Air Travel in 2018’s America and High-Speed Rail

One of my go-to datasets for analyzing American intercity traffic is the Consumer Airfare Report. It reports on average airfares paid for domestic airline traffic, and on the way gives exact counts for O&D traffic between any pair of cities in the contiguous United States. Six and a half years ago I used this dataset to look at potential demand for high-speed rail, back when high-speed rail was still a topic of conversation in American politics, and a few days ago I got curious and looked again.

Unfortunately, the Consumer Airfare Report is no longer available as an easily downloadable table, due to web design horror. The relevant table, Table 6, used to be downloadable per quarter; today the only version lumps all data going back to 1996 and is 100 MB. Here are two cleaned up versions in .ods format, one a 40 MB table going back to 1996 and one an 800 KB table of just the most recent quarter available, the second quarter of 2018. The files lump all airports in a metro area together, such as JFK and Newark, and reports data in ridership per day; be aware that in the smaller file I repeat every city pair, one for each direction, making it easy to sort by city to figure out each city’s total air traffic, which means that just summing up ridership for all city pairs together yields double the actual traffic. In this post I’m going to compare data from 2018 to data from 2011, the year used in my previous post.

Air traffic is increasing

In 2011 Q3, the total volume of domestic air traffic in the US was 1,020,673 per day. By 2018 Q2, it had risen to 1,303,397. A small proportion of this increase is seasonality – Q2 is the busiest – but most of it is real. Here is a table of air traffic and average distance flown (in miles) by quarter:

Year Quarter Passengers Distance
1996 1 661,862 995.1
1996 2 766,496 983.6
1996 3 741,927 1,001.6
1996 4 751,128 992.3
1997 1 739,073 994.9
1997 2 848,426 990.3
1997 3 836,128 996.0
1997 4 827,477 978.9
1998 1 773,065 980.9
1998 2 878,737 1,000.3
1998 3 848,688 997.9
1998 4 861,767 985.3
1999 1 817,247 992.5
1999 2 925,579 996.2
1999 3 903,603 1,004.4
1999 4 916,802 993.8
2000 1 864,645 998.8
2000 2 1,015,251 1,007.6
2000 3 956,562 1,011.1
2000 4 962,971 1,001.4
2001 1 899,230 1,000.3
2001 2 1,000,973 1,018.6
2001 3 864,262 1,039.6
2001 4 772,924 1,047.9
2002 1 778,610 1,036.9
2002 2 897,218 1,033.6
2002 3 863,277 1,050.6
2002 4 864,537 1,041.8
2003 1 794,776 1,040.4
2003 2 901,628 1,059.1
2003 3 881,716 1,071.2
2003 4 917,454 1,057.2
2004 1 863,650 1,062.5
2004 2 1,001,499 1,079.9
2004 3 973,370 1,083.9
2004 4 983,740 1,065.6
2005 1 937,691 1,067.6
2005 2 1,083,554 1,060.0
2005 3 1,042,798 1,069.8
2005 4 1,025,538 1,053.8
2006 1 994,088 1,049.3
2006 2 1,118,003 1,054.4
2006 3 1,037,597 1,060.4
2006 4 1,066,004 1,039.8
2007 1 1,006,113 1,045.3
2007 2 1,128,317 1,056.5
2007 3 1,067,657 1,066.4
2007 4 1,047,234 1,050.4
2008 1 976,701 1,050.5
2008 2 1,110,267 1,049.8
2008 3 1,024,983 1,063.2
2008 4 979,031 1,042.3
2009 1 897,849 1,053.2
2009 2 1,037,048 1,064.6
2009 3 1,001,012 1,068.8
2009 4 964,406 1,054.9
2010 1 897,906 1,065.7
2010 2 1,025,152 1,070.5
2010 3 1,004,906 1,074.8
2010 4 1,012,277 1,057.5
2011 1 918,355 1,064.8
2011 2 1,056,564 1,075.3
2011 3 1,020,673 1,081.0
2011 4 996,383 1,060.6
2012 1 923,234 1,061.2
2012 2 1,048,600 1,075.5
2012 3 1,003,384 1,083.7
2012 4 996,905 1,066.8
2013 1 937,946 1,066.6
2013 2 1,067,682 1,078.9
2013 3 998,909 1,093.3
2013 4 1,020,700 1,073.6
2014 1 954,679 1,075.8
2014 2 1,092,447 1,085.3
2014 3 1,052,161 1,093.7
2014 4 1,053,878 1,075.2
2015 1 983,278 1,083.9
2015 2 1,130,227 1,100.2
2015 3 1,109,443 1,104.0
2015 4 1,116,866 1,087.0
2016 1 1,025,994 1,092.5
2016 2 1,191,304 1,101.0
2016 3 1,150,247 1,107.9
2016 4 1,143,414 1,086.5
2017 1 1,076,006 1,089.4
2017 2 1,227,913 1,099.8
2017 3 1,181,006 1,106.5
2017 4 1,198,662 1,085.1
2018 1 1,111,920 1,090.6
2018 2 1,303,397 1,100.4

