Getting the HSR Poll Right
Dan Walters, a Sacramento Bee columnist whose opposition to high speed rail has been consistent, took a look yesterday at the HSR poll released by the California High Speed Rail Authority and found it wanting:
In other words, as the authority’s deputy director Jeffrey Barker put it to reporters Tuesday, the train would be “a cheaper way to travel.”
Of course the response to a “cheaper way to travel” would be positive, but it’s very questionable premise.
It could be cheaper than driving only if the car carried just the driver and one counted the full-bore costs of driving, including depreciation, maintenance and insurance on the car, rather than merely the incremental cost of fuel for such a jaunt.
The authority’s assumption that bullet train fares would be 83 percent of airline fares, meanwhile, is based on using the highest possible airline fares, rather than the more common and much-lower no-frills Southwest Airlines fares. It also assumes bullet train overhead is as modest as the authority’s current “business plan” projects.
Walters is notorious for believing that 20th century conditions will persist into the future, and for not believing that peak oil will lead to much higher fuel costs in the future, despite evidence from respected economic observers such as Deutsche Bank that fuel costs will indeed rise dramatically. In other words, he believes that the cost of driving or flying in 2020 or 2030 will be exactly the same as it is here in 2010.
We know that’s not true. But we don’t need to take a trip to the future to see that Walters’ assumption that the train could never cost less than the plane is itself flawed. Jeff Barker, in response to Walters’ column, spent yesterday morning going online and pricing trips between two destinations served by both a plane and a high speed train. Here’s what he found:
I spent this morning pricing high-speed rail trips and airplane trips over the same distances in some of the world’s already-established high-speed rail corridors. What I found were tickets half the cost of airfare.
In Japan, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka tomorrow morning would cost you $160 on the Shinkansen and $283 by plane.
In France, Paris to Lyon would be $157 by high-speed train – the TGV – and $336 by air.
In Spain, the relatively new line from Madrid to Seville on Monday morning (you can’t book before then because it’s so well-ridden that tickets aren’t easily available this week), it would be $108 one-way compared to $200 by plane.
High-speed rail throughout the world is competitive, draws riders, and generates surplus revenues on its operations. It would be the same in California.
Ouch. CHSRA 1, Dan Walters 0.
And what of the US domestic scene? I found a fare from WAS (DC Union Station) to NYP (Penn Station, up on 8th ave) on the Acela for $180 departing at 1PM, with afternoon departures closer to $225. That’s cheaper than anything I found on Expedia.com for flights from DCA (National airport) to LGA (LaGuardia; $280 was cheapest) or EWR (Newark; $265 was cheapest – though a long Philly layover brought the price down to $200). On Southwest, the cheapest fare was $171 – but that was from BWI (Baltimore) to LGA, since there were no flights out of DCA.
In other words, if you want to get from central Washington DC to central Manhattan, the fastest and cheapest way is on the Acela.
And of course, the short-haul airlines themselves, like JetBlue, are clamoring for HSR service on the shuttle routes like SF-LA or DC-NY so that slots are opened up for them to fly longer, more profitable routes.
So that would all seem to quite thoroughly demolish Walters’ claims about trains vs. planes, even here in 2010, before the upward march of fuel prices has resumed.
What about driving? Sure, in 2010, it probably is cheaper to pile a family of four into a car and drive from LA to SF than it would be to take a bullet train. But you’d be taking twice as long to make that trip (12 hours round-trip in a car vs. ~6 hours round-trip on a train). For parents, that time can make a lot of difference, and a lot of people will pay for the convenience and time savings.
For a single traveler, it’s no contest. As someone who travels to and from SoCal often for business, I rarely drive even today. It’s a waste of my time. There’s just no question that I’d take a train for such a trip rather than drive.
By 2020, however, the savings of piling a family of four into a car versus taking the train will probably no longer exist. Again, critics of the HSR ridership model assume fuel prices will remain constant over the next 10 to 20 years, an assumption that flies in the face of every available piece of evidence.
I can understand why HSR critics want to undermine this poll – its results are simply devastating to their case. But so far, their criticisms just don’t hold water. Even under present conditions, the underlying assumptions that the train would be more preferable and cheaper than the plane are proved valid, and traveler preference to use something other than a car is already strong. Add in soaring fuel costs over the next 10 years and there’s every reason to believe HSR will be as successful in California as it has been around the world.