Are the Airlines Now Like the Railroads Were 50 Years Ago?

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

The truth is the Airline Industry has never been profitable. While some airlines have made money some years, as a whole the industry loses money more often than it makes money. The recent spike in fuel costs has placed the Airline Industry into a tailspin. Several airlines have or are on the verge of going out of business. Almost all airlines are cutting back service, laying off employees and taking planes out of service. The result will be higher prices for travelers, fewer places people can fly too and more cites that will lose air service. The places that will be most affected will be the smaller cites that are losing the most air service and places dependent on vacation travel such as Orlando or Las Vegas.  

What role can passenger rail service have in filling the gaps caused by the cutbacks in air service? The money in any transportation service is in the longer distance trips (when fares are based on distance traveled) between major cities. What many airlines are cutting are some of the branches to their trunk lines much like the railroads did in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the case of California if High Speed Rail service is built, most Californians will be connected to San Francisco, Ontario and Palmdale International Airports. Most major California Airports can improve connection to regional rail services with modest service expansions or shuttle connections. The same is true of many metropolitan areas if regional rail services are created or expanded. Much of the current commercial air travel is under 200 miles. For years nearly a quarter of the flights in and out of San Diego have been from/to Los Angeles. Such shorts flights are increasingly uneconomical and can easily be replaced with connecting regional rail service.

But the United States is a large place, and there are many places in you can’t or won’t be able to fly to. For example how will a person in Iowa get to Las Vegas or Phoenix or someone in Wisconsin get to Orlando or Nashville without driving? This can be done by creating a National Long Distance Rail Passenger System. RailPAC has long advocated Long Distance Trains that connect with each other at hub cities to provide access to almost anyplace in the lower 48 states. Frequencies of 3 times daily, not weekly are rational. Ridership and revenues grow as passengers have more options. It makes more sense to run a train from Los Angeles not just to Las Vegas, but also to Salt Lake City which should make connections to Seattle, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago to other future trains or airports to many more places.

The big question is, are the freight railroads up to this? The answer as always will depend on money. These new passenger trains will have to carry more passengers to produce more revenues to pay the railroads enough for them to see this as a business venture and not an unwelcomed  public service. Also the railroads need rebuilding. There are capacity problems and bottlenecks which are expensive to fix. Public/Private cooperation on the railroads can provide capital to improve the railroads for both expanded freight and passenger service as is happening now in California. We need a healthy railroad infrastructure in the future for growing freight and passenger traffic.

Passenger service by air, rail, boat or bus in the best of times has never been highly profitable. But the economy of any nation is highly dependent on good passenger transportation. Good passenger service will be reflected in profitable operations or very low levels of subsidy. Governments are usually the most useful in providing the infrastructure of transportation. This is what has been lacking for the railroads, compared with other forms of transportation. A bus or trucking company has never had to build and maintain a road, police it and be expected to make money. Economic growth is based on investment which produces a return on investment. For society as a whole, investment in the railroads can provide a return on investment for both passenger and freight.

What is the future of air travel?  Much of that will depend on the future cost of energy. There will be fluctuations in the future price of oil. It will likely come down again, but never to the levels of 5 years ago. But it will also go back up in the future as oil supplies continue to deplete. The future of the airline industry is in the use of either synfuels or biofuels which will be cheaper than oil in the future. Synfuels would likely be liquid fuel made from natural gas or coal, while biofuels would be made from plants like hemp, Jatropha, or algae. It is unlikely that any of these new fuels will be available even as a crash program in significant amounts for 5 to 10 years. Air Passenger Service will continue, but likely to concentrate on the busiest routes with connections to the most cites. Rail service can be integrated with air service to provide passengers with a more seamless and more economical travel experience.  

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