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Old 02-11-2013, 03:29 PM   #102
Taco John Taco John is offline
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Interesting post on this:
I know that high-speed rail is one of Reddit's big collective "things," and there was a time where I thought it would be a good idea for the States.
However, the more I look into it, the more that HSR looks an awful lot like a modern Concorde. In other words, it's a prestige project that costs a metric ass-ton of taxpayer money in return for a fabulous technological achievement that ... mostly benefits the wealthy and/or the privileged. Yay.
Once you look closely at HSR across the world, there are a few troubling commonalities that emerge:
  • It isn't a popular commuter's solution. The problem with getting to work is that you've gotta do it every day, and high-speed rail tickets are almost universally expensive. Even in places where they're heavily subsidized, it's not the kind of expense that most people can shrug off. To put it this way, average commuters to NYC from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut suburbs will pay between $5-20 on a conventional rail ticket every day depending on their proximity to the city. By contrast, an Acela ticket is $70 from New Haven, the closest possible commuting city from New York. Assuming you go to work 5 days a week, and let's knock 2 weeks off the year for vacation, you are going to spend $17,500 per year just to get to work.

Or not. Nobody except the trust-fund set is ever going to drop that much money for a marginally faster ride to work.

Now, you can subsidize the tickets, but there isn't a government on the planet that has the resources to make HSR cheaper than regular rail tickets. (Or, if there is, I haven't found it.) Or you can encourage companies to pay for their employees' tickets, which is what a lot of Japanese companies do. Except they pass that cost along to consumers -- they have to -- and that's sure as hell not helping Tokyo's already-astronomical cost of living and the barrier to entry it presents to its already-dwindling number of young people.
Bottom line: There is no free lunch.
  • It isn't really a long-distance solution either. The longer the journey, the greater the likelihood that airplanes are faster and more economically efficient. The northeast corridor (between Boston and D.C.) is typically cited as the area of the U.S. most suited to a HSR network, which is true, but even here we run into distance problems. A flight between Boston and D.C. is 45 minutes and (with a glance at Kayak) costs $121 on average. The fastest train currently in regular service (the Chinese CRH380A) could manage that in roughly 3 hours assuming it went maximum speed immediately on leaving the station in Boston and made absolutely no stops at all on its way to Washington. I don't think that's technologically feasible any more than it's economically wise.

Additionally, looking at Acela tickets, there's a range of $170 to $250 while taking approximately 6 hours to cover the same distance. In the U.S., the plane is going to win every time.

Now, there's a strong case to be made that the anemic U.S. support for HSR is what's keeping services like the Acela from reaching their true potential, so let's look elsewhere. London to Paris by flight will run you 1 hour and 15 minutes and (depending on the day) $100-$150. The Eurostar is 2 hours and 15-30 minutes (depending on the train and the number of stops) and, averaging the fares together and using the current exchange rate, $210. In the interest of accuracy, it's possible to get a standard (i.e. non-business class) Eurostar fare at a rate competitive with flights at off-peak times while booking at least a month ahead, but you can just as easily get a plane ticket for the same cost and less time.

London to Paris should be the poster child for the "sweet spot" where HSR is competitive with flight, but even here, you have to struggle to create the circumstances in which HSR is more efficient than a plane. And it's still not! You can book months in advance and pick the most off-peak time you can find, but you'll still find a flight on that same day for the same or less money that gets you to Paris an hour faster. The British government has had to bail out Eurostar[1] previously, and ridership is 60% less than predicted from 2006 to present.

Why? I suspect because, for most people, time is less important than money, and you cannot convince them to spend more in return for less. More on this in a moment.
  • It also isn't a short-distance solution. The shorter the distance, the greater the likelihood that conventional rail is more efficient ... which kind of dumps us back at the reason why HSR is a poor commuter's solution. Any engineer could tell you that using HSR to go, say, 5 miles is a waste of time unless it's going to be used constantly to satisfy high demand from either people or freight. The closest model to this is Shanghai's maglev running between the airport and the city center, except ... well, this still isn't turning a profit. The technology has turned out to be substantially more expensive to keep running than they anticipated.

So who actually uses HSR?

"So who's going to use it?" is a vitally important question to ask of any addition or improvement to be made to a country's transportation infrastructure. People who tend to use HSR around the globe fall into pretty distinct groups:
  • Tourists "Yay, let's ride the trains! Wait, they cost how much? **** that, we'll take the plane next time." Most non-European tourists are already spending a small fortune on plane tickets to get there in the first place, and then more on hotels and food. Europe is a hideously expensive place to start with, and spending extra just to get around the continent isn't in most peoples' budgets.
  • Students "I don't own a car. Subsidized train tickets! Wheeee!" Trains are indeed very nice for students, who typically don't own cars and are entitled to reduced-price tickets in most countries. But you'll have to turn 26 sometime, at which point the gravy train (high speed or otherwise) stops. On a depressing note, young people are also a shrinking percentage of the population in every western European country.
  • Business people on the relatively few lines where HSR can beat or approximate plane times "My company's paying for this. Bring me another truffle, peon." As stated earlier, whether HSR can "beat" a plane is a pretty iffy matter in the first place. A lot of its attractiveness depends on the lengthy check-in, security, and boarding procedures needed to use planes. The longer the distance, the more that HSR's advantage starts to vanish, and the less you can justify scheduling meetings or whatever at odd times to justify using the trains.
  • Travelers who really hate flying Unfortunately for HSR's bottom line, there aren't too many of these around.
  • Rich people who like trains Unfortunately, not too many of these around, either. And for most rich people, there's a point at which their time is significantly more valuable than money, which was actually the attraction of the Concorde. The additional time they gained by using a much faster plane was more valuable to them than the extra money they had to spend on Concorde tickets. Except ... HSR isn't faster than planes, and it isn't cheaper either. For someone whose time is literally money, the train won't be the most attractive choice.
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