- WEB EXCLUSIVE
- PE COFFEEHAUS
I recently traveled from the Detroit area to Chicago. Normally, that is a five-hour journey by car or a 45-minute flight. Airlines used to provide competitive offerings every half hour between these cities at a cost of around $100. Today, there are fewer choices and the flight times are seldom convenient. The prices are $200 to $300. The price of gasoline in the Midwest is higher than most of the country. That led me to look at traveling by train.
I found the times were a little earlier and later than I wanted but the price was great. It still took five hours but I could use that time to type on my laptop or read a book or catch a few winks.
That trip got me to thinking. I wondered about the energy that was used for rail. According to Amtrak, a typical locomotive uses about 17 percent less energy than an airplane per mile to move passengers. A train uses diesel fuel, which is much less refined than jet fuel. The carbon output is much lower. So far so good.
I went back to the Amtrak website to look at costs to travel to other cities. The first thing I noticed is that my choices are not as varied as air travel. Many major cities include changing over to a bus. The next thing I noticed was the prices rapidly escalated as I traveled further and quickly became non-competitive with air travel. Finally, the time to make a long distance trip was just unacceptable. I have a conference next year in San Antonio but it would take nearly 40 hours of travel. I expect the term train-lag could become popularized.
The federal government is bent on spending tax dollars to upgrade our rail system to so-called high-speed rail (HSR). I don’t think they have any idea how much this could cost to build. California voted and passed a ballot proposal to build a HSR system in the state that would eventually link San Francisco and Los Angeles at a cost of $33 billion just a year or so ago. The state just released a business plan for the project that now puts that cost at $98 billion. When was the last time any government project came in under a particular budget? This could be worse than the Big Dig in Boston. Think of the impact this will have on the cost of a ticket.
Within the California business plan was information from Spain and Japan. Those countries built HSR systems and have noticed that since the completion, ridership has soared. Looking at the graphs, it is obvious that nearly all of the increase came directly from a decrease in air travel. I looked at the cost of buying a pass to ride the train in Spain. A 2nd class pass allows a person to ride the train anywhere in the country for any three days in a two month period for about $230. Spain and Japan rail systems are government subsidized to keep costs affordable for the masses.
Japan is known as a country that heavily relies upon its rail system to move passengers. The rail system was first built in 1949 and ran profitably through 1960 using conventional train systems. The rails are run by a government corporation. By 1960, the rail system carried 77 percent of the traffic and the automobile system carried just five percent. In 1960, the government-owned corporation began adding infrastructure to graduate to a higher speed system. The first system was constructed between Tokyo and Osaka and proved to be highly profitable. Other cities wanted to join. However, every line that has been added since 1964 except one has lost money and the entire system is now tax payer subsidized.
Travel in Japan today continues to evolve. Passenger rail travel by train is down 20 percent. Automobiles now carry about 60 percent of the traffic.
In nearly every situation I looked at here at home, the biggest reason to move to HSR was because another country was doing it. It will reduce pollution but cutting air emissions and lowering carbon output. It will not save time as a typical high-speed train travels less than 250 miles per hour while an airplane is closer to 500 miles per hour. It will not cost less because in all likelihood, it will need taxpayer money to be affordable.
One more comment. I am pretty sure that the systems will be built. I really hope they put some thought into the design of the stations. Chicago’s Union Station has a lot of history but it was really crowded. The seats were not comfortable and the crowd control was abysmal. Other than that, I enjoyed the trip.