When Trains are Faster than Planes

Analysis by Noel T. Braymer

During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with the start up of the Shinkansen (or Bullet Trains) my Father pointed out that train travel can be faster than by plane.That sounded silly since jet planes flew at over 500 miles per hour and Bullet Trains had a top speed of 130. My Father pointed out that when comparing the time to fly spent in the air and on the ground coming and going to airports to traveling by train at 130 miles per hour you could go  300 miles in less time than it took to fly.

The original Shinkansen Line from Tokyo to Osaka quickly took most of the market from air travel in the mid 60’s. Back in the 60’s it took about an hour to fly airport to airport between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Today flight schedules run between an hour 15 minutes to an hour and 25 minutes. Of course today you are expected to arrive at the terminal at least an hour (more is better) before flight time to check in and clear security. Even when you arrive it takes 15 to 30 minutes to get off the plane and get out of the terminal depending where you are sitting on the plane and if you have checked baggage. So the time today for a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco from terminal to terminal is between 2 hours and 35 minutes to 3 hours. The proposed fastest run for High Speed Rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco is 2 hours and 38 minutes which would be as fast as by plane.

This reminds me of a punch line from around 1964 of George Carlin’s character the Hippy Dippy Weatherman:” I don’t know anyone who lives at the airport”. No one travels from airport to airport. The real travel time for flying includes the time it takes to get to and from the airport until you get to where you really want to go. That can be from 30 minutes to over an hour for each airport. So the real travel time to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco is really close to 4 hours or more. Let’s look at the distances and running times of some successful High Speed Trains and their average speeds. Paris to Brussels is 194 miles in 90 minutes at an average speed of 129 mile per hour. It is 270 miles from Paris to Lyon and is now run in 2 hours for an average speed of 135 miles per hour. Paris to London is 310 miles and takes 2 hours and 15 minutes for an average speed of 138 miles per hour. Today Tokyo to Osaka at 322 miles takes 2 hours and 30 minutes for an average speed of 129 miles per hour. There is a rough rule of thumb that train travel between 250 and 350 miles can capture most of the air travel market between 2 cities at running times around 3 hours or less. The distance proposed for High Speed Rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco is 432 miles. Traveling this distance in 2 hours and 38 minutes will require an average speed of 164 miles per hour.

But by 1965 it was faster to take the Shinkansen at 130 miles per hour going from Tokyo to Osaka in 3 hours 10 minutes than to fly. Why? What is important in any travel mode is not the top speed or even the average speed but the time it takes from where you are starting to get where you want to go. It took less time for people to get to or from the train station plus with more frequent service there was less waiting than going to the airport which was how the Shinkansen was faster than flying by 1965. Also it was less expensive. If you are in El Monte and you want to go to Redwood City, going from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 38 minutes means nothing if you can’t make connections to either city. At the very least you would want to catch trains with quick connections in El Monte to Union Station and them connect at San Jose to Redwood City. Better yet would be a train that serves the San Gabriel Valley that stops in El Monte and continues on to the Bay Area and stops at Redwood City. The same holds true with travel from Mill Valley to Torrance neither of which are close to a train station. This is why express services be it by bus, ship, train or plane don’t work no matter how fast they are if they don’t have good connections. A cargo ship may go non-stop from China to the Port of Los Angeles. But at Los Angeles the containers will be sorted out to go on trains to cities around the country while the Chinese containers came from all over China.

How terrible would it be if trains went from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 3 hours? That is 144 miles per hour average speed which is faster than the trains from Paris to London. To get from Los Angeles to San Francisco by air can easily take over 3 hours just from terminal to terminal. Even in 3 hours and 12 minutes you are still averaging 135 miles per hour which is the speed from Paris to Lyon and you are close the time it takes to fly. But such a train could start in Irvine with additional stops at Anaheim and Burbank as well as San Jose and either Palo Alto or Redwood City on the way to San Francisco. Those extra stops will greatly increase the number of connections to the train and the potential ridership. Much of the planning for the California High Speed Rail project was on ridership numbers based on the population along the route and assuming higher ridership with higher speed. But this doesn’t always happen. When the subway was being planned from downtown Los Angeles to North Hollywood, the assumptions on ridership were based on a large number of bus riders on busy bus lines that parallel the subway transferring in order to enjoy the faster speeds of the subway. This didn’t happen. For most people the buses required less walking to get to where people were already going, ran more often and there was less time waiting than for the subway. What caught planners by surprise were the number of people transferring at Union Station and from the Blue Line. When the Orange Line Busway was built, the planners didn’t think about putting a signaled crosswalk to make it easier for passengers to cross the street to transfer to the subway in North Hollywood let alone stopping the buses at the subway station. Most riders on the Orange Line transfer to the subway.

While speed is important it is not the only consideration for ridership. Faster speeds will make a train more competitive with flying. But faster speeds also greatly increases construction and operating costs when over 80 percent of all intercity travel is by auto. Most air travel is dependent on autos: airports have large parking lots and are the primarily market for car rentals. Having as many stations on a line as possible with each station providing connections to more markets is the best way to build ridership.We have come a long way in over 30 years building up conventional regional and transit rail in California. But we need a coordinated system timed for people to be able to transfer quickly between regional and transit rail as well as buses and ferries all running on time that also connects to High Speed Rail before we can reach the potential market to really fill up the trains. Otherwise we will need airport size parking lots and rental car facilities at the High Speed Rail Stations if we plan to run High Speed Rail in California like an airline. Let’s look at someone going from Torrance to Mill Valley. The closest rail service in Torrance is the Green Line which there are plans to extend to Torrance. It is rail transit and not ideal for someone with luggage. In the future the Green Line will come closer to LAX and have better connections to it. But there are no plans for direct service on the Green Line to Union Station. The best you can do is connect with the Blue Line which in the future will be extended to Union Station. The Green Line is 2 miles short of the Metrolink Station at Norwalk and there are no plans to extend it there. For Mill Valley the SMART train so far has no immediate plans to go to the Larkspur Ferry landing for direct service to San Francisco. You could drive to Larkspur but you will still have to walk a few blocks to the new Transbay Center Station on Mission. Plus the ferries are primarily for commuters and may not have service when people want to travel to and from Southern California. For some people a bus like the ones that connect the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Trains to San Francisco will be needed for these markets.

These problems are not unique to High Speed Rail. For years each local transportation service has concerned itself with its own issues without thinking about connecting with other services which are often looked on as competitors for funding and riders not as feeders and distributors of its passengers. High Speed Rail needs conventional services to bring in passengers. Improved connections in general are needed to improve revenue and ridership between existing services. This will have to be done at least at a State Wide level and what is needed is an organization that is impartial to get everyone working together for their own best self interest.

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