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Not the Point of High Speed Rail

Track Twenty-Nine draws my attention to this article about South Bend, Indiana's lobbying for a stop along a proposed high speed rail corridor. One thing concerns me, though:
If the federal government approves funding for a high-speed rail line through South Bend, passengers here could travel to Chicago's Union Station in just one hour. Such a project would have a profound effect on life in South Bend, making it easier for residents to commute to jobs in the Windy City, local officials say.
There are a lot of good reasons to invest in high speed rail infrastructure. Extreme commuting isn't one of them. Now, this article doesn't specify that people would use this for their daily commute, but there are reasons to think that's the case.

(from flickr user satosphere)

I've heard this argument applied elsewhere. While recently discussing the 3-C Corridor in Ohio, someone said, "wouldn't it be great if we had high-speed rail here?.. you could live in Cleveland and work in Columbus!" Frankly, I don't think it would be very great.

To start, there seems to be an assumption that high speed rail will be very affordable. There is really no basis for this belief. The Acela line in the Northeast (and the closest thing we have to high speed rail in this country) has very expensive fares. To travel from Philadelphia to New York City (about the same distance as South Bend to Chicago) can cost over $100 each way. Doing that twice a day for a week would run you a thousand bucks. Even if they cut you a big discount for being a frequent rider, the price tag would still be very high.

The reality is that the hour-trip promise is a station-to-station estimate, which doesn't take into account that almost nobody lives or works on top of these stations. At the end of the day, you're still looking at a round trip commute well over two hours. It's hard to see it being a realistic option for many people. It's just too far. We should really stop thinking about distance in terms of time, and start thinking about distance in terms of, well, distance.


Colby said…
I've seen somewhere else a comment about thinking in terms of distance instead of time. Can you explain the benefit or reason for such an approach? Whenever I ask 'How far?', I don't really care about the distance - and when I receive the answer 'XX miles', I do the calculation in my head to determine the time it would take to travel. Thanks.
B. P. Beckley said…
It is interesting that people think that high speed rail would be intrinsically cheaper than air travel, and there's no particular reason to assume that's true. A high speed trainset (180mph, let's say) is probably comparable in size and sophistication to an airplane of similar capacity, so why would the equipment cost be an order of magnitude lower? Yeah, trains don't have turbofans, but airplanes don't need 10000hp worth of electrical gear.

The energy use is probably lower, I guess, but that's just a function of the lower speed. A 180mph capable roadbed requires tremendous amounts of maintenance on every mile, and air travel doesn't really even have an equivalent cost.

It's an interesting mental tic. People forget how much the prices for air travel have come down. There's some nominal level in their heads for how much it should cost to get from place to place, and air travel is allowed to be much more expensive than that, but rail travel isn't.

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