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Comparing trains to planes

In case you missed it earlier, economist Edward Glaeser did an analysis of a theoretical high-speed rail link between Dallas and Houston to see if HSR made economic sense in general. His conclusion that they didn’t has been sharply criticized, by folks like Ryan Avent, Austin Contrarian, and The Transport Politic, all of which are worth reading. A couple of points I’d like to add in to these responses:

– The fact that rail terminals would be located downtown is an underappreciated factor. Love Field and Hobby are closer to town than D/FW and IAH, but the travel times from them to the central business districts is not zero, and can be affected by rush hour traffic. Imagine a few years from now being able to walk from the train to the Main Street line, with a connection via the Universities line to the Galleria area, as opposed to driving there from Hobby, or if you’re unlucky, IAH. That will have a sizable effect on total travel time, not to mention aggravation levels.

– What can you, the business traveler, do on a train that you can’t do on a plane? How about use the Internet, or your cell phone? You can’t do the former while driving, and you shouldn’t do the latter though everyone does. Even if your total trip time, factoring in travel to and from the train station or airport, is longer on the train, being able to use that time more productively makes up for it and then some. Yes, you will be able to use your cell from a plane some day, but how much do you think the airlines and/or your carrier will charge you for the privilege? I consider being able to use the Internet to be an eventual lure for commuter rail as well.

– As Transport Politic notes, you have to consider the cost of doing nothing. Does anyone think what we have now can handle future growth? Will we eventually add more airport capacity if we don’t build rail lines? How about building more road capacity? The Trans-Texas Corridor is essentially dead now, let’s not forget. At what cost, financial and environmental, would those be?

Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the links.

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12 Comments

  1. Ian Hlavacek says:

    Unfortunately, the media is jumping on the study without much critical analysis: http://www.newsweek.com/id/212136?tid=relatedcl.

    Also, Randall O’Toole is apparently a credible source now.

  2. Baby Snooks says:

    I didn’t realize there was such a demand for easier commutes between Dallas and Houston. Except for the attorneys who go back and forth between their firm’s offices in Dallas and Houston although of course in odd numbered years of course we would need to add a route to Austin.

    What we need in Houston is for someone to realize the need for rail to and from the outlying areas like Sugar Land and Katy and The Woodlands which not only would make things more convenient for them but also cut down the amount of ozone in our air particularly during the summer.

    As someone who actually enjoys pretending they’re in Manhattan and walks here and there I can tell you that the air is much worse than anyone will admit. Not only during the late afternoons but all day and all night. And high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston is not going to address that growing problem.

    The times they are a changing. The problem in Texas, and particularly in Houston, is no one wants to change with them.

  3. Baby Snooks says:

    I like bikes, too, but it’s harder for the “chi-chi” crowd to run over you on the sidewalk while talking and texting and driving.

  4. Adolph Trudeau says:

    The current setup has some evolutionary reasons for being. Here are a few counterpoints to your comments based on my experiences flying to Dallas and San Antonio for one or two day work trips.

    1. Location: The major cities of Texas are not their city centers and a large amount, if not most, business is conducted outside the city center. You could say that a city center rail-terminal/transit-hub serves at least the city-center-bound folks well and the rest have to rent a car anyway. Given that, is it economically feasible to boot-strap or wait to evolve the final-10-20-mile infrastructure, such as parking and car rental facilities, that are already present and profitable at the airports? Would the private partnerships see/have the perceived-demand/capital-availability to clone their facilities at another place? Could light-rail and bus service serve this need or would it already do it at the airports if it were possible?

    2. What to do during the trip: The Internet and telephone are great, but enforced isolation from them is great too. People seem to fill their time on the airplane with reasonable profitability. Things that come to mind are the nose-in-the-monitor spreadsheet, chatting with their traveling companion(s), prepping pitches/presentations, and napping.

    3. The costs of the status quo: There seems to be an ongoing balance between the relative quality and cost of in-person communication and Internet and telephonic communication. The growing quality and ubiquity and decreasing cost of the latter act as constraints against the people-moving costs of the former. It isn’t that X% population/economic growth in Texas causes X% business travel growth. It is more like:

    X business travel growth = pop/econ growth – Internet-quality-increase +- tax-rules +- fuel-costs +- lots-of-other

  5. David Siegel says:

    I live in Austin and would travel to Houston/Dallas for weekends or even daytrips much more frequently if I could just jump on a train, rather than fight traffic for three or four hours each way. The downtown merchants and cultural centers should support HSR to vastly increase their potential markets.

  6. Cosme says:

    There was an article in this month’s Scientific American called “Transportation The Thrid Way” by Michael Moyer. “High speed” rail could cost as much as 65 million per mile in construction costs. The infrastructe has to be built or existing rail has to be modified.

    Moyer argues that the cost is prohibitive but that rail is probably better than the alternatives. Adding more lanes to the highway system is not going to cut it anymore and airports are already over crowded leading to massive air traffic.

    California voters like the idea of high speed rail connecting LA and San Francisco so much they apporved a 10 billion dollar bond to help build the rail system.

    We’ve gotta do something why not rail?

  7. Baby Snooks says:

    California this ain’t.

  8. Cosme says:

    ‘Tis not…

  9. Kent says:

    If Texas builds a high speed rail network and runs lines from downtown Houston to both Dallas and San Antonio then wouldn’t that simultaneously create a high-speed rail corridor along both I-45 and I-10 that could be used for commuter rail service to Katy and the Woodlands?

    A Houston-Dallas line is not going to be running at such frequency that it would prevent running much higher-frequency high-speed commuter service between downtown and say Conroe (or even Huntsville) with multiple stops in between.

    Same thing for a route running to San Antonio/Austin along I-10

    If it is truly high-speed rail then downtown to the Woodlands becomes a 20 minute commute.

  10. Baby Snooks says:

    If Texas builds a high speed rail network and runs lines from downtown Houston to both Dallas and San Antonio then wouldn’t that simultaneously create a high-speed rail corridor along both I-45 and I-10 that could be used for commuter rail service to Katy and the Woodlands?
    _________________________________________________

    It would. If that’s what they did. But that takes “planning” with a “vision” which is something the majority of “people at the table” simply aren’t capable of and simply don’t have.

  11. […] mentioned before some analysis done by the New York Times’ Ed Glaeser on the economics of high speed rail […]

  12. […] I’ve asserted that being able to use one’s laptop to surf the web while traveling is an advantage of taking the train as opposed to driving, I should note that soon one will be able to surf while flying as well. […]