High-Speed Rail’s Role in Decongesting Airports

One common argument for building HSR is that it will help decongest airports, by displacing high-volume short-distance flights. This can result in a permanent reduction in air travel, reducing environmental impact, or a diversion of capacity to longer-distance flights, or perhaps a combination of both. The question is then how much air travel can be diverted.

The main source I’m using for this is the Office of Aviation Analysis’s master table of all lower-48 origin-and-destination city pairs with at least 10 passengers per day (table 6, 3rd quarter of ’11). The data is less than perfect, because passengers connecting from a domestic flight to an international flight count as O&D passengers, but for our purposes it is good enough.

As a first filter, we can see that out of a million passengers per day, 206,000 are flying distance of up to 500 miles, and 390,000 are flying up to 773, the New York-Chicago distance. Those 39% of travelers constitute a much smaller portion of emissions than 39% but a larger portion of planes. Furthermore, not all can be realistically moved to trains: at the upper end of this range, HSR can compete with air but not decimate service the way it can on shorter trips, and on top of that many city pairs are not located on any realistic HSR corridor.

So as a second filter, let us construct a table, by major city (i.e. the top 7 O&D cities minus Las Vegas), of what the total volume of travel is to HSR-viable markets:

City <2.5h <3h <3.5h <4h <4.5h <5h
New York (153386) 7.4% 10.7% 15.7% 17.6% 20.6% 32.2%
LA Area (132556) 11.6% 26.4% 26.4% 26.4% 26.4% 26.4%
Bay Area (103752) 0% 18.1% 18.4% 18.4% 30.5% 33.3%
Chicago (103540) 9.5% 16.5% 16.7% 19.9% 22.8% 34.1%
Was.-Bal. (97234) 5.4% 16.7% 22.5% 23.2% 29% 31.3%
Boston (75329) 8.7% 21.3% 23.3% 26.7% 28.6% 31.8%

Although HSR can get nontrivial mode share against air even if it takes 5 hours, it does not reduce air traffic at this range, but instead induces demand. So although HSR can produce competition for almost a third of the air traffic coming into the largest US cities, it cannot divert as much air traffic. Meaningful diversion occurs at much shorter range, perhaps 3 hours, and even that diversion is incomplete. When the 3-hour Eurostar opened, Paris-London air traffic was permanently halved, from 4.3 million per year before the Chunnel opened to about 2 million after; once the travel time was further reduced to 2:15 with the opening of High Speed 1, it further decreased, to about 1.3 million on the dominant Heathrow/CDG airport pair.

What this means is that for decongesting airports, the meaningful column is the second from the left, for trips up to 3 hours. We immediately see that HSR can only have a small effect on New York, but conversely can do a great deal in Los Angeles. New York is at a further penalty since the hub system ensures it will remain an international gateway, and so traffic between two different cities still needs to pass through.

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. In the other direction, faster LIRR service could turn Islip into a better relief airport, but it would still have to overcome the stigma of being too far. HSR could also turn Philadelphia into a reasonable option: using the Airport Line and a freight corridor to the west to bypass some of the Wilmington Line’s curves and reduce travel time should be considered as a full build-out option, and would also put PHL about 45 minutes away from New York.

The New York versus Los Angeles difference is not too surprising once we consider where their respective second cities are located. San Francisco is 700 km from Los Angeles, Boston and Washington are 350 km from New York and Philadelphia 150. Elizabeth of CARRD tells me that on LA-SF the current mode split is 50% air, 50% car. The situation in the Northeast is different – making reasonable assumptions on seat occupancy, even on NY-DC and NY-Boston more people take a bus than fly.

Update: 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. Providence actually has less short-distance traffic than Boston and Midway is about even with O’Hare, but in California, much more short-distance traffic is 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.

Notes about the table:

1. The transfer penalty is set at 20 minutes, for city pairs that have no reason to ever have a one-seat ride. Both low- and high-speed connecting services are included, including HSR trains running through to the legacy network; I am not proposing new HSR tracks to Green Bay.

