Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

More details on Air France/KLM high-speed rail venture

Earlier this summer we posted about how Air France-KLM (or whatever they’re called in these days of airline mergers) was considering getting into the high-speed rail business when the EU liberalizes international rail travel in 2010. That plan took a more solid form today when the airline publicly announced its intention to begin offering high-speed train service in partnership with environmental services company Veolia. The company has apparently been in talks with Alstom, developers of the TGV stock, about purchasing a more advanced version known as the AGV.

What’s interesting is that the sources I’ve read don’t seem to be talking about this as just a useful way to connect flights. Air France seems to want this to be a money maker. According to Deutsche Welle:

The diversification amounted to a “change in flight direction for Air France” which was responding to “the difficult position of airlines for journeys of less than three hours.”

This is great, but I can just imagine that misguided politicians here are going to start pointing to Europe saying “Look, rail can make money over there, why does it need public funding here?” What they fail to understand is that new operators such as Air France will be using tracks that were built with public money, tracks that are rented from a public company. Amtrak’s situation is very different from those of the European rail carriers, but many tend not to realize this when they cry “Privatize!” from the rooftops every year.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Airlines “can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly”

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this piece from the Washington Post about travellers switching to Amtrak. Inevitably, the article discusses the inconveniences and costs associated with flying these days. Unsurprisingly, many of these frustrated consumers are turning to Amtrak for their summer travel plans.

However, for those patiently awaiting the return of cheap flights: don’t hold your breath. The Post says this about the state of the air industry:

Amtrak’s growth has come as airlines are retrenching, trimming flight schedules primarily in response to high energy prices. The flight cuts started showing up this summer and will intensify through the year. Airlines are trying to recover higher fuel costs with higher fares and charging for snacks, luggage, in-flight entertainment, even pillows and blankets. The fees aren’t likely to go away soon either, analysts say.

John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s Washington lobbying group, said the changes represented “positive steps” for carriers working their way back to profitability. He said airlines are sacrificing volume to focus on the profitability of remaining flights.

“We simply can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly,” he said.

This underscores the need for trains, and particularly high speed rail. If airlines aren’t interesting in hauling John Q. Public from place to place in this country anymore, who is going to pick up the slack? Do we expect everyone to be okay with driving large distances only to have to deal with the hassle of a car at their destination? Do we start subsidizing the airlines more, ignoring the environmental issues inherent in air travel? Or maybe we just concede that long-distance travel is the exclusive domain of the wealthy who are willing to pay more for air tickets.

The obvious answer is none of the above. Rail needs to be a viable travel option here as much as it is in the rest of the developed world (or at least the developing world, please). It’s not a matter of posterity or nostalgia. Everyday Americans needs to be able to affordably get around their own country and trains are the most sustainable and civilized way to do so.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Travel Woes, , , ,

Air France considering entering HSR business

File this one under ‘Woah.’ Air France, France’s national air carrier and one of the world’s largest airlines, is considering replacing some of its connecting flights with high-speed rail service in conjunction with Veolia Transport, also of France. According to the International Herald Tribune:

“More than half of all flights are connections, and in effect long-haul is where the value is. Short haul is just way for Air France to get passengers to Charles de Gaulle” airport in Paris, Van den Brul said.

Shifting passengers onto trains from planes would result in “significant” cost savings, a particular concern for airlines struggling to cope with record high oil prices.

Energy accounts for about 40 percent of an airline’s total costs, against only around 10-15 percent for rail.

This is pretty nutty stuff. In the US at least, airlines have been suppressing passenger rail for decades. Hence, it’s more than a little ironic that at least one of them is turning to the efficiencies of HSR to save their collapsing business model.

And this is exactly the market high-speed rail can appeal to. Planes are always going to dominate the long-haul routes. New York-Los Angeles, Miami-Seattle, any overseas travel for obvious reasons… some routes are too far for even fast trains to really compete with air travel. But Minneapolis-Chicago, Boston-Washington, Los Angeles-San Francisco, these are the lengths where high-speed trains are eminently more practical than planes. With fuel costs for airlines rising, particularly on these short trips, we can only hope that more airlines like Air France will see that HSR can benefit them as well as us.

