Monday, February 25, 2008

High Speed Rail transit to Chicago

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A commenter on MinnPost <a href="">wrot
recently</a> about the practical problems that rail transit from Minneapolis to Chicago presents. He specifically lays out a convincing argument for why air travel to Chicago is more effeicient than rail travel. I thought it would be handy to review the numbers a bit and consider what level of performance (both in price, and speed) passenger rail needs to compete effectively with air transit.

Let's start by reviewing the numbers for weekend air travel between Minneapolis and Chicago.

Price: Tickets are as cheap as about $100 round-trip these days. Then you might have to park your car at MSP during your trip ($14/day * 2 days = $28). Then you have to take the train from O'Hare or Midway to the city ($2). That leaves us with a total cost of between $102 and $130.

Time: A flight to Chicago is about an hour. You'll need to get to the airport about 45 minutes in advance. Also, you'll need to get to the airport somehow (let's say maybe 15 minutes if you live in the Metro area). Lastly, you'll need to get from O'Hare or Midway to the city (maybe 20 more minutes). That leaves us with a total of 2 hours 20 minutes.

So, that means that passenger rail to Chicago has to compete with a roughly $116 round trip price and a 140 minute travel time (across 408 miles). To match the travel time, the train will have to travel at least 177 mph. Now that is indeed a fast train. Bullet trains in Japan can perform this well. Most of the estimates I've seen for bullet trains in the US peg the reasonable train speed more around 150 mph. The would give us a travel time of 2 hours 42 minutes (22 more minutes than air travel).

I guess the question, then, is this: Can a 150 mph bullet train exist at at or below that $116 round-trip price point? I don't know. It would take a heck of a subsidy to make that happen. It will take clearly billions of public investment to lay the rail lines themselves. How do you feel about a 1-cent sales tax increase for the next 20 years to cover it?


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