Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

To airlines: Don’t fear the trains

A [very interseting] article on Streetsblog yesterday off-handedly mentioned Ray LaHood keeping mum about any threat that high-speed rail might pose to the airlines. A link was provided, and I clicked through to find a post on a blog called “Things in the Sky.” It’s certainly well-written and interesting, but, naturally, holds views rather divergent from TFA. And geez, take a look at some of the other posts. How come no one talks about rabid “plane-fans”?

Things in the Sky points to the huge decrease in Madrid-Barcelona plane traffic after the high-speed line went into service. Here’s what they say about what HSR might do to America’s air carriers:

Some airlines here in the States could definitely be hurt by a high speed rail expansion. Any further improvement in the Northeast Corridor could negatively affect the Delta and US Airways shuttle operations, and I agree with Marshall that Southwest would get hurt (I think the intra-Texas and intra-California routes especially).

If this is ends up being an expansion of Amtrak, I’m very worried when it comes to competition with the airline industry. The air carriers are motivated by profits and losses (as they should). If a route isn’t performing well, the airline will adjust accordingly by either eliminating the route or trimming capacity, and the opposite happens on successful routes. Meanwhile, a government-funded train system with guaranteed funding can continue operating despite being unprofitable, making true competition difficult.

Let’s just ignore for now the many times that airlines have received large bailouts from the federal government. And yes, high-speed rail and trains in general should be supported by government; the service rail provides to communities large and small is more equitable, clean, and efficient than air and car travel. The mistake that air carriers in the past, including, as the blog mentions, Southwest, have made is that they view high-speed rail as competition rather than an opportunity. Let conventional/high-speed rail take over these short/medium haul routes and make sure that there are connections to the airports. This way, passengers can be funneled into the more profitable long-haul routes and the carriers don’t have to subsidize the connecting flights.

And airlines are realizing this. As our friend Robert Cruickshank points out over at the CAHSR blog, none of the major carriers have opposed either the SF-LA project in California or the renewed Texas HSR plan, which Southwest helped kill years ago. European carrieres, such as Air France/KLM are even looking at getting into the HSR business themselves. If airlines find that they are hurting because of high-speed rail, they will have no one to blame but themselves. No one’s saying that trains will replace planes across all routes. What TFA and other progressive rail advocates are working towards is a situation where one can take the train across distances where rail makes sense and flights across distances where planes make sense. Let’s work together to make sure these systems connect rather than inconveniencing travelers through unnecessary competition.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail

12 Responses

  1. Paz says:

    Good post. I think it’s important to recognize that intermodality is key. The BWI Amtrak stop is one of the busiest in the country because people are rational enough to know when they need to fly and when they would prefer to travel by rail.

  2. Cal says:

    One of the goals of CAHSR project is to relieve todays and future airline delays at SFO and LAX. What all the naysayers of the project fail to point out when they state the we have planes so we dont need HSR , is that neither airport has room for runway expansion. LAX would require a large property taking and SFO would need landfill in San Francisco Bay. The cost and the public outrage over this would make any of the nimby stuff about HSR on Caltrain look like childs play. HSR will permit airlines to concentrate on the long distance routes with the freed up landing slots. There is a very good chance we might see one of these airlines bidding to operate the train system



  3. Alex says:

    A couple of things.

    Like the “roads pay for themselves” argument, I am tired of the airlines pay for themselves argument. Weren’t the airports built by government? Do airline landing fees really cover the full cost of maintenance, upgrades and renovations? I don’t think so, because flying from any Asian, European, or even a Canadian airport like Vancouver, and landing at most American airports is like time traveling back 20 or 30 years. They are in horrible condition, and are an embarrassment.

    Secondly, haven’t the airlines been losing money hand over fist? Weren’t they all bailed out 5 or 6 years ago? What happens when oil goes back up to $100 or $120 a barrel. Sure, airlines will always be around for long distance travel, but for shorter hauls? Will they be around? Shouldn’t we be planning for the future? Why is this country incapable of looking ahead more than 2 or 3 years!?

  4. Dave Reid says:

    An example of how the new HSR system could actually help smaller airports, is the route in Wisconsin would stop in Milwaukee’s airport, downtown Milwaukee, and Madison’s airport so it will possible to fly out of either airport easily.

  5. Alex says:

    But unless the trains are frequent, and reliably on time, doubt an airport link would be very useful.

  6. Andrew in NorJpn says:

    You are of course correct. A correctly designed and operated HSR line (or merely higher speed [e.g.110mph] line) would have the frequent and reliable service that’s required. Here in Sapporo, JR Hokkaido’s rapid airport service with 80mph trains runs every fifteen minutes between the city and airport (a distance of 22 miles) reliably on time even in the extreme winter weather we have here. And it makes a profit!

  7. Allan says:

    Alex-“Weren’t the airports built by government?”

    Most were indeed built by the local gov’t as a way of luring airlines to serve their cities. It isn’t unusual for gov’ts to do that for other industries as well … for example, buildaroad, sewer connections, etc. to lure a manufacturer.

    I know that Memphis paid for a lot of the renovation of the train station in Memphis. They didn’t do it for Amtrak but for themselves, yet Amtrak benefitted from it.

    But back to airports, the point is that the gov’ts still own the airports and still make money from renting the slots to the airlines.

    Alex-“Do airline landing fees really cover the full cost of maintenance, upgrades and renovations?”

    There are more than just landing fees. The airlines themselves pay taxes and passengers pay ticket taxes. There are taxes on the fuel. Passenger airlines usually rent the slots they use. Also, the passenger terminals rent out floor space to restaurants, bookstores, etc. for even more revenue.

    I don’t which airports you’ve been to but I’ve been to several around the world and don’t find the ones in the US to be any worse or any better than those I have been to in Europe and other countries.

  8. Spokker says:

    “LAX would require a large property taking and SFO would need landfill in San Francisco Bay. The cost and the public outrage over this would make any of the nimby stuff about HSR on Caltrain look like childs play.”

    Could something like Hong Kong International Airport ever be approved for construction in the Bay Area?

  9. A. Schirmer says:

    To add to the point made by Logan (and backed up by some), there should be some sort of lobbying with city and county governments to ensure that rail terminals are built at the airports, thus making the rail-to-air and viceversa transitions seamless. The concern here is all those ground transportation unions with strong influence on city councils that convince them to build near, but not quite at, the terminals.

  10. Cal says:

    A new airport in SF Bay will never ever happen..They were just taking about a new runway and it was a major uproar

  11. NikolasM says:

    I don’t think I approve of rail ‘terminals’ being built at the airports. That is implying to me that the main station in a city should be at its airport, which is a bad idea. It should be downtown with a line to the airport, one that is either on the main line or not. I certainly approve of train ‘stations’ at airports.

  12. Court says:

    Airlines pay for their use at airports, not the governments. In fact, airports with airline service are cash positive! Most people don’t realize this. Indianapolis airport is run by a private company that is making profits. Revenues come from landing fees, Passenger Facility Charges, concessions, and parking.

    The original blog post is entirely valid. If there’s to be high-speed rail, it needs to be profitable in it’s own right. There has to be a level playing field with the airlines, otherwise you’ll have 10-fold the number of unemployed airline employees as you do newly employed railroad employees. The government cannot afford to subsidize another Amtrak fiasco while losing hundreds of thousands of high-paying airline jobs.

    Add in to this the land acquisition required, and the fact that very little (if any) of the US rail system is set up for the high speed rail required to compete with aircraft. It all sounds great when you’re dreaming up railroads between cities, but the numbers show a very different story.

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