In contrast with Reason’s fraud, CARRD’s Elizabeth Alexis makes a more serious criticism of the XpressWest plan: there is a prominent peak in travel from Southern California to Las Vegas on Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, and this means that there will be a lot of ancillary costs associated with peaks, such as extra rolling stock with low utilization rates. More ambitiously, she compares it to commuter trains’ peaks, and uses this to argue that commuter rail-style subsidies may be required. The reality is quite different – intercity trains just cost less to run per seat than local trains, and although the Southern California-Las Vegas travel market may have a stronger peak than most, the difference with high-speed services around the world is (at most) one of degree and not kind.
First, let’s look at how much actual peaking there is between Southern California and Las Vegas. XpressWest’s Environmental Impact Statements include an analysis of current travel patterns (as of 2004) and a ridership projection. This is contained in the ridership forecast in appendix F-D. Table 16, on PDF-page 55, claims that present auto traffic on Friday is 2.03 times as high as on other weekdays and 1.48 times as high as on the average day, including both low-use days and the weekend peak. On Sunday, the numbers are 2.53 and 1.84 respectively. The ridership projections assume that the annual-to-Friday ridership ratio will be 236 (the annual-to-weekday ratio on urban transit systems in the US appears to be about 300). Of course, it is unlikely that traffic is evenly distributed on the peak days – most likely it clusters in the afternoon peak.
However, the same is true, if only slightly less prominently, on existing HSR. For some evidence of this, read SNCF’s proposals for HSR in the US, linked on The Transport Politic, which explain that by rotating trains for maintenance during weekdays SNCF can have near-100% availability for the weekend peak. On PDF-page 195 of the California proposal, it says,
To cater to weekend traffic peaks, train maintenance operations are scheduled to take place between midday on Mondays and Thursday evening and at night.
By timing maintenance in this way, approximately 80% of the fleet can be available in the week (between Monday noon and Friday noon) and as much as 98% at weekends.
This does not mean the peak-to-base traffic ratio on the TGV is 98:80. It is normal on local and regional trains to have both more capacity available for the peak and more crowding. On the TGV all passengers must reserve a seat, but SNCF can instead institute peak pricing. For a random example, I tested Paris-Lyon tickets on October 10th (a Wednesday) and the 12th (a Friday). In both cases, frequency is hourly in the morning and early afternoon and half-hourly in the afternoon peak – but the fare was €25-30 on Wednesday versus €60-89 on Friday beginning at 5 pm. And with only two intermediate stops, both quite far from Paris and in very small towns, the LGV Sud-Est is not a good commuter route. Routes with significant high-speed commuter traffic are different: in the off-peak most Paris-Tours trips require a transfer, and there are only two direct TGVs before the afternoon peak, at 7:34 and 1:40 again on 10/10, and two direct low-speed intercity trains; in the afternoon peak, this rises to half-hourly direct TGVs and additional low-speed trains, and the fare on the two most expensive peak TGVs is €59 versus €15-20 in the off-peak.
In contrast, let us now look at the subsidized local services, both in France (for comparability with the TGV) and in the US and Japan (where schedules are easy to obtain). In Japan, we can use Hyperdia to find the peak-to-base ratio; three heavily used lines in the Tokyo area that I specifically checked – Yamanote, Chuo Rapid (to Tachikawa), and Tokaido Main (to Odawara) – have about twice as much inbound frequency in the peak hour, 8-9 am, than in the afternoon and evening off-peaks. In the US, BART, which is similar in function to European commuter trains, runs 24 trains per hour through the Transbay Tube and the central San Francisco subway at the peak, 16 in the midday off-peak, and 6 in the evenings and on weekends. New York’s subway schedules show a peak-to-midday ratio of about 2, with slightly reduced traffic in the evenings and on weekends. Paris runs 30 tph in the peak on the RER A (in the peak direction) and 20 on the RER B, and 18 and 12 respectively in the midday off-peak; this makes for a lower peak-to-base ratio than on the TGV, but does not lead to profitability.
Elizabeth’s problem with running strongly peaked HSR is that it would have a lot of empty trains, and this by itself would require subsidies. This sounds reasonable, but the actual difference between the profitability of intercity and local trains is not seating utilization. Taiwan HSR had 46% seat occupancy in 2009; it made a profit before interest. The Sanyo Shinkansen averages about 35 actual riders per car (compare car- and passenger-km on PDF-page 19); the 16-car sets that run through from the Tokaido Shinkansen average 83 seats per car, and the 8-car sets that run exclusively on Sanyo average 71. I do not know the seating occupancy on Japanese commuter trains, though it likely averages well over 100%, but in New York, subway cars average 28 passengers, a seat occupancy of about two-thirds. For an alternative measure, taking seating capacity into account, New York subway cars average about 1.5 seats per linear meter, versus 1.4 on the Sanyo Shinkansen.
Nor is the issue a difference of fare – PDF-page 18 of the Sanyo factsheet establishes an average fare of about $0.20 per passenger-km – and unlike on the TGV, fares do not vary based on time of day. Just the operating expenses of the New York City Subway are $0.21 per passenger-km. Those on Sanyo are far lower, judging by JR West’s profitability after depreciation and interest. Something else here is going on: intercity trains can control costs better, perhaps because they have less legacy infrastructure and labor to deal with, or perhaps because faster trips mean that the trains and their operators are more productive.
Of course any operator should strive to reduce the peak-to-base ratio, and doing so can result in meaningful gains in productivity. Vancouver’s busiest bus, the 99-B, benefits strongly from a bidirectional peak; it has not eliminated the peak, but by avoiding unidirectionality, at least the reverse-peak buses don’t run empty.
For XpressWest, it means it is strongly favorable to go after the Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles market, which the Victorville terminus ensures the trains will not serve at all due to passengers’ different responses to transfers at the origin and destination end. So far its plan is to just wait for California HSR to open a Palmdale-Los Angeles link; it has Victorville-Palmdale as a second phase, with plans to either run through-trains to Los Angeles and San Francisco or (worse, and unlikely) make people transfer at Palmdale. This is not enough, and although California is committed to building through Palmdale, it may not have enough money for it; the current budget is $15 billion to complete Bakersfield-Palmdale-Sylmar, which requires $9 billion in outside, presumably federal funding.
At the risk of heresy, let me propose that XpressWest build a medium-speed link, above ground, through Cajon Pass. High speeds are not possible anyway because of the grade, so they might as well compromise on other design standards, build curves of radius 1 km (146 km/h with the currently proposed cant and FRA waiver-free cant deficiency, 160 km/h maximum with unambitious European cant and cant deficiency, 200 km/h with tilting trains and high cant) and not 4 km, and keep everything above ground.
The risk of cost escalation is still higher than for building in the I-15 median north of Victorville, because environmental and geological work may sow that a tunnel is needed in any case. But given that XpressWest can make a profit on Victorville-Las Vegas alone, why not spend a few millions on studying Cajon Pass, and if it proves affordable then build to San Bernardino and if not then not? Independently of what California HSR does northwest of Los Angeles, a route to San Bernardino is already enough to make XpressWest independent of traffic congestion, reduce the need for a large parking lot in Victorville, and raise the number of Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles travelers from zero to small. And beyond that, electrifying and double-tracking Los Angeles-San Bernardino and running through-service cannot be done under present FRA regulations, but is feasible given enough waivers and then the project would provide bidirectional service.