Long-distance air traffic is especially increasing

The proposition of high-speed rail is that it can replace short-haul flights. A plane averages about 1,000 km/h but incurs considerable taxi, takeoff, and landing time, and passengers also have considerable airport access and egress times, including security and other queues. High-speed trains average about 200-250 km/h, but need no security – a well-run system allows passengers to show up at the station less than five minutes before the train departs – and have much shorter access and egress times as stations are located near city centers.

The above table shows a small increase in average distance flown, about 2% since 2011. However, this masks patterns in the largest cities. New York-Los Angeles traffic grew 30%, compared with 23% in national traffic growth; it is now barely behind New York-Miami (with West Palm Beach separated out) for third busiest American air city pair, the first being far and away Los Angeles-San Francisco.

We can look at the change in the proportion of traffic that can be served by HSR in the largest six American air markets since 2011; consult my post from 2012 for the exact definitions of which corridors count within which buckets – there are some revisions and fixed to be made, but I’ve not done them in order to keep the list of city pairs constant. Las Vegas is no longer ahead of Boston, and Dallas is a fraction of a percent below Boston as of 2018.

City Traffic (2011 Q3) Traffic (2018 Q2) < 3:00 (2011) < 3:00 (2018) < 5:00 (2011) < 5:00 (2018)
New York 153,386 188,702 10.7% 9.2% 32.2% 29.1%
Los Angeles 132,556 167,788 26.4% 26.6% 26.4% 26.6%
San Francisco 103,752 133,346 18.1% 18.6% 33.3% 33.1%
Chicago 103,540 122,376 16.5% 12.2% 34.1% 29.9%
Washington 97,234 116,878 16.7% 14.9% 31.3% 28.5%
Boston 75,329 90,747 21.3% 18.7% 31.8% 26.9%

In the East, short-distance markets have shrunk, in relative terms. Observe that in Chicago the entire difference is within the 3-hour radius, including the spokes of any Midwest HSR network, where air travel has srhunk 12.6% in absolute terms, whereas the 3-to-5-hour annulus, including farther away cities like Atlanta and New York, has not only grown but kept up with Chicago’s overall domestic air travel volumes. But in New York, Washington, and Boston, both the 3-hour radius and the 3-to-5-hour annulus have shrunk, reflecting flights to intermediate Midwestern cities east of Chicago as well as to the South; Boston’s 3-to-5-hour annulus has shrunk 6% in absolute terms.

California holds steady

Since 2011 there has been an increase in air travel to California, especially San Francisco. Los Angeles-San Francisco, once the second largest air market in the US behind New York-Miami, is now far ahead of it, and on its strength, the share of air travel out of Los Angeles and San Francisco that’s within HSR radius has held up.

California’s HSR problems are not about whether there’s demand for such infrastructure. There clearly is. The problems are exclusively about construction costs. But as the state’s economy grows, demand for internal travel is increasing, making HSR a better proposition.

What does this mean for HSR?

The cynical answer is nothing, because in an America where even high-spending Green New Deal proposals neglect HSR and focus on electric cars, it’s unlikely there will be a political effort to build anything. Even Amtrak seems content with justifying capital expense on grounds of climate adaptation rather than reducing trip times.

That said, in the event of a concerted national effort to build HSR, the changes in travel patterns this decade suggest some changes on the margins. California and Texas grow in value while the Midwest falls in value.

