Can High-Speed Rail Reduce Air Travel and Highway Expansion?

Yesterday, Miller-McCune’s Michael Scott Moore accused Southwest Airlines of helping to bury a potential Texas bullet train 15 years ago.

Texas high-speed rail corridors. Photo: ##http://www.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/fnotes/fn0812/rail.html##TX Comptroller##

“Southwest understood better than most high-speed rail critics just how well the trains could work,” Moore wrote. “[High-speed rail in Spain] has reduced Spanish highway traffic — even for cargo, by freeing up space on the older rail network — and it’s cut dramatically into domestic airline business.”

Miller-McCune quotes a 2006 story in The Austinist:

Dallas-based airline company Southwest Airlines launched a sweeping, aggressive public relations campaign throughout the state in order to discredit TGV and prevent the company from meeting its fundraising deadlines. Why? Because they dominated (and still dominate) the friendly skies between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio with a business plan identical to the one proposed by TGV. It was their monopolized turf. In a huge state with no other high-speed transportation options available, Southwest Airlines has always been the intra-Texas transport of choice for many people going from city to city who don’t want to make the long drives.

Regional air travel is a significant consideration when assessing a corridor’s potential for high-speed rail, since short-jump flights are so easily replaced with a train that goes as fast, provides more legroom, lets you skip long security lines, and begins and ends in downtowns (not far-flung airports). When America 2050 studied the best potential high-speed rail in the country, the report authors couldn’t help noticing, “Texas has a relatively large short haul air market, with 4.4 million passengers in 2008 moving between Dallas and other points in the Texas Triangle and Gulf Coast.” That factor helped several Texas corridors score high on America 2050’s ranking for rail potential.

The organization also noticed, “To accommodate its fast growing population, Texas has invested billions of dollars over the last decade adding more than 1,000 lane miles of highways and upgrading its major air terminals. Despite this, metropolitan congestion has continued to worsen and the change in congestion in the Houston and Dallas metro regions is among the worst in the nation over the last decade.”

Indeed, while the Miller-McCune story asks why high-speed rail has succeeded in Spain and flopped in Texas, the Austinist story begins with a different premise: Why was Texas (at the time the story was written) prepared to build a Trans-Texas Corridor at a cost of $184 billion, “usurp[ing] nearly 9,000 square miles of mostly privately-owned rural farmland” to build a super-corridor of roads, utility lines and rail 1,200 feet wide?

The Trans-Texas Corridor plan was scrapped last year by the Federal Highway Administration, but the Austinist story still makes a good point: Paralysis on the part of the states to build sophisticated rail networks could eventually lead to highway expansion. Currently, the Obama administration is pushing for a high-speed rail system to connect 80 percent of the U.S. population in 25 years, in part because they’re looking ahead at a 100 million person population increase in the U.S. over the next 40 years. Indeed, if the country doesn’t figure out some adequate way to move people by rail, the grinding traffic on the nation’s highways — and airways — could get far worse.

  • Lganner33

    Will never happen in Texas. Texans are married to their lift-kitted, dual-rear-wheel F350 Superduties and Dodge Ram 2500s for everything for picking up the mail at the end of their 50-ft. driveway to going from town to the next. They’ll never use rail transit, which has the overtones of being European, “urban”, Northeastern, or otherwise Un-Texan. I say this as a Texan. That, and Obama (not popular in most of Texas, except maybe Austin) and the Democrats are pushing the program, which is gravy for the local GOP, who much like the GOP in general, hates passenger rail with an intensity usually reserved for gays and Mexicans.

  • So you’re saying that even with a better product that takes people between city centers rather than the fringe Texans won’t buy it?  I think that’s a lot of stereotyping going on.  As someone born in Humble Texas and raised in Houston, I don’t think you really speak for all Texans.

  • Nala870

    I’m really looking forward to high speed rail in California.  I’ve been using Southwest to fly between SoCal and Norcal for awhile now, and I would love to switch to a 2 hr train ride between the two regions.

  • Anonymous

    Southwest has always fought HSR.  The short-haul airlines fear it, but the long haul airlines like it b/c it gives them more regional airport flexibility and removes the pesky short haul flights that currently clog the runways. 