2. Instead of making hard alignment decisions, I simply ignored everything that would be controversial. The change in numbers is trivial. For example, neither South Bend nor Fort Wayne is included; both combined have only 2,000 daily air travelers anywhere in the lower 48, and only a handful of dozens to each of the cities in the table.

3. The travel times are full-build, so, for example, the Northeast Corridor is 1:30 Boston-New York and 1:30 New York-Washington, rather than the slightly higher travel times that should be aimed at initially. Average speeds range from 240 to 300 km/h on high-speed lines (higher in the Midwest, South, and flat portions of the West, lower in the Northeast and the Californian mountain crossings), and 100-130 km/h on upgraded legacy lines.

4. For US-Canada travel, we use T-100 data for international flights (data from September 2011). The data quality is poor since small planes are excluded, causing an underestimate in traffic on such markets as New York-Toronto, but conversely many of those flights would be double-counted because international-domestic transfers count twice. We can assume that the two effects (ignoring international flights outside Canada, and counting domestic-international transfers) cancel out, which is equivalent to assuming that exactly half of international travelers connect domestically.

5. The full list of cities included in each entry in the table is:

New York:
-2:30: the Northeast Corridor, Hartford, the Empire Corridor up to Rochester, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Burlington, Montreal.
2:30-3:00: Buffalo, Raleigh, Portland.
3:00-3:30: Toronto, Ottawa, Cleveland, Norfolk, Greensboro.
3:30-4:00: Charlotte, Toledo, Fayetteville, Lynchburg.
4:00-4:30: Greenville (SC), Greenville (NC), Columbus, Detroit, Roanoke, Nantucket, Columbia (SC).
4:30-5:00: Atlanta, Chicago, Dayton, Cincinnati, Wilmington (NC), Savannah.

Los Angeles:
-2:30: Las Vegas, Phoenix, Sacramento.
2:30-3:00: San Francisco, Tucson.
(This is where my exclusion of unrealistic corridors has the most effect. HSR could connect Los Angeles with Portland and Denver in 5 hours, Salt Lake City in 3:30, and El Paso and Albuquerque in 4:30. But the population is too sparse for the overlapping short trips that make comparably long corridors in the eastern half of the US semi-reasonable.)

Bay Area:
-2:30: the entire Central Valley.
2:30-3:00: Los Angeles.
3:00-3:30: Palm Springs.
3:30-4:00: —
4:00-4:30: San Diego, Las Vegas (assuming a Grapevine and Cajon alignment, which is the worst assumption; if the connector is between Victorville and Palmdale, as officially planned, then it’s about 4:00, and if it’s between Mojave and Barstow, it’s 3:45).
4:30-5:00: Phoenix.

-2:30: the corridors to Minneapolis, Detroit/Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis; Grand Rapids, Louisville, Dayton, Green Bay, Columbus.
2:30-3:00: Nashville, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Kansas City, Toronto.
3:00-3:30: Chattanooga, Rochester.
3:30-4:00: Atlanta, Harrisburg, Syracuse.
4:00-4:30: Ottawa, Philadelphia.
4:30-5:00: Montreal, Albany, New York.

-2:30: the Northeast Corridor up to New York, the Southeast Corridor down to Charlotte, Fayetteville, Norfolk, Lynchburg.
2:30-3:00: Boston, Hartford, Albany, Pittsburgh, Greenville (SC), Greenville (NC), Roanoke, Columbia (SC).
3:00-3:30: Atlanta, Wilmington (NC), Burlington, Cleveland, Savannah.
3:30-4:00: Montreal, Syracuse, Toledo.
4:00-4:30: Charleston, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Detroit, Columbus, Rochester, Chattanooga, Asheville, Portland.
4:30-5:00: Dayton, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Daytona, Ottawa. (Orlando is very close and some alignments put it just under 5 hours, but not all do.)

-2:30: the Northeast Corridor down to Philadelphia, the Empire Corridor up to Rochester, Burlington, Montreal, Hartford, Portland.
2:30-3:00: Washington, Buffalo, Harrisburg.
3:00-3:30: Toronto, Ottawa, Erie, Atlantic City.
3:30-4:00: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Richmond.
4:00-4:30: Raleigh, Toledo.
4:30-5:00: Norfolk, Greensboro, Detroit, Columbus, Dayton.