In the Midwest, the core lines remain strong, but more peripheral Midwestern lines, say a bypass around Chicago for cross-regional traffic or improved rail service due west toward Iowa, are probably no longer worth it. The Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor may not be worth it to build as full HSR – instead it may be downgraded to an electrified passenger-primary corridor (as I understand it it already has very little freight).

There is asymmetry in this situation in that there aren’t a lot of peripheral lines in California and Texas that are becoming interesting now that these states’ economies are bigger than they were when rail advocates first came up with maps in the late 2000s. There is still far too little traffic to justify stringing HSR from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City or from Sacramento to Portland under the mountains. In Texas, there has been a shift from the T-bone alignment to a more triangle-shaped network, since a direct Dallas-Houston line is already under construction, but beyond the Texas triangle, tails like Dallas-Oklahoma City and Houston-New Orleans aren’t getting stronger – Houston-New Orleans air travel volumes are actually down from 2011, though Dallas-New Orleans volumes are up.

The core lines, of course, don’t change. The Northeast Corridor is still the most important corridor, the next most important are still tie-ins extending it to the south and west, and the following is still California HSR. But the dreams of a nationally connected network, or at least a connected network in the eastern two-thirds of the US, should be cast aside – the in-between links, always peripheral, have weakened in this decade.


  1. standupfortrains

    A quick reaction:

    Air travel is a very small percentage of traffic. HSR would cause a massive shift in mode-share away from cars.

    Rick Harnish Executive Director Midwest High Speed Rail Association 4765 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL 60625 773-334-6758

    Join us at


    • Alon Levy

      At short range, that’s definitely true, and you can see a lot of that in the data for air travel. I was told that in California, the modal split for LA-SF is 50% air, 50% cars. Most of the Midwestern corridors are shorter and should have a way higher auto share, and you can even see this in individual city pairs – Chicago-MSP is 2-3 times as busy as air corridors connecting Chicago with nearer cities of the same size class, i.e. Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. I bring up the air traffic numbers because they’re of independent interest, and because they’re useful for identifying trends.

      • Jhonny

        Air travel is time sensitive. Car travel is price sensitive.

        Thus far it has been easier to predict the shift from air to rail based on travel times than any other shift.

        • Max Wyss

          When the DB started the IC (and later ICE) network, their goal was to be twice as fast as by car and half as fast as by air. Set up such a network, and then play with the fares…

          • Jhonny

            There’s only one route where a proper German hsr network has an excuse for being slower than the plane and that’s Hamburg Munich.

            And even there competitive travel times are technologically feasible

    • LeeEsq

      I never quite got this. Most Americans cities are sprawling and very car-oriented places. If you take a HSR from say Jacksonville to Orlando, you are still going to need some way to get around once you arrive at your destination unless your business happens to be in the relatively small walkable areas near the potential train station.

        • Alon Levy

          FWIW, the breakeven point on car vs. plane market shares in the US – IIRC 950 miles – is indeed pretty high given trip times.

          • adirondacker12800

            Only if you put the books in a CrockPot for a week and cook ’em real hard.
            Depends real hard on the trip too. I’m not going to look up current tolls. Here to Washington D.C. gas, tolls and maintenance – it’s a quarter of an oil change to drive that far and a few bucks of tire wear – it’s doesn’t cost much to take the train. If I have to pay for parking in DC, the train is cheaper. Google’s drive time estimates are optimistic, it’s about the same travel time. It should be about a third of the drive time but today’s schedules it’s about the same.

          • Alon Levy

            The point is the exact opposite of what you think the point is: breakeven is at a point where flying is clearly faster and cheaper than driving.

            And yes, internally to the Northeast trains and buses are an option and people take them, but in most of the US they’re not. If you’re going between St. Louis and Charlotte, there is no train.

          • adirondacker12800

            it’s not 950 miles unless you have cooked the books hard or have 7 people in the car.

          • Alon Levy

            Oh, right, because of reimbursements for business travel.

            IIRC (from Chester and Horvath?) the mean number of people in a car on an intercity trip in California is 2. My suspicion is that the vast majority of US intercity road travel is not for business purposes, so no book-cooking.

