ever get in the way - or, for that matter, that any terrorist can sabotage the route (catastrophe), a challenge similar to securing our border. Option 2 goes 500mph and requires no new infrastructure (it already exists), nothing at ground level to cut through landowners or provide a safety risk. Security is only needed at the endpoints. Framing it that way, the answer seems obvious.

I'm not saying rail doesn't have a definite cool factor (and it does work well in certain parts of the world). I'm just saying the alternatives, costs, network limitations, and technology trends leave it with too small of a niche market to make economic sense in most of the U.S., including Texas.

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At 10:44 PM, April 29, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TxDOT is still soliciting a consultant for the Houston-Dallas high speed rail.

This was previously solicited back in November 2011 but did not move forward at this time.

A preliminary analysis of the corridor concluded that the cost would be about $4 billion to upgrade existing BNSF or UP corridors, and the trip time would be about 3 hours and 15 minutes, which is slightly better than a car which can go downtown to downtown in about 3.5 hours in clear traffic.

I-45 is four lanes between Corsicana and Willis, a 132 mile section. Expanding it to six lanes (three each way) could cost as little as $10 million per mile. Assuming $15 million per mile, that's $2 billion. So for half the cost of the rail you could get a minimum of three lanes each way on I-45 all the way from Houston to Dallas.

Apparently the feds are paying for this study. It is basically wasted money (add it to the national debt), but good business for the consulting firms.

At 2:27 PM, April 30, 2012, Blogger James Petty, LEED AP said...

Im not sure I understand why you seem to think that if a railroad has stops between two large cities, that a train has to stop there. Have you ever lived in another country? Im a Houstonian currently living in Germany. There are dozens upon dozens of stops between Munich and Frankfurt. But when someone wants to go from one to the other, they would never take a regional train which would make each stop. That would be ridiculous as you suggest. There are trains that will go direct and not stop. This is even so in New York's Subway express network. And while a plane is obviously faster than a train, the overall experience of getting from one city center to another is MUCH faster on the train. No security, no check in, no arriving far away from the destination. And yes, going from Munich to Frankfurt can cost upwards of 100 euro each way when booked on the day. Living cost money. If you added up each and every hidden cost of your journey with your car, its not far from the same price (ok here with $9 per gallon of gas it definitely is).

At 6:02 PM, April 30, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Is that common with HSR too? From what I've read, HSR stops tend to be very few and very far in between. I think there was only one between London and Paris.

You really think they're going to have HSR with no security?

I agree when you fully load the cost of a car, it's expensive (the IRS says, what , $0.50/mile?). But people don't think that way - they just consider gas costs. They consider most of the rest of it sunk costs. Even at $4/gallon, here to Austin is 160 miles = 8 gallons at 20mpg = $32, a whole lot less than an HSR ticket (although possibly more than a good luxury bus ticket). Higher mileage cars are much cheaper, and CAFE standards are moving up north of 30mpg, so the whole auto-fleet is improving fast. You leave whenever you want and go directly to your destination (vs. a train). Hard value proposition to beat.

At 9:29 AM, May 01, 2012, Blogger Spork in the Road said...

What are these luxury buses you're talking about? I'm a proponent of rail, but if I can take a bus at the prices you're talking about without having to endure the filthiness of a Greyhound station, I'm game.

At 9:36 AM, May 01, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep beating the dead horse until people get it. Unfortunately, most of the general public still thinks HSR is a viable idea in state or region and that it's easy to implement. When challenged, they resort to:
-"well, it should have been done years ago (when Houston was much smaller), then the costs wouldn't be so high now"
-"we'll never be world class if we don't have high speed rail"
-"wouldn't it be cool to ride rail?"

Until the general public senses - on a visceral level - that HSR is not a logical solution (for most regions of the U.S.), the debate must continue.

At 10:30 AM, May 01, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> What are these luxury buses you're talking about?

Funny you should mention that. Recent news there. First check out this post on Megabus, which has said they're coming to Texas

But Greyhound has also announced major upgrades to their terminals and buses. See

At 2:17 PM, May 01, 2012, Anonymous Patrick said...

HSR probably doesn't work yet in the USA, but I think it would if it was HSRC instead (High Speed Rail Carrier).

Roll on in Houston, roll off in Dallas 2 hours later, drive to your final destination. Use the 2 hours saved as you please.

I would pay $50 for this service.

At 3:42 PM, May 01, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree that would be a pretty cool service, but I'm not sure $50 would even cover the energy costs of sustaining something the size of a car at 250mph for an hour or two, much less cover the capital costs of the trains and tracks. That is the absolute minimum London-Paris price on Eurostar, and that's just to move a 200 lb person, not a multi-ton vehicle.

At 5:51 PM, May 01, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You raise an interesting possibility though. I wonder if there might be a market for regular car-carrier service between city pairs like Dallas and Houston? Pay $50 and sit in your car while it's hauled to Dallas, so you can be productive during those hours. Provide free wifi. The fares might not be much more than gas cost for the car and still be profitable for the truck as a whole.

At 10:03 AM, May 03, 2012, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

A giant wheeled vehicle, with it's own specialized infrastructure for the ostensible purpose of hauling another smaller wheeled vehicle with its passenger to a destination. Engineers refer to such cobbled solutions as a kludge. That's not to say it wouldn't work. But it's still a kludge.

At 6:51 PM, May 24, 2012, Anonymous marc said...

it's going to cost an arm and a leg to create this

At 2:36 PM, July 03, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

500 miles per hour on a plane between Houston and Dallas? I think not. Maybe for a few minutes in the middle part of the flight. But when you include taxiing on the runway on both ends your mph is considerably less. Oh and get there an hour before to get through the terminal and security. Oh yeah, Airlines gonna charge me for a carry on. Give me an efficient rail system any day.

At 2:54 PM, July 03, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, there are some slow downs on take off and landing, but still 500mph almost all the way in between. You don't think rail will have remote parking structures and security? (esp. the first time somebody brandishes a gun on a train) Most airlines don't charge for carry-ons, and Congress is considering legislation to ban carry-on fees.

I agree HSR is a more pleasant experience than flying, I just don't think it's many billions of dollars more pleasant.


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