Alon Levy has a post up about the potential for high speed rail to fulfill the goals of ‘decongesting’ US airports. Alon looks at origin/destination pairs and compares the flight time to comparable HSR ranges where the technology has a chance to offer a superior travel time.
The takeaway is that the benefits for airport relief are likely bigger in California than they would be in the Northeast Corridor. Assuming a fully built out rail system, this makes some intuitive sense: California’s big cities are arranged somewhat linearly along the coast/central valley, just as the NEC cities do along the fall line. The big difference would appear to be the proximity of other cities – much of the California air traffic is intra-California travel:
Anonymouse in comments brings a good point about the distribution of short-haul travel within airport systems: there is often proportionately more of it at the secondary airports…
The five LA-area airports between them have 27.5% of their domestic traffic within 3-hour radius, but this splits as 21% at LAX, 35% at Long Beach, 37% at Santa Ana, 40% at Ontario, and 63% at Burbank. The three Bay Area airports between them have 19% of their domestic traffic going to LA and a total of 35% within 5-hour train radius, but this splits as 14% and 29% at SFO, 27% and 48% at San Jose, and 35% and 57% at Oakland.
In California, this isn’t a surprise, as SFO and LAX are the big international hubs. In the Bay Area, SFO is next to the proposed line, but LAX is not. Translating that to the NEC is different, however. One element is adjacency – the NEC (or a short extension thereof) runs directly next to DCA, BWI, PHL, and EWR – of which only EWR is a major international hub.
This raises a few issues for HSR trips substituting for flights: will HSR replace an entire trip, or just one leg of a trip? If HSR is going to replace one leg of a trip, how easy does the HSR-Airport transfer have to be? What kinds of trips would make sense for this kind of transfer, and are the best airports positioned along the line to handle them?
On the domestic/short haul flights, commenter Anonymouse writes:
In the Bay Area at least, there’s been a slow tendency for flights to get more concentrated at SFO, with OAK and SJC having mostly domestic flights, and most of those short hauls operated by Southwest. With an HSR line to LA, each of OAK and SJC can easily lose a quarter of its passengers overnight, and with good connections to San Diego, Las Vegas, and Reno, that could become half of all their traffic. SFO and LAX would lose some of their existing passengers, obviously, but not as many, thanks to the fact that they’re hubs. And that means that airlines are more likely to cut flights at the secondary airports, rather than SFO, thus filling the SFO capacity right back up with the passengers displaced from the secondary airports.
On the NEC, a similar retrenchment to the big airports would mean more traffic at IAD, EWR, and JFK. These three are the busiest international airports along the NEC. Dulles in particular is one of the few with room to grow, and grow substantially. The one problem: Dulles (like JFK) isn’t adjacent to the NEC.
Maybe the more interesting case is DCA. With no international facilities (save for border pre-clearance cities), DCA’s traffic is virtually all domestic. DCA’s old noise-related perimeter rule also limits most of the destinations to a 1,250 mile radius. The wiki summary of domestic destinations shows several ripe for rail substitutions (in bold):
|1||Atlanta, Georgia||828,000||AirTran, Delta|
|2||Chicago (O’Hare), Illinois||697,000||American, United|
|3||Boston, Massachusetts||685,000||Delta, JetBlue, US Airways|
|4||Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas||489,000||American, US Airways|
|6||New York (LaGuardia), New York||362,000||Delta, US Airways|
|7||Orlando, Florida||350,000||AirTran, Delta, JetBlue, US Airways|
|8||Fort Lauderdale, Florida||315,000||JetBlue, Spirit, US Airways|
|9||Charlotte, North Carolina||294,000||US Airways|
The same data for BWI:
|1||Atlanta, Georgia||720,000||AirTran, Delta, Southwest|
|2||Boston, Massachusetts||549,000||AirTran, JetBlue, Southwest|
|3||Charlotte, North Carolina||483,000||AirTran, US Airways|
|4||Orlando, Florida||463,000||AirTran, Southwest|
|5||Detroit, Michigan||342,000||Delta, Southwest|
|6||Tampa, Florida||301,000||AirTran, Southwest|
|7||Denver, Colorado||294,000||Southwest, United|
|8||Providence, Rhode Island||293,000||Southwest|
|9||Fort Lauderdale, Florida||283,000||AirTran, Southwest|
These two airports would seem to be the candidates to see a lot of rail trip substitution, with Dulles remaining the region’s predominant international hub.
Again, the problem is that Dulles is not along the NEC, preventing the kind of air/rail connection you see in Frankfurt or in Paris. Or, look at the top destination for both DCA and BWI – Atlanta. Given Atlanta’s massive hub status, what kind of air-rail connection would be required to get passengers to use the train for the first leg of that journey? Making the connection to get an international flight at Frankfurt is one thing, but doing so in Atlanta is another – particularly if the rail and air terminals are not co-located.
Having a great HSR-Airport station at DCA or BWI is relatively easy (compared to, say, IAD). Alon makes this observation about California:
Note, by the way, how California is planning the Oakland Airport Connector and considering an HSR station at Burbank Airport instead of downtown Burbank. Because if there’s one place Californians would really need to use HSR to get to, it’s an airport 63% of whose traffic competes with HSR.
Now, a DCA rail station has far more potential that just serving the airport (it would essentially replace the current Crystal City VRE station and could easily offer pedestrian connections to both Crystal City and to National Airport), and it would be far more than just the massive parking garage that is the BWI rail station. Burbank (~2.5 million passengers a year) also isn’t anywhere near National Airport (~18 million passengers a year). So, what might the future look like for DCA and BWI in an age of ubiquitous HSR? Alon offers one possibility:
For New York, the best things that can be done then are to use larger planes on domestic flights, and find relief airports. In Japan, the domestic flights use widebodies, sometimes even 747s, and this has enabled Tokyo-Sapporo to grow to become the world’s highest-capacity air city pair. In the US there are more airlines and the city pairs are less thick, but there is still room for larger planes than 737s and 757s.
Changing DCA’s perimeter restriction could plausibly open the door to such a change, though security and airfield restrictions limit that to some degree. (Boeing did recently bring a 787 into DCA for display, and Delta did operate 767s into DCA to add passenger capacity prior to the Obama inauguration – would’ve been fun to be at Gravelly Point for that.) Larger planes, and potentially different destinations – if HSR changes the distribution of the airline hub model.
Unfortunately, major American airlines (compared with European and Asian airlines) are obsessed with frequency. They believe that they will only attract business travellers if they offer many flights per day, in many cases hourly or even more. This means that even if high-speed rail really eats into the number of people flying, airlines may just compensate by down-gauging from 737s and 320s to regional jets. They’ll still operate just as many flights and put the same pressure on runways.
Given the importance of frequency to transit, complaining about frequent air service might seem a bit ungrateful, but air travel isn’t really like transit. Due to limited capacity and security, you must schedule in advance. Security, logistics, and airport location demands an early arrival.
Predicting what the air travel marketplace will look like in this hypothetical scenario is somewhat pointless – what if oil prices spike? What if there is political action on global warming resulting in a carbon tax or something like it? Air travel will most certainly still have a major (and a high value) role in linking these places, but exactly which places are linked could easily be disrupted.