Saturday, August 29, 2009

High Speed Rail: A "Case Study"

This is the second part of a group of posts on high speed rail (HSR) in America.

I recently completed a four-week grand tour of the East Coast of the United States - well let's be honest, four weeks of couch surfing with family and friends. At different points on the trip, I tried to imagine making the journey without a car, either by plane or by train... and each time I realized that it would be nearly impossible.

I'll chronicle one leg of the trip, a long jaunt I made from Hilton Head Island, SC to Lewes, DE, 655 miles total:

I made the trip in 11.5 hours including several stops for food and services (both automotive and personal). I drive a Ford Escape that gets about 23 miles to the gallon at highway speeds - certainly not efficient but definitely not a gas guzzler. I ended up spending about $75 in gas, plus one toll, $12 for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, for a total of $87. The trip was easy because it only passed through one urban area, the Hampton Roads area (Virginia Beach, Norfolk, etc.). I did experience about twenty minutes of rush hour delay there, but otherwise, it was smooth sailing at 70-75 mph.

What if I tried to make this trip via the new HSR as proposed?There is a line shown along the East Coast, but neither Hilton Head Island nor southern Delaware are anywhere near it. In order to use the proposed HSR for this trip, I would have to:

1. Secure ground transportation to Savannah from Hilton Head Island. Even if I could find someone like a family member to make the two-hour round trip on my behalf, the trip is 40 miles each way, or approximately $10 in gas. There is no public transit option, but a company does offer shuttle bus service from Hilton Head to the Savannah airport for the stifling price of $49 each way (but only $93 round trip).
2. Take the train from Savannah to Washington, DC, the nearest HSR station to Lewes. As of today, this route costs $90 on a regular Amtrak train. It would have to cost the same if not far more for a higher-speed connection. The trip takes 11.5 hours currently, unknown for HSR.
3. Somehow get from Washington to Lewes, a distance of 116 miles. There is a Greyhound bus from Washington, DC to Dover, DE which takes 4.5 hours or more at a cost of $31. Even so, Dover is 40 miles from Lewes, which requires another 80 mile round trip by a willing friend for $10 in gas cost. A private company does offer seasonal service between DC and Rehoboth Beach, near Lewes, but it only runs on Friday and Sunday evenings at a cost of $45.

Whew - lots of details. The bottom line: the simple nature of my point-to-point journey renders HSR useless to me. Even if HSR took only 9 hours instead of 11.5 to get from Savannah to DC, the two long legs on either end add 5 hours at minimum, making the trip 25% longer than it took by car. Even if HSR cost the same $90 that Amtrak currently charges, the car/bus trips on either end add $50 at minimum, for $140 total compared to the $87 it actually cost me. Imagine if I was traveling with three other passengers: add $130 in fares for each of them for HSR/bus, but add nothing because a car is a car and there is no added cost for more people.

Of course, I am not factoring in things like maintenance, depreciation on the car, and insurance. These do add to the cost significantly, but remember that the Amtrak cost is also incomplete because it does not include the large subsidies we pay to it through our taxes to keep it running.

I can see an argument for HSR implementation, namely that highways have been encouraged and subsidized for ages while rails were left by the wayside. We need to now "catch up" the rails to the roads, so the argument goes. This view sounds nice, but remember that roads only need to be maintained, while individuals maintain their cars. If we somehow managed to build a rail network connecting almost every town in the country in some way, we would then have to buy massive amounts of rolling stock, hire massive numbers of staff for operations and maintenance, and maintain good enough schedules to make the trains viable. For a country of our size I really believe this to be impractical, even if gas were to rise dramatically again in price.

Again, my point is not to denigrate HSR completely. I am simply finding it harder and harder to justify the need to create an extensive network across our massive nation. If there is major intercity travel between cities "short-haul routes" like Savannah to Atlanta or DC to Richmond, or Chicago to Minneapolis, then I am all for their improvement. However, shiny new (or improved) rails through swaths of wilderness are extremely expensive, and if all they do is serve occasional travelers, I don't find them worth it.

Next time: what should we do instead of or before implementing such an extensive HSR network?

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you about limiting the implementation of HSR to short haul routes at the beginning provided they're found throughout the country. I was recently reading an article about government subsidies to rural airports. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent every year to keep them operational, because they claim the local economy will suffer without such easy access. I'm guessing an HSR line would suffice in many of those cases, offsetting their cost.