This is what we want: More transportation options.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Airlines continue downhill spiral: The time is now for high-speed rail.

It should be clear to anyone who has been paying attention to the news or has had to book a flight recently that the days of bargain air travel are probably coming to an end soon. Fuel prices are hitting the carriers hard, and consumers are already seeing the ramifications. Almost all of the airlines have started charging extra money for checking a second bag, and some have even tacked on a fuel surcharge to frequent-flyer tickets. Is that enough? Can we keep this cheap flights bubble from bursting with just some extra charges and inconviencies for consumers? Of course not.

The New York Times is reporting that airlines are cutting flights to levels not seen since the post-9/11 period. Fares are on the rise too:

Over all, the cuts will reduce flights this year by American carriers by almost 10 percent, industry analysts estimate, with even deeper cuts in store for 2009.

Air fares, which are up about 17 percent this year on average, may rise as much as 40 percent within the next four years, Mr. Chase predicted.

What this all adds up to is the probable death knell for cheap air travel. Flying may soon go back to being a mode of transportation reserved for the wealthy or those needing to travel long distances. Though certainly unfortunate for consumers in the short-term, this isn’t such a terrible thing for American transportation, if we play our cards right. America needs to take this opportunity to create a transportation choice that is more environmentally friendly, convenient, and affordable than flying or driving. This choice is high-speed rail, and we, as rail advocates, (yes, I know that includes most of you reading this as well) need to be pushing hard for this. Because despite increased Amtrak and public transportation ridership, many just aren’t getting the idea. Nowhere does the New York Times article mention trains as an alternative to flying, and this article, explicitly about alternatives to flying, simply advocates telecommuting and lighter planes:

… [O]ne obvious investment possibility would be companies who provide video-conferencing and video-conferencing infrastructure; Webex was acquired last year but there are other fish in that sea. Another potential investment, although still a few years from being realized, is small, very light jets flying between the country’s underused community and regional airports – or per-seat, on-demand regional business travel on small, light jets, already being offered by a Florida company.

Community and regional airports are never going to be pratical or affordable solutions to our transportation crisis. Small planes are still planes, they’re still polluting, except now they’re just serving fewer customers. Sounds good. And telecommuting may be attractive for businesses, but no one’s going to want to substitute a teleconference with grandma for an actual visit (Well, that depends on how you feel about your grandmother, I suppose).

European countries have been preparing for the end of cheap oil. We haven’t been, and soon middle class travelers will be left with very few options.

H/T to the California High-Speed Rail Blog for this story, and, of course, a thumbs-up to them for promoting this country’s most exciting HSR project. California is addressing the transportation crisis, let’s hope a new presidential administration and legislation like HR 6003 can do the same for the rest of the country.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail, , , , , ,

Spanish airlines feeling the crunch due to high speed rail

The AFP reports that Spain’s extensive development of its high speed rail network is putting the crunch on short-distance air carriers. The article contains a number of facts about Spain’s bullet trains that should make anyone who’s ever had to sit on a crowded airplane drool:

The government plans to have 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) of high-speed railway track in place by 2020, meaning 90 percent of Spain’s population will live less than 50 kilometres from a bullet train station.

The high-speed AVE trains, which are fitted with video and music players and chairs that can swivel in the direction of travel, can make the 660-kilometre trip between Madrid and Barcelona in about two and a half hours.

Passengers say bullet trains have more roomier and comfortable seats than planes, faster check-in times and have the advantage of arriving and departing from downtown cores.

If you can get over the sad fact that Spain’s policy is light years ahead of anything Congress could even dream of, there’s plenty of good news to be found for American HSR. Primarily, it proves that people want and will use high speed rail. That’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone reading this blog, but it seems to be a lesson that politicians in California and Washington have yet to pick up on.

And while news like this will certainly strike fear into the hearts of the airlines, this could actually be good for them in the long run. The article says that the area where HSR is seriously competing are the trips that would take 3 hours or less. These are the distances that never should have been ceded to the air industry in the first place. And allowing these routes to fall to high speed rail will free up space at our crowded airports, hopefully alleviating problems with delays and ultimately increasing customer satisfaction on the long haul flights that airlines should be paying attention to.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Travel Woes, , , , ,

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