Thinking Methodically About Interstate Rail
Over at The Transport Politic Yonah Freemark has a very comprehensive proposal for an interstate rail network that goes beyond merely figuring out which corridors should have HSR, and weighting these corridors using a specific methodology that prioritizes their funding and construction. Freemark’s goal is to bring some order and sense to the growing nationwide movement for improved intercity rail, and provide a reasoned way of determining what ought to be built when:
In order to evaluate the different lines, the transport politic developed a system by which it could examine the cost effectiveness of each line both in terms of travel within the corridor alone (the Corridor Score) and within the system as a whole (the Overall Score). Travel between every city pair in the system between 50 and 500 miles apart was evaluated, and the results were compiled by corridor, whereupon they were divided by route mile to appraise potential ridership by mile of new construction. The results provide the basis for prioritizing routes and suggest a method by which the federal government could begin to imagine how such a high-speed rail system might be developed. (PDF with description of methodology, evaluation of every city pair, and scores for each corridor or here)
According to this methodology the California HSR proposal scores less than some of the Northeastern and Midwestern corridors, and within the California HSR corridor Fresno-Sacramento and LA-San Diego score higher than the LA-SF corridor prioritized by Prop 1A. The analysis also shows that, while popular with some, the LA-Vegas corridor is relatively “marginal” in importance though still worth building.
As a thought exercise in how to plan implementation of an HSR network without resorting to which state has the most pull in Congress, it’s a very good discussion starter. But I have to question some of the assumptions that went into this. From the source data:
The equation is designed to allow for a simple comparison between different routes; while it does not calculate ridership, it provides a good estimate for which routes would be more or less used. It should not be taken as an exact formula or one that has been heavily researched, but it provides a good jumping-off point for more research on where to place new high-speed rail routes.
The calculation is based on the following assumptions:
•People are less likely to take a journey as the distance of the journey increases;
•Given a choice, more people would choose to travel to a bigger city than a smaller one;
•Travel choices are based entirely on city size and distance between cities;
•Density of metropolitan areas does not affect travel;
•There are no regional differences in travel preferences;
•No two city pairs compete with one another – as new routes open, new ridership is generated.
These assumptions are of course quite untrue in many ways. However, given time and data limitations, this formula provides a quick method of comparison.
I think the first assumption is questionable at best. LA-SF has a further distance than some other pairs, but compares well to Madrid-Barcelona, two cities with some similarity to LA and SF and with a similar distance. The new AVE line between the two cities has eaten deeply into air travel on what was one of Europe’s busiest air corridors, just as LA-SF is one of North America’s busiest air corridors. HSR compares well with door to door times using air travel on the corridor, and because it offers particular amenities that airplanes do not, it is likely that LA-SF HSR has some of the best growth potential in the country.
I know this site is inherently biased, but of all the corridors in America, there are few better suited to HSR than LA-SF. The Northeast Corridor surely outranks ours in most criteria, which is why it has a successful quasi-HSR system already in the Acela (and that deserves to be upgraded to full and true HSR). But I am hard pressed to think of many other corridors that make a more compelling case than our own.
The Transport Politic plan is a concept and a starting point of course, not a final plan, and so my comments are offered in a constructive and not critical or defensive manner. (Besides, CA is the only corridor that brings non-federal money to the table, guaranteeing us a privileged spot in terms of federal HSR funding – I don’t think we have much to worry about on that front.) We need to begin treating HSR like a national network, to be built in phases according to objective criteria. Measuring that criteria becomes key, and it will necessarily involve a complex set of factors.
So, go over to The Transport Politic and read the plan. What do you all think about it?