Integrating High-Speed Rail into the "System"

As the New York Times pointed out a few days ago, we have no real high-speed rail in the United States, putting us decades behind many other developed countries. The recently passed stimulus package includes $8 billion for high-speed rail investment, which is a start. Here's a blog that analyzes a number of the possible routes that high-speed rail could serve. The DOT high-speed rail site is here.

One major problem we have in the United States is that there is no strategic vision for our transportation system, and there hasn't been for almost 50 years, since we built the Interstate Highway System.

Being strategic about how we integrate high-speed rail presents some incredible opportunities. I argue that we should use high speed rail as an integral part of our air travel system rather than set it up as a separate mode. I am going to use O'Hare to Milwaukee as an example of how this works, but there are certainly other places where making an intelligent synergy between the two modes creates enormous value.

Why Airports?
There are about a dozen flights a day between O'Hare and Milwaukee. Let me assure you that nobody flies between Chicago and Milwaukee. Those planes are filled with transferring passengers--passengers who started in Seattle or Denver or Newark. Imagine if the train were built directly from airport to airport, including integrating luggage transfer and ticketing. Now when you fly from Seattle to Milwaukee, you deplane at O'Hare and get on your connecting "flight" to Milwaukee, which is actually the train. Your bags are transferred for you, just like you were taking another plane. Advantages for the traveler include:

- More dependable (better in the winter and not affected by the thunderstorms that delay flights at O'Hare all summer)
- Faster. A true high-speed train should be able to make this trip in under an hour, including an intermediate stop (or two)
- Flexible. That intermediate stop might be more convenient for you.

To truly make this work optimally, the line should start in downtown Chicago, go through O'Hare, travel to Milwaukee's airport (which is conveniently south of downtown) and then into downtown Milwaukee. This makes it much more cost-effective, because now the train carries the local passengers traveling from Chicago to Milwaukee AND the long-distance passengers who were changing planes at O'Hare. With more passengers, service can be more frequent, creating a positive feedback.

If we keep thinking this through, we see advantages for a number of players:
The Airline Perspective
- Why not have the airlines own and operate the trains? This would help make them supportive rather than antagonistic. I don't know this for certain, but I would not be surprised if Southwest Airlines lobbied hard against the Texas high speed rail project proposed a decade or so ago, because they perceived it as competition.
- The airline, say United, could now sell its take-off and landing slots and get rid of hangar space and maintenance and refueling and everything else in Milwaukee except baggage handling and ticketing, for enormous savings.
- The airline can now re-dispatch those planes to more profitable, longer routes (short flights like these tend to be money losers for airlines)
- If it's United, they can skim some customers from other airlines who want the convenience and reliability of the train (alternatively, the airlines could create a consortium and work together to provide the service).
- And they can also get all the customers who ride from Chicago to Milwaukee who used to drive or take the Amtrak train.
- Just imagine if the airline perceived itself as a "transportation" company rather than an airline. Then this sort of integration can make bottom-line sense to them, and they become allies rather than enemies of high-speed rail.

More Why Airports?
- Airports already have the travel infrastructure in place: rental cars, parking, hotels, etc. that travelers often need when they travel. This reduces the need to re-create all this infrastructure at separate stations that are only served by rail alone.

Thinking Even Bigger
The biggest cost advantage of all requires a really big vision. Imagine that we now built similar lines from O'Hare to Indianapolis and Detroit and Minneapolis and St. Louis and Cincinnati and Des Moines and Cleveland and Columbus--picking up intermediate stops like Ann Arbor and Cedar Rapids. Using Kayak, I estimate there are perhaps as many as 300 flights per day to destinations within 300 or 350 miles of O'Hare. What does that mean? Well, if enough flights get replaced with train trips, then we save $20 billion or whatever it would cost to build that third Chicago airport that keeps getting pushed.

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