High-Speed Rail Won't Replace Air Travel. Here's What We Should Try Instead.

As the Green New Deal gains political interest and traction, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has formalized the dream of the most optimistic railfans: to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.” Detractors, meanwhile, focus on the enormous expense and question the practicality. But what does her stated goal actually mean? Is it possible, in a literal sense, for rail to replace airline travel? The answer involves a lot of math, which I promise I will do for you, but we’ll jump ahead: rail can’t compete with air travel. Simultaneously, paradoxically, air travel can’t compete with rail. Let’s dive in.

Since Representative Ocasio-Cortez has drawn that air-rail connection so explicitly, let's examine the way air travel has fundamentally warped the way we think about transportation. An ideal trip (and one that's readily available between major hubs) is non-stop: our goal is to get from our origin to our destination with no, or at least few, stops in between. Essentially, we’re primed to focus on “origin” to “destination” trips, where the vehicle starts near the beginning of your journey and stops near the end. Rail, however, operates along corridors that serve many stations and any journey involves plenty of stops. For instance, a passenger traveling from Washington to New York has about 10 stops in between, depending on the route. It seems like that’s a minor difference, but it’s not; as we’ll see, it is the major stumbling block for a truly trans-continental high-speed rail journey. 

Since that origin-destination thinking is so prevalent to many Americans, let’s examine how die-hard railfans would likely conceptualize this high-speed rail journey. We’ll look at travel times on the most common flight paths in the United States, and the Holy Grail of high-speed travel: New York to Los Angeles. They are (as the crow flies) 2,445 miles apart and which see around 3.5 million flyers per year. Now, let’s take a look at the fastest train in the world: the Shanghai Maglev, which operates at a top speed of 267 mph. That would mean a little over 9 hours from one to the other. Great! Totally trip time competitive with flying, which takes about 6 hours non-stop. 

Obviously, the train doesn’t reach its departure time, immediately hit 267, and then once it’s in place at the endpoint decelerate immediately. Let’s say, for a minute, this rail project was the first in the history of the world to fly past major cities in order to serve two endpoints faster. How much time would this journey actually take? Maglev trains accelerate and decelerate faster, which is great for trains and terrible for people. Given passenger comfort, I’m going to take the top acceleration speed of German rail and add a little cushion for Americans (we’re a comfort-focused people) for 10 minutes to accelerate and 10 to decelerate. We’re still chugging along at about 9 hours and 20 minutes, end to end. 

Now let’s talk about why this route is going to have way, way more than two stops. If this route operates in a perfectly, PERFECTLY straight line (the only way to even approach the speeds listed above), this route passes through 11 states. These 11 states between them have 22 senators and, and the congressional districts it passes through have more representatives than I’m willing to count. It is vital to have buy-in from areas outside of Los Angeles and New York City, and that’s not going to happen if we ask every state from New Jersey to Nevada to put up with noisy, dangerous trains in exchange for nothing. Even if we assume the train keeps its straight lines and stops in tiny towns to maintain speed, we’re talking about a total addition of about 4 and a half hours for these stops (including a 5-minute dwell time). We’re now close to about 14 hours. For reference, Amtrak takes about 12 hours to get from Boston to Richmond, Virginia. Seattle to Los Angeles takes about 11.

Now, let’s talk about that straight line, which shows problems plaguing high-speed rail at a high level. This is a reality that long-distance high-speed-rail advocates need to grapple with: straight lines are a whole lot harder in democracies. China’s super high speeds are only possible because they can demolish any structure they need to and don’t have the same political pressures to place stations in usable locations. Indeed, China is employing the “tiny town” strategy mentioned above. It’s banking on “railroad towns” sprouting up along its train routes or on its ability to build connectors that span hundreds of miles from mid-size cities to tiny outpost station towns. This map from the Economist, with its beautifully straight lines, shows China’s strategy: Chinese leaders want a really fast train network. We need a really useful one, and that means a large detour to Chicago at a bare minimum. So, we can count on many bends as a rail line seeks to serve a country this large. Now, a route like this would likely offer express service. However, fast service directly from New York to Los Angeles would require us to build the largest infrastructure project we’ve ever seen, and the longest high-speed train route the world has ever seen, and then build a second one to shave off a few hours. Also not a likely prospect.

That’s a lot of qualifiers for super-fast high-speed rail. So what happens when high-speed rail meets reality? Let’s take a look back at that Shanghai maglev. According to its schedule, its actual average speed is about 140mph. Still, it’s a short trip so it wouldn’t reach top speeds. But it only has two stops — what happens when we add dwell time at stations? The next fastest is China’s Fuxing Hao, with a top speed of 236 mph. Average overall trip speed? About 150 mph. Number three is Japan’s Shinkansen, the fastest train operating in a democracy, can reach up to 224 mph and sees an average of around 123 mph. There are other trains (like France’s beautiful TGV network) that reach higher average trip speeds, but nothing comes close to the potential promised by those “top speeds.”