  • Mike

    Southwest Airlines should support this and buy a fleet of trains and make 10 times more profit moving people by trains than by planes.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, and “Real Texans” would never have accepted the fences and pick-ups that characterize the identity today when there was open range and you had a good horse.

    It behooves Texans to re-create their identity around new technology relevant to their new reality…something they were once good at. The failure of the 2nd most populous state in the union to imagine that new idenitity is a bad deal for Texas, and for the union.

  • Drew

    I’m born and raised in South Texas and I don’t think this author speaks for Texans at all. I believe that Texans are some of the most rabidly patriotic citizens I have come across in my travels both domestic and abroad. This cannot be overlooked. Texans will never allow a French company to threaten homegrown Southwest Airlines.

    The cost of instituting and maintaining a new high speed rail infrastructure between cities does nothing to solve the congestion issues within those cities.  
    Since the congestion issues in Texas exist within the major cities of Texas that’s where rail infrastructure should be focused, including rail service to airports. Create better airports and inner city transportation options and the problem is solved. 

    Also, the author says that the high speed train, “…lets you skip long security lines, and begins and ends in downtowns (not far-flung airports). ” Trains are not invulnerable to terrorist attacks and, since Texas’ borders are not so secure, security lines at crowded train stations will eventually become a way of life.  
    This author obviously knows nothing of the airports that Southwest Airlines flies into at the major Texas cities because none of them are “far flung airports.”
     

    I give this article an “F” grade for complete failure to properly represent the issue.

  • Trains are not planes, and the sort of security one sees in airports is simply pointless for trains.  A train is not only useless as a “missile” (as the 9/11 hijackers used them), but is far more robust than a plane, and even catastrophic damage is likely to result in vastly less loss of life than lighter damage to a plane.  [Even train accidents involving derailment don’t actually tend to kill most of the passengers.]

    From the point of view of a terrorist, a train is essentially just a somewhat crowded place — just like a popular restaurant or club or movie theatre or bus (… or a TSA line at an airport — as someone pointed out elsewhere, a savy terrorist doesn’t need to get through the TSA checkpoints, he can just blow himself up at a crowded checkpoint, and kill many people).  Nobody expects there to be high security around every restaurant, so it’s absurd to think there should be at train stations.

  • You folks really should give up pushing high-speed rail. It just makes you look dumb. It’s not going to happen, because building it and operating it can’t possibly be cost-effective. California’s HSR project is on life-support, because there’s no way it’s even going to get the money to build the system:http://www.cc-hsr.org/

    Spain’s HSR system, by the way, is only profitable if you write off the cost of building the system, which was paid for by the taxpayers of Spain.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/business/energy-environment/30trains.html

  • THETRUTH

    NO we are building HSR in California your Nimby/Naysaying are the dumb ones

  • Where are you going to get the money?

  • Terry B.

    Ummm, from the general fund, which is funded through taxation.

  • $43 to $100 billion from the State of California? Not likely, since the state is struggling with a $25 billion deficit. The state legislature is going to raise taxes just to build the system. Even less likely. And the CHSR business plan was counting on $16 billion from the feds, which now seems very unlikely beyond the $3 billion in federal taxes already wasted on the project.

  • uponahill

    It’s not possible to build 20 lane interstate highways across Texas. Yes it is possible to relocate businesses near the freeways such as the Katy Freeway expansion in Houston several years ago but frankly traffic gridlock gets worse every year. I drove up and down I-35 and the choke points are in the cities with 3 lanes in either directions. Texas T-Bone Corridor would be a good solution but it is dead in the water and billions are still allocated to road construction. Unfortunately Texas is a low cost/low tax state which is very difficult for the part-time politicians to reallocated the funds. San Antonio to Dallas can take less than two hours by high speed train versus five plus hours of driving on a good day.

  • The Dallas-Fort Worth/San Antonio/Houston “triangle” is one of the few areas of the USA that from-scratch built high-speed passenger rail (e.g., European-style 220 mph trains) actually make real economic sense–it would certainly reduce the air pollution from all those Southwest Airlines flights now plying this route.

    Besides, between San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth are the cities of Waco and Austin, which means already plentiful ridership potential just on this route.

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