          • adirondacker12800

            6.000 mile oil changes at 30 dollar a whirl are real easy to figure out on a per mile basis. Most people don’t. My tires don’t wear out less because there’s only person in the car instead of four except very very marginally. I tend to replace tires on time versus mileage in any event. That doesn’t stop them from acquiring 1900 miles of wear on a 950 mile trip. My insurance won’t go up but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get allocated to those miles. And 1900 miles of depreciation is 1900 miles of depreciation. That really expensive short ride from the dealer’s showroom to the curb was not on my books but 1900 miles of depreciation is depreciation. Most people think about how much fuel. it’s not just fuel. And unless the two people in the back seat want to share the space with a big food cooler there are other expenses with long road trips.Buying four days of food cooked by other people gets pricey. And the motel room halfway along the way because I’m not driving for 16 or 17 hours in one day.

  2. IAN! Mitchell

    “the spokes of any Midwest HSR network”
    “the core lines remain strong,”
    The core- Cook county, has continued to hemorrhage. The midwest overall is losing economic value even faster than it loses residents. Pittsburgh- the supposed shining star of a post-industrial midwestern model, has lost nearly 5% of its population every 10 years since 1980 (this is for Allegheny County, so it’s not just suburbanization), and doesn’t show signs of slowing this loss.

    “California and Texas grow in value while the Midwest falls in value.”
    To an extent. California is getting richer but every urban county in the state is losing people to internal migration. Those that are experiencing demographic growth are gaining immigrants from outside the US as native-born californians are pushed/pulled out.

    Texas, meanwhile, is where we see massive population growth, though not with incomes as generous as California’s. But the Triangle (where I live!) is a paragon of perfect HSR distance, with short-haul air travel not quite worthwhile, but no overland options speedy enough to allow for same-day trips between Houston, Dallas, and Austin (austin and san antonio are close enough for cars to work).

    The Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor may not be worth it to build as full HSR – instead it may be downgraded to an electrified passenger-primary corridor.
    Megabus, which had better journey times than any proposal I’ve seen for non-HSR in the 3 C’s would start with, pulled out due to a lack of financial viability. I think the issue is that Cincy, Columbus, and Cleveland have not only shrunk, but they’ve suburbanized substantially.

    “Houston-New Orleans air travel volumes are actually down from 2011, though Dallas-New Orleans volumes are up.”
    New Orleans no longer plays host to any fortune 500 companies. The energy industry of louisiana now sees fit to govern itself from Texas.

    I was never fond of the T-bone layout for Texas HSR.

    Dallas-houston is far and away to most important connection, and Austin-Houston is more important than the connection between any of the other cities and San Antonio.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    Where is the plan for the Green New Deal? I can’t see any links online 🙁

    • Alon Levy

      There’s no plan, it’s a slogan with a couple of organizations trying to fill in the gaps with some proposals, none of which involves much public transit because public transit isn’t cool enough.

      • adirondacker12800

        That’s why they want to have meetings and hearings and groups that propose plans and …. It’s a bit more fleshed out than stopping the war on coal. Which seems to have picked up speed even though Dear Leader said he would stop it.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Yeah but to be fair I’d expect it to be slightly more than a Twitter slogan.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s a pity they don’t have a 2,000 page detailed proposal for you to peruse. Somebody has to start something somewhere for something like that to be proposed three years from now.

          • adirondacker12800

            They who? The Green Party has something they are calling the New Green Deal. Tread carefully, New York has arcane election laws and the Green Party is qualified for ballot access.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I think it’s a really important skill for our political leaders – such as Ms Ossacio-Cortez – to be able to share ideas and bring people along – and clear that is one of her strengths. However it is also important to be able to describe the plan for ones ideas and to explain how they can be funded. It is disappointing to me that Ms Ossacio-Cortez doesn’t have people in her team who are able to do that – hopefully that will change in the future 🙂.

        • Michael James

          Dear Leader can rant and even change environmental laws but it will have negligible effect. Because Obama’s clean-air legislation, for example on mercury emissions (also covers all heavy metals), has already been implemented by the industry, and this is why the industry itself is against Trump’s regressive relaxation (they don’t want competitors to undercut them with cheaper dirtier plant). The latest report (2017-18 IIRC) shows an 80% decrease in mercury pollution of American skies. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of coal-fired generators in the US fell 36 percent to 941, removing 55GW of coal-generated power. The failure of Petra Nova (“clean coal”) in Texas, and of the Kemper (Mississippi) coal-gasification experiments, coal has no pathway back. Incidentally both those two were Obama-funded and were worthy experiments that tested and proved conclusively that cleaner coal is 1. dirtier than burning gas and 2. is horrendously expensive.

