Survey shows support for high speed rail in US, but will that translate to ridership?

Thalys high-speed train at Paris's Gare du Nord station after arrival from Cologne, Germany

Thalys high-speed train at Paris's Gare du Nord station after arrival from Cologne, Germany

A recent survey conducted for the American Public Transportation Association shows large-scale support from Americans for high-speed rail (HSR) in the United States.

If high-speed rail were available today, two-thirds (63%) of Americans are likely to use high-speed trains and this jumps to nearly seventy percent (67%) when respondents were informed of the costs and time saving benefits of high-speed rail service, according to a 2015 survey released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
— "Two-thirds of Americans likely to use HSR if available, survey says" -

I am not an HSR opponent, but I do have some questions as to the practicality of high-speed rail in the States. This summer, on a trip to Paris and Germany, my girlfriend and I used Germany's DB Bahn high-speed intercity rail for a lot of our trip. We also returned to Paris from Cologne, Germany on a Thalys high-speed train. I loved the experience and the benefits were many. In most dimensions train travel easily wins over air travel in a head-to-head comparison:

  • Rail travel: "Passengers are requested to be on the platform no later than 2 minutes before departure. The train leaves from downtown making your commute to the station fairly convenient."
  • Plane travel: "Passengers should arrive at the airport no less than two hours before departure. Be prepared to be strip-searched after a long wait and then to sit on the aircraft for 20 minutes before departure. Don't forget the long drive/train ride from the city center starting from near the place you could have caught the train in the first place!"

My chief concerns regarding HSR for the United States is is whether HSR can effectively compete with commercial aviation beyond regional routes? While train travel between major German cities can take 2-3 hours, let's not forget that Germany is roughly the size of Montana. The larger distances between many U.S. cities would make for some very long train trips, even when traveling at high speeds. When planning my European vacation this summer, I quickly nixed using the train to get from Paris to Berlin after I discovered that rail would take approximately 8 hours as compared to a hour-plus airline flight. Even factoring in travel to the airport and wait time to take-off, the airline option did not require nearly a full day to transit between the two cities. Also, using a discount airline such as Germanwings eliminated much of the cost advantage trains would have had. Given that so many city pairs in the U.S. are at least as far as Paris-Berlin, I have to question whether national HSR could be competitive.

I do see regional high-speed services being very popular and successful, The Northeast Corridor from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C. is perfect for high-speed operations. Similarly, Los Angeles to San Diego or Phoenix, Chicago to Indianapolis or Milwaukee and others pairs would likely attract high ridership. But I question whether I would be willing to take a train from Atlanta to any destination further than, say, Raleigh-Durham or Jacksonville.

I loved my train experience in Germany. The cabin was far more comfortable than airline economy. First class service carried a reasonable premium unlike airlines. And the convenience of the train stations in city centers allowed us to quickly walk to the stations from our hotels. But for the United States, I think we must proceed with caution and not blindly deploy HSR everywhere. Start regionally and objectively assess feasibility of longer routes before committing taxpayer dollars - which is an entire issue in and of itself! - to such services. For the right areas, I would enthusiastically use high-speed service during my travels!

Posted on September 25, 2015 and filed under Rail Travel.