  1. anonymouse

    Lumping the numbers into city aggregates like NYC and QSF hides another interesting data. 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. So the net effect would be a lot of traffic lost from the secondary airports, and while there would probably still be a viable market for them to exist, many of these airports have built significant expansions in the past few years on the assumption that growth will continue for the foreseeable future, and have a lot of debt. So this decline might well set off a death spiral of debt as dropping traffic levels cause an increase in fees (to pay for debt service), and either kill all the traffic, or result in a bailout of the airport authority.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, you’re right. I actually wanted to say something like this in the post, but alas the airport about which I’d remembered this observation is Providence, and when I double-checked it turned out that its 4-hour radius was just 18%. But in California, you’re completely right. See update.

      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.

      • Wad

        It doesn’t necessarily mean Burbank/Bob Hope will be a Mirabel.

        Burbank is sunk infrastructure. It has parking lots, rental car agencies, nearby hotels taxis and if need be, the current downtown transit center can be relocated near the airport. These will all be useful to HSR passengers.

        Also, Burbank stands to be in a good position — 63% of its slots would open up once HSR starts running and Burbank would be keen on seeing those slots filled.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Half of all of today’s traffic.
      You want to try to predict what airlines are around and where they are flying to 20 years from now?

      • anonymouse

        Sure. There might be one or two more mergers among the “legacy” carriers, but otherwise the set of companies will remain largely the same. A fair number of shorter “shuttle” corridors will be gone, replaced by HSR, and some of the regional network will be replaced with trains connecting to airports, as the majors realize that those are cheaper than flying regional jets. The successful airlines will either be the ones with big international networks, with the domestic routes as a feeder into that, or the ones flying profitable transcon routes, much like JetBlue and Virgin America are today. I suspect there will be some secondary markets that lose considerable service, as things get consolidated into the biggest cities that have the most profitable routes between them. Inland hubs in particular will lose out (they already are) as it becomes more important to have transfers to international routes.

        • Adirondacker12800

          I’m trying to remember back 30 years to what was at Newark Airport. It had only been a few years since Newark was allowed to move from being a regional airport to one where any airline could fly anywhere ( Before that if you wanted to fly to California non-stop you had to go to JFK ) The biggest carrier was People’s Express. If you wanted to fly to Florida your choices were Eastern or Eastern. Southwest was a small regional carrier operating out of Love Field in Dallas. Terminal C had been built but was unoccupied. Though People’s Distress might have moved into a corner of it by then.
          Air travel isn’t going to grow as fast as it did in the 80s and 90s but if you think it’s going to the same old stodgy story it’s been in the past few years.. I have some airline stock I want to sell you in 2016….

          • Nathanael

            Rather than stodgy, I expect catastrophic collapse in the US airline industry. I think basically the only surviving flights will be the ones flying two time zones or more. The connecting services will simply die — rather than “hub and spoke” it’ll be “hub and drive” or “hub and bus” or, ideally, “hub and train”.

          • Nathanael

            Well, I say “basically” only the two-time-zone-change flights — I think the cross-Rockies flights will survive because going up and down the mountains slows down ground transportation.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Aren’t european secondary airports (think Luton/Stansted) experiencing rapid growth of fairly long haul flights?

      It seems to me like burbank would be a fine choice for point-to-point low-cost carriers to serve- and that plays well with HSR.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    Does the reduction in flights take into account “change planes at the hub”? Fly from Albany to DC and many of the cheap flights involve a change of planes. Remove a passenger from the Albany-DC city pair and you have removed two flights into and two flights out of the hub airport. Or eight takeoffs and landings instead of four. A quick check today, for flights in October with a Saturday night stay, found a cheap flight to DC via Cleveland with a three and half hour layover. ( and lots of non-stops at slightly higher fares ) Taking the slow Amtrak train is faster. I can keep my shoes on and they don’t rummage around in my luggage. Or charge me for my second bag. My ears don’t pop. Get Albany-NY down to 90 minutes and NY-DC down to 90 minutes and I spend less time on the train than I would lounging in Cleveland. Half hour layover in Penn Station means I spend as much time getting from Albany to DC as I do in Cleveland….. and it’s freed up a seat between Cleveland and Albany and Cleveland and DC….. and someday those seats won’t be needed because it will be faster to take the train between Albany and Cleveland and Cleveland and DC…

    What’s San Francisco-San Diego when far in the future the train can go from San Bernardino to Mojave without going through LA? ( San Bernardino-Bakersfield via Cajon and Tehachapi passes ) That speeds up SF-Phoenix and everything in between. And San Diego-Las Vegas.