          Perhaps as important is that no one in the industry or its investors wants to build any coal generators. In Texas last year, for the first time wind energy displaced coal as the number 2 energy supplier to the grid (gas is #1), due to about 10GW of new wind farms and the retirement of 2.6GW of coal generators (and none being built or planned). Solar has hardly started.

          This is why I think Alon is being a bit pessimistic (self-fulfilling prophecy?) about HSR in the US despite all the son et lumiere of the reactionary forces. It’s one of those things that is kind of inevitable. As we all know, any American who has experienced true HSR (>300km/h) in Europe or Asia becomes an instant convert; and before you say “confirmation bias” or “selection bias” this includes Trump! So, as I keep saying, getting an operational HSR line is hyper-critical in breaking the resistance. Even the arguments about the journey length (maximum tolerable limit supposedly favours air, esp. in the US, but history in countries with HSR disprove this) will fade away. Thus, we have to hope CAHSR gets at least a serious route built and operational (at true high-speeds; anything less will be rightly judged a failure). It will break the barriers.

          • Jhonny

            It’ll be critical what happens to CaHSR. And there governor Newsom holds all the cards and he can go either way politically.

            If los Angeles with its media industry of global renown gets a fast train, it’ll have effects all across the world.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Do you know someone from NY-14 who can legitimately message Ms Occasio-Cortez about it?

  4. Michael James

    Forgive me if you addressed this, but given that most domestic aviation uses massive hubs, are the distance of multi-leg journeys taken into account?
    There may be better examples but I see that Atlanta-Hartfield-Jackson has Orlando as its top route, with 1.4m pax pa; #5 is Tampa with 1.04 million. These are 650 km and 669 km respectively. While Paris-Bordeaux is shorter at 560km it is a mere 2 hours by TGV l’Ocean, suggesting Orlando would take 2h20m and Tampa only a bit more. Likewise, #8 and #10 are Baltimore and WashDC, with total of 1.75m pax pa, and 920km and 870km respectively; this may be at or beyond the current “limit” of HSR with travel times of approx. 5h+ but still …
    Also I wonder how many of the 2.3m international pax from Amsterdam, Paris and London (#1, 2, 4 of international pax) are heading to Atlanta or merely changing planes (they can’t be all Coke execs) and surely they would much prefer to hop on a HSR than endure the misery and indignity of flying domestic? (When I was European I quickly learned to insist with travel agents that they book me on a flight non-stop to the west coast because you sure didn’t want to be shoved on to an appalling domestic flight at Dulles, JFK, O’Hare or Atlanta etc. Of course you’d generally avoid an American airline altogether but if the NIH was paying … besides airline clubs liked you to swap at one of the big hubs.)
    The reasons that make Atlanta a hub for air works too for HSR. And they wouldn’t be in conflict–if they were smart.
    Incidentally, as scary as the scale of Hartfield-Jackson is, their top route is not a fifth of Melbourne-Sydney with its >7m pax pa (#4 in the world); the cities are ≈750km apart (with the national capital, Canberra, on any rail route) so eminently suited to HSR.

    • Paul

      Frankfurt is a good example of HSR replacing a lot of domestic flights but maintaining the connection to long-haul flights by having an airport station. I could see something similar working in Atlanta since the airport is relatively close to downtown and on a rail line. In other cases (New York-JFK, Washington-Dulles, Los Angeles) it would be very hard to serve both.

      • Max Wyss

        Lufthansa did put passengers on trains even before the HSL were built; many flights between Frankfurt and Stuttgart were actually reserved seats on IC trains… and after DB changed their IC network from “every 2 hours, first class only” to “every hour, first and second class”, the famous BR 402 trains (aka “Donald Duck”) got out of work, and Lufthansa leased them for Frankfurt – Köln (maybe even Düsseldorf) services … via the Rhine valley route, way before the HSL got built.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that Australia isn’t building HSR connecting Sydney with Brisbane and Melbourne is such a giant failure of Anglospheric planning. Same as with Canada’s endless studies and with the UK’s taking forever to build HS2.

