Posts Tagged ‘northeast corridor’

Trains and Planes

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

by Lance Meister

A recent article got me thinking about traveling by train and by plane and how we see and use each mode of travel.  Planes are the get you there quick, long distance mode of travel.  Fast and glamorous.  Trains are the slow, leisurely, short distance mode of travel.  Utilitarian and functional.  At least, that’s the way many people see them.  Now, I am admittedly a bit of a train fan, but it’s clear that high speed rail (HSR) is changing those perceptions of travel around the world, even in the US. 

The article from China is a dramatic example of this phenomenon of trains competing equally with planes on time.  In Spain the traffic between Madrid and Barcelona (once the busiest air corridor in the world) has gone from 90% of the passengers on planes to over 50% of the passengers now on trains.  In the US, the Acela service on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and New York and New York and Washington has 37% and 50% of the market share, respectively.  That’s in the US!  My own anecdotal experience is that when I am going to Manhattan for work, I take the train every time.  It just makes sense. 

When traveling from Boston to New York, the train does take 3:15 minutes and the plane only 45 minutes, but that’s not the entire story.  You have to be at the airport at least an hour early.  There’s security, boarding, taxing, etc. to be taken into account.  In addition, you arrive in New York at either JFK or LaGuardia, and have to get into the city from there, which can add significant time.  The total travel time is equivalent, and at times, the HSR even has an edge.  Imagine if the Acela could go 150 mph on the entire corridor!

Some people see this as a competition, but in reality, the two modes of travel have different purposes.  For city pairs within a few hundred miles, true HSR makes sense and can be significantly shorter than air travel.  For longer distances, such as Boston to Chicago, or Boston to Los Angeles, the plane makes sense every time. 

An example of this is in Spain. The airlines not only didn’t fight the train over price and service between Madrid and Barcelona, but actually welcomed the trains.  The introduction of service allowed them to free up a significant number of landing slots for much more profitable international flights and use the trains to get people to the airports for the flights.  It was the proverbial “win-win” situation for all. 

We have to realize that we can only pave so many roads, or create so many new runways, much less airports.  HSR can be a great option at shorter distances, and can be an excellent form of travel.  Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages, and its own primary purpose.  In many countries, this is already a reality.  There’s a lot of hope that HSR in the US will come into its own and be a real travel mode, not just in the Northeast Corridor.