    • Alon Levy

      For SF-SD (or -Phoenix) via the Inland Empire, going through Tejon and LA is approximately the same distance as going through Mojave. You can average higher speed because you don’t need to go through LA, but conversely you’re making one additional difficult mountain crossing. My guess is that it would save about 12 minutes. So you really just need one way to get from LA to Vegas – having two won’t matter. So it’s entirely a question of what order things get built in that would decide between Tehachapis + Palmdale-Victorville/Mojave-Barstow and Tejon + Cajon. In this post I assumed Tejon + Cajon, because I deliberately wanted to assume the worse choices for the airports in question – same reason I didn’t squeeze Orlando into Washington’s 5-hour radius.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Far far far in the future when LA-Burbank has 12 HSR trains an hour on it.
        Build Tejon and you are still funneling everything through LA-Burbank. Build Cajon and you can divert some of the traffic out of LA. The LA-LV traffic is going East-West at Victorville and the San Diego-Bakersfield traffic is going North-South. One train an hour SF-Phoenix to capture the San Jose-Palm Springs trade and one train an hour Sacramento-Phoenix to capture the Indio-Merced traffic….

    • Nathanael

      The most common route from upstate New York to the Southeast is via Detroit, lately, thanks to various mergers. And with long layovers.

      It doesn’t take much to make taking the train more attractive when you have to fly in the *wrong direction* to get your connection.

      • Alon Levy

        You know, I was not thinking of the smaller cities. The breakeven point for driving versus flying in the US today is about 1,500 km, coming from all those incredibly inconvenient connections. A few years ago Nate Silver tried to run down the costs of driving versus flying between St. Louis and New York, which is exactly at the breakeven point, and flying came out far cheaper; in comments some people explained how the people driving so much do so between cities with no direct flights.

        The problem is that rail is even less point-to-point than flying, but this is more than made up for by nicer connections. (“You had to wait 20 whole minutes in Bern for your connecting train?”) But, to take one random example I just looked at, Rochester-Charlotte has two daily direct flights, both on US, and you need to buy a roundtrip ticket over a Saturday night to get a decent price even months in advance. The indirect flights take at least 3:30, often more than 4 hours. HSR would still have problems, though – Rochester-New York is about 2:20 and New York-Charlotte about 3:40, and with any reasonable assumptions on fare per unit distance, flying is still cheaper in today’s who-cares-about-the-planet carbon pricing regime. HSR would still get some mode share – 6:00 vs. 3:40, with trains’ superior connection experience, is about comparable to 3:30 or 4:00 versus a direct flight – but it would probably not kill air travel, and at any rate at 6:00 the market is small regardless of mode share questions.

        • Tom West

          The advantage of the train is that is offers direct journeys between all stops along a given route. The number of possible direct trips is proportional to the square of the number of stations. (You can do this with a plane, of course, but the extra journey time for a stop is much greater for a plane than for a train).

  3. ant6n

    Multimodal trips may mix things up as well. For example, a trip between two far away cities, one large and one small, could be replaced by one flight to a rail hub (in a large, more efficient plane), and a rail connection to the small city.

  4. Mike O'Dorney

    One thing to bear in mind is that SFO traffic is based on good weather. Once the fog comes in, they are down to one runway, and numerous flights (especially short ones) are cancelled.

    Passengers have an aversion to turboprops, but using Livermore, Moffat, Buchanan and Santa Rosa as commercial airports would take some of the load off of the bigger airports.