If we assume we’re going to match Japan’s average (still a stretch goal- the Acela’s trip average is 63 mph), we’re looking at about 20 hours for our straight line. For our twistier route, well, it depends on how much sway smaller cities and states have — but if past is prologue, the answer is a lot. Essentially, there is no likely version of our route that is remotely trip time competitive with flying. 

However, this is a very literal interpretation of Representative Ocasio-Cortez’ words. The spirit of the proposal is to create a robust network of high-speed rail in the United States. Many want to see the same quantity and quality of rail that exists in Western Europe (which is the area many coastal dwellers mean when they say "Europe", or, indeed, "the rest of the world"). But what makes it so much easier for Western European powers to build and maintain their routes? If your answer is “public and political willingness to fund them,” you’re halfway there. There’s also a math problem here:

The population of Western Europe is about 400 million, living in around 400 thousand square miles. In the contiguous United States (apologies to Alaska and Hawaii), the population is about 300 million living on about 3 million square miles. You see the issue: at a population density 1/10th that of Western Europe, the United States is, mostly, nothing. This Bloomberg graphic shows us that the urban area covers about 100 thousand square miles (and that we have twice as much forest as Europe has landmass). So, as far as travel is concerned, what do we do about everything in between? If you're an airline, you skip it. The term "Flyover State" originates from this modal focus on the coasts. Trains are not so good at “skipping,” so rail will always have a hard time competing with these big inter-regional trips. 

This “skipping” is also the reason air travel will never replace train travel, and why it never did. This is where an American rail network is poised for enormous success if deployed strategically, and if we’re willing to give states and regions a substantial amount of power. Take the example of Indiana, which is a state with major railroad potential: the location of cities is largely based around historical rail routes, meaning the state map is literally designed to be convenient for rail. It has 16 cities with populations between 50 and 250 thousand, large enough to supply passengers but too small to ever be on the radar of major commercial airlines. But its last state-supported train route ended service on July 1st. Rail service in Indiana is now fully beholden to the fate of Amtrak long-distance routes, which the current CEO has signaled he wants to cut.

If Indiana had the resources to implement effective rail it would revolutionize how its citizens get from city to city. At that 123 mph trip average, Indianapolis to Chicago takes about 90 minutes, and serves a bunch of cities too small to appeal to airlines. And this applies in regions all over the country: California has dozens of mid-size cities up its coasts that are already served by fairly popular rail service, and in the Pacific Northwest (the only corridor outside the Northeast with a higher market share than air travel) pretty much the entire state of Oregon lives in small cities on a straight line. Amtrak, too, has recognized the importance of intra-regional travel. It stated in no uncertain terms in its service plan, “Amtrak believes that state-supported corridors are the future of rail passenger service in the U.S.” We don’t have to work hard to identify which corridors are best suited to this type of high-speed rail. Economic data show widely agreed-upon maps of America’s “megaregions,” which are corridors like the Northeast and the Cascades (the two regions where Amtrak currently beats out air travel for market share). America 2050 performed its own analysis and found 50 city pairs with major promise for high-speed rail. Any of these are easy wins for high-speed rail campaigns.

Let’s look at the high-frequency flights that can be replaced. The 31st most common flight in the world, and second in the United States, is Los Angeles to San Francisco. In 2017, this route saw about 3.5 million passengers, almost as much as the New York to LA route. The distance between the two cities is about 350 miles. If we go back to that 123 mph trip average, that’s about 3 hours from end to end. The flight alone is 90 minutes. Given travel to and from the airports, security, and the general misery of air travel, airplanes can’t even approach the appeal of that route. Number five in the United States is Atlanta to Orlando, serving 2.8 million passengers and an easy competitor to air travel. Another few replaceable routes in the top ten are Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, serving over 5 million passengers between them. The top ten routes together carry about 28 million passengers per year. These easily replaceable routes carry about 11.5 million per year. Fully 41 percent of the top passenger traffic is easily replaceable by rail with existing technology! If we assume a metric ton of CO2 per flight over rail, we’re talking about 100 thousand metric tons in total emissions, just from the top few routes. And I ran a quick analysis of Bureau of Transportation Statistics data and about 20% of domestic flights are under 1,000 miles long.

Back to that desire for “European-style high-speed rail”: European powers do it the same way. Traveling long distances still takes a day or more, but travel within high-speed rail enabled regions and corridors is lightning fast. European powers do cooperate a bit less than our states and have no continental oversight on transportation. But they also recognize the value in employing rail to serve their own regional ends. France is roughly 1.5 times the size of California, both in population and landmass, and its rail is fully focused on French geography and priorities. It intersects at points with German rail, Spanish rail, Italian rail, also serving different populations with distinct needs. 

America can and should have better rail service, but we can’t afford to be naive about the limitations. Until people are willing to spend one to two days on a train for a routine journey, rail will never replace flight. But we absolutely have the ability to create rail networks robust enough to fully replace plenty of individual flight routes, to say nothing of the millions of car trips that could be avoided. We need a decentralized strategy, and tons of money, and political will. Rail has a serious competitive advantage, and it’s time we pursued it.

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