Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rail Transit

A commenter on MinnPost wrot e recently 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?


Blogger Tom K said...

A few points:

1.) Cheap air travel wouldn't even be happening without MASSIVE government bailouts or subsidies to the airlines.

2.)How long will these low fares hold with oil prices as they are and the upcoming consolidation in the airline industry.

3.) Train travel is a LOT 'greener' than air travel.

So I don't know how 'efficient' air travel is when you factor in all the hidden costs that don't show up on the ticket price. Anyway go trains! I sure hope we get affordable and fast trains at some point. I'm all for paying taxes for that.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Ed Kohler said...

If a train took me from downtown to downtown, didn't have airport-type security to deal with, and I could keep my laptop open the entire time, I'd take the train even if a bit slower. My productive time would be higher.

5:45 PM  

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