    Most airports have curfews, but rarely does HSR have a curfew. I originally thought of HSR running late night trains, optimized for lower crew and electricity cost and charging lower fares. But I can see the advantage of a few full-speed trains, since that’s the only option when airports are closed.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem is that nighttime is important for track maintenance. It’s much harder to maintain mixed-traffic German lines that run HSR during the day and freight during the night than to maintain the Shinkansen, which shuts down at night. In the peer review reports, HSR operators around the world reinforced this point and even expressed some skepticism that a 5-hour window would suffice for California, saying 6 might be needed.

      • Nathanael

        Nobody anywhere seems to have learned the lesson of redundancy: build enough tracks spaced wide enough, and you can close down any one of them for maintenance while leaving at least one track open.

        I suspect you could run a couple of late-night trains by single-tracking.

        • Alon Levy

          Sure, but what this means is that you’re spending much more on infrastructure – twin single-track bridges instead of double-track bridges, high-speed turnouts to allow trains to run wrong-direction, etc. – for just a few trains per day.

          The reason the major operators of HSR and rapid transit don’t do redundancy in infrastructure is that it’s better to just avoid the need for random shutdowns, and schedule maintenance in predictable slots at night.

        • Andre Lot

          You are wrong.

          For a starter, any maintenance involving the power lines require the shutdown of the whole railway, unless you designed to isolated electrical systems for each track.

          The spacing you’d need to allow a full-speed train passing over a crew maintenance is going to be wide, very wide.

          Finally, you have all sorts of detailed maintenance that would be impeded by nearby vibration produced by passing trains, especially on ballastless sectors. And on tracks with ballasts, the high speeds make the occasional projection of gravel or small stones outright dangerous for workers.

          • Nathanael

            Well, there is something to that… but then there’s the NYC Subway for your counterexample, so obviously none of those are really serious problems.

            Alon’s point is the real one: it’s cheaper to not build redundancy. A lot cheaper.

          • Andre Lot


            1) NY subway doesn’t have a 25kV overhead wire

            2) NY subway train crawl sometimes at 15mph near work areas (something that renders high-speed trains useless) and can operate under visual directions, something that is anathema for any decent high-speed train (for the same reason a modern jet is not meant to be operated as a glider or a modern ultra-large ocean carrier is not meant to operate by sailing)

            3) MTA has recently steeped up its prolonged weekend closures due to limitations of 24/7 operations

            4) NY subway already has old signaling that doesn’t need to be upgraded to allow such piecemeal operation of the network, something that new HSLs don’t (as they use much more modern in-cab automatic protocols).

          • Alon Levy

            The weekend closures are partially very old infrastructure that’s not built to accommodate 24/7 operation without shutdowns, and partially bad use of infrastructure. In Copenhagen trains run 24/7, single-tracking at night. I’m not sure what the track separation in Copenhagen is, though – in Vancouver, which also uses driverless technology, there’s more separation even on the cut-and-cover segments than in New York. That said, New York has lines of metal pillars separating the tracks in many areas, with cables and such running alongside them in such a way that there is a fair amount of protection for workers adjacent to a running track.

            None of this means that 24/7 operation is desirable on HSR, of course. Rapid transit, you can scale down from 24 tph peak to 3 at night. HSR you can scale down from 6 to 0.5 but then the usability advantage of having three night trains per direction doesn’t really compare with the extra costs you’re taking on. On top of this, a 20-minute subway ride is a reasonable trip from home after you work late or get hammered at a bar; a 2-hour intercity train trip, not so much – I think the night train market is mostly for sleepers, and those have no reason to run on a high-speed network.

          • anonymouse

            Err… all modern railway power supply systems are designed with lots of sectioning, specifically so that parts can be easily taken out of service for maintenance and on everything other than street railways, the system is almost always designed to be able to work with only one track in service and the other one isolated. I have personally seen on Amtrak’s Shore Line a crew doing maintenance on one track while I was passing by on the other track. It’s perfectly safe, though there might be speed restrictions involved, and obviously there needs to be flagging for the work crews. And for what it’s worth, Amtrak has one overnight train running the length of the NEC, so none of it can ever really be fully shut down, though there are windows in which work can be done overnight. And what of the HSR lines like HS1 in the UK and Perpignan-Figueres that are supposed to be used by freight trains at night?

