The following commentary is a response to “Railing Against This Costly Track,” a piece that ran on in regards to California’s high-speed rail.

The numbers themselves are hardly unreasonable when one looks at the volume of passenger traffic via air travel between the Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles.  There are 179 daily flights from SFO/SJC/OAK to LAX/BUR/ONT/SNA/LGB. Multiply by two for return flights. That’s 360 flights per day, or 2500 flights per week.

Incidentally, roughly 290 of those are Airbus/Boeing (757/A320/737 series) and 70 of those are Regional Jets. Combined, they represent approximately 47,000 seats per day, or around 17 million seats per year.

Current airline load factors are approaching 90 percent; so actual passengers carried could exceed 14 million per year.  The load factor is likely to increase in the near future as American and United are looking to increase the use of regional jets for all flights under three hours in length in order to utilize cheaper pilots while consuming less fuel.  Incidentally, consumer satisfaction and comfort is much lower on regional jets, which makes other options much more attractive.

Please note that the numbers above involve trips from terminal to terminal.  Which leads to my next point, that we cannot view high-speed rail as a terrestrial version of an airline since the system doesn’t consist of direct trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco with no intermediate stops. 

Instead, since there will be a number of intermediate locations which will provide not only additional boarding opportunities, but additional opportunities for debarkation.

If anything, we should view this system as a variation of a commuter rail system that has been greatly expanded in terms of geographic scope.  For instance, using the NY metro area as an example, a resident in Poughkeepsie, NY (80 miles north of NYC) can take a train into the city for a day trip. 

In terms of time, that trip would take roughly 2.5 hours due to slow track speed and intermediate stops.  This is an attractive option given the fact that travel into the City takes at least as long by car, which then results in the difficulty of locating parking for the car. 

Given the relative scope of the system serving NYC, people within an 80-mile radius can regularly enter and leave the metro area.  Now, if we were to improve that system by increasing the allowable speed on the tracks, you’d sweep up millions of additional potential customers – customers who may not have considered making such trips since they never had that kind of convenient alternative to driving or flying. 

As such, a high-speed rail system makes trips to destinations like San Francisco and Los Angeles a lot more attractive for folks living in the hinterlands.

Now, in terms of destinations, one can argue that the lack of a motor vehicle at the destination would give an edge to travel by car.  However, this line of argument suffers from the same misconception as criticisms over system travel volume, namely that high-speed railroad is not a terrestrial version of an airline. 

Traveling into either SFO, LAX, OAK, or ONT requires a car because the airport is far removed from the destination itself (aka their respective cities) and largely inaccessible via other means of travel.   

In contrast, the Transbay Terminal and the Los Angeles Union Station (citing those two prominent examples) are located in the center of their respective cities.  Instead of debarking from your plane and facing a 30-40 minute drive via rental car or taxi (a $30-50 expense) from the center of activity you could debark from your train and walk out into the city center.  This is a luxury air travel has not and will not be able to afford you.

As an aside, I recognize that travel via car would avoid the expense associated with rental cars and taxis, however both San Francisco and Los Angeles are challenging cities for drivers attempting to penetrate from the suburbs.  Attempting to drive into either of those cities from the outside, especially to interior locations where business are located, is going to be mentally taxing, time consuming and extremely unpredictable.

Which brings me to my last point: time. 

As I said above, driving into either of these cities, from relatively modest distances, will take hours of strenuous mental effort.  It’ll also present the driver with the challenge of locating a place to park a vehicle in an unfamiliar locale. 

For those passengers traveling from farther afield, you’re correct that flight times are about 90 minutes versus 150 minutes for high speed rail.  However, that doesn’t account for the time required to travel to the airport (since the train stations are located in areas of higher population density with greater transportation access) nor does it account for the time required to check in, pass through security, locating the appropriate gate and waiting prior to boarding. 

All of these additional elements, taken together, add well over 2.5 hours to flight travel time regardless of the distance you intend to travel.  Additionally, we haven’t even addressed the issue of on-time performance.  Airlines regularly struggle with keeping their flights on schedule in the face of congested air ways and unpredictable weather patterns. 

Since airlines operate on a nationwide system basis, weather patterns affecting a major hub can cause ripple effects that cripple their system nationwide.  This is something that High Speed Rail will not have to contend with. 

Additionally, High Speed Rail will be using a grade-separated right of way that will be owned and operated by the HSR system alone.  In the last year, due to reductions in schedule air traffic and passenger volume, LAX and SFO were able to achieve on time performance levels ranging between 80-85percent. 

In contrast, by simply receiving priority routing, on freight tracks owned by the Union Pacific, Amtrak’s long haul Coast Starlight train was able to achieve an on-time performance of 86percent. 

As such, the High Speed Rail system has a natural advantage over air travel when it comes to staying on schedule.