Buses Aren’t An Alternative to High Speed Rail
Over at the Houston Chronicle there is a particularly absurd post suggesting that buses are a great alternative to high speed trains.
First, the set-up is particularly revealing:
I’m back from my California trip – beautiful state, beautiful weather, completely dysfunctional government. For example, even with massive fiscal problems it’s still trying to build a vastly expensive high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego. On a related note, a private group is exploring building a Houston-Dallas HSR line with no subsidies of any kind. I’m totally okay with private efforts. I’m probably even okay with a little eminent domain to get the right of way at a fair price. I hope they can make it work.
For this guy, whether HSR is effective or not isn’t the point. Ideological opposition to public sector funding of projects is. And California is building high speed rail in part because of “massive fiscal problems.” As we learned 75 years ago with the Golden Gate Bridge, infrastructure is a good way to get out of a Depression – especially when that infrastructure saves travelers time and money and builds lasting value.
But his point is mostly that buses can do what HSR does so there’s no need to build trains at all:
Here’s a great alternate perspective on HSR: a TED talk on the value of perception and psychology vs. economics and technology. Go to the 6:12 point to see a great example of the Eurostar train, where they spend a vast amount of money to reduce travel times by 40 mins, when for 90% or 99% less money they could have improved the experience instead and actually gotten higher rider satisfaction. I believe the absolute same principle applies to bus vs. rail, whether intra- or inter-city: spend 1% or 10% of the same money improving the bus service and get higher customer satisfaction than the rail line would generate. (hat tip to Karl)
And Greyhound is doing just that, learning from Megabus and upgrading their service with wifi, power plugs, and nicer seats with more leg room. With that kind of service option available at say $30 one-way within the Texas Triangle, how many people do you think would pay $150+ to go on HSR? On second thought, maybe nobody should mention this possibility to the Texas HSR group… ;-)
Yeah, this is ridiculous. Show me a bus that can travel 220 mph. (And no, The Onion doesn’t count.) Trains are popular because they provide something buses don’t – high speed, comfortable, direct service between city centers. High speed trains usually serve downtown stations and have tracks that get them quickly through the urban area and out to the rural areas where top speeds can be achieved.
Buses, on the other hand, have to slowly navigate urban streets and all their stoplights to get to the freeway, hope the freeway is clear and not jammed with traffic, and then get to the rural interstates where the top speed for a bus is probably 65 mph. That assumes there’s no traffic on the rural interstate, which as anybody who’s driven Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley on a holiday weekend knows is not necessarily a given.
HSR lines around the world have high ridership and cover their costs precisely because they provide vastly superior service to buses. There’s just no contest here.
Besides, someone already tried to operate a bus between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It shut down service just one year after it had started. Even with $10 fares it wasn’t getting riders. Yet the California high speed rail ridership studies indicate it will have no problem generating riders, just as the Amtrak Acela has no problem getting riders even in the face of competing bus service.
So no, buses are not an alternative to high speed trains. Buses are fine, they have a role to play in intercity travel, but as a supplement to trains, not as their replacement.