          • Adirondacker12800

            Or from a another point of view whether or not it’s worth the extra revenue and goodwill.

          • Nathanael

            “then the usability advantage of having three night trains per direction doesn’t really compare with the extra costs you’re taking on.”

            I guess this is really the issue. Now, if there *is* an alternative line, I think it makes perfect sense to shut down the high-speed line for maintenance and run the trains on the alternative lower-speed line. (Which can, perhaps, be shut down for maintanence during the day or something; if it runs mostly freight it might run primarily at night anyway.)

            If there is *no* alternative line — if this is the *only* train route between the endpoints — the usability advantage of the night trains may well be worth it; having a system where at least *some* trains run at all hours has very substantial value. This gets back to the value of redundancy.

  5. Eric

    For the NY area, perhaps a new airport should be built across the river from Trenton, on the US Steel/Keystone site. This would immediately adjoin the NEC, and relieve traffic for both PHL (which is at capacity) and the NY area.

  6. Nathanael

    I will say this: your numbers reinforce my belief that high-speed rail from New York to Chicago is both viable and desirable, probably on *both* the “New York Central” route and on the “Pennsylvania Railroad” route.

    I suspect that, despite the long runtime, 5:00 from Chicago to NY would eliminate most of the Chicago-NY air market. Both Chicago and NY have congested airports, so I’d expect the short hauls from Chicago to NY to be priced out in favor of more intercontinental flights and flights to the West Coast. Of course that would count as induced demand, in an indirect way…

    • Alon Levy

      I’m not sure how clear it is from the list of cities, but I am assuming both routes are in use. It’s just that it’s faster to go through Keystone than through Empire if you’re coming from New York, and so the through-trains from New York to Chicago are all on Keystone.

      New York-Chicago is probably one of the short-hauls that would survive. It depends.There are still frequent direct flights, coming from both direct demand and connections from New York to non-hub cities in the western two-thirds of the US. Train-to-plane can work when the train takes 2 or 3 hours, but not when the train takes 5. It’s also possible that on the margin HSR would decongest New York and Chicago of shorter flights just enough to boost reliability enough that padding a flying time of about 1:30 to a 2:30 schedule would not be necessary; but it’s not too likely.

      • betamagellan

        The big argument for an O’Hare-Midwest HSR connection is that it would decongest Chicago of shorter flights—it would remain a hub, but people from midwestern cities would perform the first leg of their journey by rail, the second by plane. I can’t think of any comprehensive analysis that has been done to show how much this would actually happen and what the projected benefits would be, though.

        • Sascha Claus

          The small argument is that the 2011 Economic Study for Midwest high-speed rail that went “through all the nitty-gritty details that are often missing from publications geared toward investors and urban boosters” dug up an alignment via O’Hare, the fact that more routes come from the south than continue to the north, and the assumption that place for the storage/maintenance facility on the Northside can be found easier on the O’Hare detour than on the straight Metra alignments.

        • Andre Lot

          There are some examples from European airports with good rail connections. Namely, Frankfurt and Schiphol (Amsterdam) airports are connected to their national high(er) speed networks and have direct trains to many cities in its wider catchment area (Gatwick has something like that but it is a special case). I’m talking of full high-speed services, not a merely express shuttle from a major station to the airport.

          The improvement of rail connections to/from FRA dealt a severe blow to some of the regional airports in the area. Köln-Frankfurt flights were decimated by convenient rail-to-airport service. Even Stuttgart airport, not exactly close and not yet fully connected with a high-speed line, suffered (relatively to other airports in Germany). Only Hann airport prospered due to Ryanair, but that is a special case.

          In the Netherlands, good connections (considering the size and travel time) to the main airport, Schiphol, ended domestic flights altogether, there is currently none. Every other year some new airline floats a Maastricht-Amsterdam or Groningen-Amsterdam flight but none got traction. With a new high-speed line to Belgium, several airlines started capitalizing on the already popular Thalys service to attract passengers from Brussels to fly from Schiphol (which is several times larger and has much more flights).

