Counterpoint: High-Speed Rail Can Be a Good Investment - Post 2: Air Travel

Last Monday, Robert J. Samuelson published an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting the high-speed rail is nothing but pork.  At one point he says:

"What would we get for this huge investment? Not much. Here's what we wouldn't get: any meaningful reduction in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, air travel, oil consumption or imports."

I think he is wrong on all counts.  Yesterday I addressed commuting.  Today I address air travel.

Here's his point:
"In a report on high-speed rail, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examined the 12 corridors of 500 miles or fewer with the most daily air traffic in 2007. Los Angeles to San Francisco led the list with 13,838 passengers; altogether, daily air passengers in these 12 corridors totaled 52,934. If all of them switched to trains, the total number of daily airline passengers, about 2 million, would drop only 2.5 percent."

Hmm.  Amtrak's Northeast corridor by itself carried more than 50% of the passenger load he quotes above.  There's something wrong with that number.  I suspect that they did not include intermediate passengers. Since a train can make a few stops (not too many, or it degrades the service), a single corridor actually serves several markets.  Just like the Washington-New York trains serve Baltimore and Philadelphia as well as DC and New York.  I suspect that would increase that number substantially.

When I was in Spain this summer, I took the AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona--386 miles (2 hours, 38 minutes!) (see my post: High-Speed Rail in Spain).  Almost every single train on Friday afternoon was completely sold out, and they run 24 trains between 5:50 AM and 11:30 PM.  Each of those trains can carry 1.5-2 times the number of passengers on a plane, unless you're talking a widebody aircraft.  That's a lot of flights being replaced.

More importantly, however, is that our air traffic system is overburdened.  It will take billions and billions of dollars to upgrade air traffic control and increase capacity of that system.  Take a look at my blog post from last year describing how strategic use of effective rail might eliminate the need to build a $20 billion third Chicago airport.

This op-ed suffers from one of the most common logical errors.  It compares the costs of high-speed rail with, well, nothing.  It assumes that whatever would happen instead wouldn't cost anything at all.  But not only would the costs of trying to increase air capacity be enormous, but the environmental costs would be higher as well.  What kind of analysis is that?  And that doesn't even take into account that trains can be more flexibly fueled (electricity can come from renewables, nuclear or other sources).  For now, planes are pretty much reliant on petroleum, which is getting more and more precious.

More soon.

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