          What I think is relevant is that these fast-rail-to-airport train services offer many daily services and also a competitive travel time to airport. Italy tried some experiences with 2 or 3 high-speed trains to Malpensa airport and they didn’t become a success since 2 or 3 daily trains are too few to entice travelers.

          • Nathanael

            Frequency has interesting results. I think there’s some basic principles involved here, and one of them is that people don’t like to wait.

            So, you can have high-frequency connections or you can have timed connections, but if you have low-frequency service with an uncoordinated connection to service which has frequency less than turn-up-and-go (and all airlines have service less frequently than that), then people won’t take the connection, because they don’t want to wait at the transfer point.

          • Max Wyss

            If I remember correctly, the effect on Stuttgart – Frankfurt flights was that some LH flights are actually reserved seats in ICEs. They also sacrificed some seats in the ICE-1 sets in order to create a sealed compartment for checked baggage.

          • Andre Lot

            There are several operations in which high-speed train sectors out of Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt are labelled as “flight numbers” for Air France, Lufthansa and KLM.

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  8. Mike O'Dorney

    My experience with nighttime maintenance is from BART. BART shuts down at night, for about 4 hours, with 6 and 8 hour slots on weekends. BART’s maintenance is limited by the size of the crews, so a typical night ties up one section of the system, or occasionally two sections. The rest of the system is free to be used.

    As Nathaniel points out, in areas where the cost of land is cheaper (Central Valley) redundant tracks would allow for maintenance. The third track would not have to be full high speed, 110 mph would suffice. Cheaper bridges could be triple track, but some of the bigger ones would not warrant it. Plus, some of the triple (and quadruple) track would already be in place for some of the local stations.

    Plus, this would give the maintenance people 8+ hours for maintenance.

    Cost effective? That’s a good question – an extra medium speed track for four late night trains?

    • Adirondacker12800

      If the late night train is coming through every two hours schedule the late night train to go through the maintenance area when the maintenance workers are at lunch. Or schedule the maintenance workers so they are at lunch when the train comes through. You don’t need a third track, run the train on the track they are not working on.

        • Sascha Claus

          I doubt that when the workers leave the worksite for a train passing slowly on the adjacent track they’re going to have enough time to make lunch.

          • Adirondacker12800

            they can bring along a ready made lunch, leave the tracks well before the train comes through and be back from lunch well after it leaves.

        • Walter

          Track gangs know enough to eat before the job starts and after it ends. There’s just isn’t time for a set lunch.

          If a track has to be back in service at 5 am, then it’s eat a granola bar (or smoke your cigarette) in the 30 seconds it takes for a train to travel through the worksite.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Making people work beyond a defined period, usually 6 hours, will get you into a lot of trouble in most states. Unions take a dim view of it too.

      • Adirondacker12800

        In most states if you work 6 hours you must take a meal break. Unless you think the lowly peons working out on the tracks shouldn’t get meals.in their 8 hour shift.

    • Zmapper

      With rapid transit, normally it is possible to run 24/7 most of the time, and heavy maintenance could be done by shutting down completely over a “dead” weekend, with temporary buses operating for those who still wish to travel. I am not sure that such a concept could be used for HSR though, because of the trip time difference between bus and rail, and that most travel is during the weekend.

      • Andre Lot

        Which high-speed rail corridor has most of its ridership on weekends? Certainly not the case of none of the systems in Europe at all.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            DB Fernverkehr (German inter-city) peaks are Friday and Sunday evenings, I believe.
            That’s to be expected. I’d be surprised by exceptions. (No, Amtrak doesn’t count. Ever.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            And lets not forget that because they can gouge on the 5:00 between NY and DC on Acela means they can’t discount the 3:00 AM on the Regional more than 75% below the price that they gouge on Acela.

  9. Jonathan English

    I completely agree that decongesting airports is a major potential benefit of high-speed rail. The problem is that the main limitation on capacity at most airports is not passengers per day but aircraft movements per day. Adding runways is much more difficult than expanding terminals. 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.

    The major issue at most congested airports is that there are more slots allocated than the airport can reasonably handle, especially in inclement weather. Some airlines even operate more flights than necessary on tiny planes so that they can use up all their slots, since if they don’t use them they lose them and slots at busy airports are a valuable asset. The most infamous example was US Airways, which flew over 30 flights per day on tiny turboprops from LaGuardia to Philadelphia so that it could keep its valuable LGA slots. It eventually swapped them to Delta for cash and slots at National. If the FAA or other regulators could actually reduce the number of slots at a congested airport like LGA to a more reasonable level, it would force airlines to up-gauge a lot of their routes. Of course, there would be political consequences from small communities that would lose service and potential legal consequences from airlines suing to protect their asset.

    Airlines would need to be directly involved if HSR is to have a major impact on decongesting airports. There should be an explicit deal that airlines would abandon an HSR-served route and instead code-share on the trains.

    You mention using planes bigger than 737s and 757s, but that would be a major up-gauge for a lot of busy routes. Even between major city pairs, many airlines predominantly fly small regional jets operated by partners like ExpressJet.

    • Alan Robinson

      Does anyone know why major airport expansions in the US tend to add 10000’+ runways when all the regional jets and 737’s can easily takeoff on less than 6000′?

      • Nathanael

        No. Pork for concrete pouring companies? Delusions of grandeur? Excessive safety margins?

    • Adirondacker12800

      If the slots are so valuable why do they “belong” to the airline? Auction them off and the airline that they are most valuable to will bid up the price. That would of course interfere with the airline’s privatize the profits and socialize the risks model but thems the breaks.

      • Nathanael

        History. The process of “owning” slots dates back a long way. The Republican Presidents obviously like the idea
        (privatize profits, socialize losses, private control over public goods, they’ve been for all of this since at least Warren G Harding). The Democratic Presidents have never cared enough to fix it.

      • Andre Lot

        When US airline industry was de-regulated, airlines already operating at their respective airports were “grandfathered” their slots. Then, through the 1980s and 1990s, schemes of airport expansion by which airlines paid part of the costs of airport expansion (like building part of their terminals) meant they would reap benefits in terms of additional slots.

        Some of these schemes meant an excessive number of slots were allocated compared to what would have been reasonable. This created a mess in some airports, but it is really a severe issue in New York area, where around half of all nation-wide air schedule disruption begins in any typical month (most major airlines fly into one of NYCs airports and use it as a major international hub for their global alliance partners, but they don’t keep many reserve airplanes there because of lack of hangar capacity).

        A more efficient system would be for the airport to auction off slots on a rolling basis for 3-4 years period. Idle time slots would go almost for free (airlines would still pay facility fees), busy time slots would get expensive and so would the flights using them. But in many airports this measure would need compensating airlines for their loss of assets (perpetual slots).

        • Alon Levy

          How are slots allocated in the EU? Is there competitive bidding, or do countries give free slots to their national airlines?

          • Andre Lot

            It’s a complete mess. Most airports have some old slots allocated to legacy companies (most former state airlines) and new slots allocated in any possible conceivable way, from drawing lots to schemes that attribute points based on destinations/capacity to auctioning .

            This being said, of the major European hubs (LHR, CDG, AMS, MAD, FRA, MXP), only London Heathrow is under serious capacity constraint. It is the busiest of all, but is has only 2 runways with strong use restrictions and a never-ending debate about its 3rd runway.

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  11. Wad

    Alon, what are the average speeds in these station pairs? Also, what is the distance between interstitial stops?

    • Alon Levy

      My implicit assumptions are:

      Boston-NY: 1:30
      NY-DC: 1:30 (Philadelphia is about 38 minutes from New York)
      NY-Pittsburgh: 2:25
      NY-Buffalo: 2:45 (Albany is :53 from New York, Syracuse 1:53, Rochester 2:20)
      Boston-Albany: 1:00

      For the Midwestern and South I’m assuming a 300 km/h average, coming from an entirely greenfield route except very close to major city stops, and intermediate stops located only in relatively major cities. (Or at least express stops; there probably should be stops at DCA and Quantico, but through-trains from New York to Atlanta don’t need to stop at them.)

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