      • Jhonny

        They’re only ever comparing themselves to other Anglosphere countries. So once the first one gets cracking, the others will copy whatever the first did…

        • Michael James

          Only just saw your comment:

          Jhonny, 2019/01/04 – 22:10
          They’re only ever comparing themselves to other Anglosphere countries. So once the first one gets cracking, the others will copy whatever the first did…

          Alas, that is already true because whether you count HS1 or HS2, both CA and Oz are following in those same footsteps of the UK (mindblowing unfathomable cost and endless builds, endless political obfuscation). It’s a strange and sad thing. The Brits built and/or financed half the world’s railways yet today cannot build a single modern line, nor run its own legacy rail system.

          • adirondacker12800

            When they were building the railroads the old rich straight guys didn’t own cars.

          • Jhonny

            A lot of those old rich guys were “eccentric”, not straight.
            Which you could be if rich enough under certain circumstances…

      • Michael James

        a giant failure of Anglospheric planning.

        It’s mostly austerity economics combined with brain-dead Thatcherism. The philosophy that it is not for the government to plan, but merely to step out of the way so private interests will do it if it is worth doing.
        The French made an extremely good offer in the 80s but there was the absurd demand in Oz that it be privately funded (you know, like every HSR in the world!)–doubtless it would have doubled in cost as it got built but would have still been an incredible bargain. Last estimate was $120 billion.
        The majority of the public are supportive, probably a turnaround in the last decade due to the security theatre at airports and the pain of getting to and from airports, astounding ripoffs on airport carparking fees etc, and with more people having experience in Japan, China, France and Spain and on Eurostar.
        Labor, who will be the federal government by the middle of this year, are supportive but I fear we’ll get the usual soft-shoe shuffle: first an endless enquiry, another feasibility plan prepared by the usual suspects (the road lobby) and an eye-watering pricetag, then an announcement that the project will go ahead … with completion date by … 2050.

        • Jhonny

          I never understood why the fact that costs for projects tend to increase at least in nominal terms) over time is not an argument to build it now, before the same money gets us only halfway there…

          • Michael James

            It is all too easy to understand: political terms of office are a couple of years. The distant future when any worthwhile infrastructure project gets finished is irrelevant to most of them. NIMTOO.
            And to be fair to the politicians, the exact same thing can be said of most voters.

            We are right now experiencing one of the most extreme forms of this short-termism: it is mere weeks to the Brexit no-deal disaster that will have repercussions for decades or half a century in the future of the UK but it appears both sides of politics are still maneuvering entirely on short-term narrow partisan basis.

          • Jhonny

            But it is always said that politicians love to build monuments to themselves.

            In fact, that’s one of the main lines of criticism of hsr and stuff like Stuttgart 21

          • Michael James

            Jhonny, 2019/01/09 – 04:26
            But it is always said that politicians love to build monuments to themselves.

            Sure, but the NIMTOO rule applies to that: HSR is so slow to plan and then build, it will be some other future politicians, quite possibly of the other party, not the ones who commissioned it, that will get to cut the ribbon and have the photo-op etc. They might even try, and partly succeed, in rewriting history as to who really supported it and is responsible. Mitterrand got to stamp himself on Paris, via the Grands Projects, because even a single term of 7 years was enough, and 14 years more than enough that he saw them all completed while still prez. He also was in office when the TGV first ran and that was the previous administration’s effort, though in terms of nation-building infrastructure in France there is much more bipartisanship and thus continuity across successive governments. He did personally invest in pushing the, nominally “private”, Eurotunnel through against Thatcher’s total lack of enthusiasm. Of course today a prez only has 5 years and the era of two full terms may be over (the last two had only one term each). But France does have a very competent civil service for such things and it shows. The Anglosphere has deliberately destroyed its civil service and politicised it to boot, so as to shift advice, and thus often decision-making, to private consultants and think-tanks.

          • Alon Levy

            Technically the TGV was a project of SNCF, not of any political force; the politicians were skeptical and required SNCF to get external loans for the LGV Sud-Est. But yeah, the fact that France has a working civil service definitely helps.

  5. Michael

    I wouldn’t write off all of the north central of the USA. While Chicago metro is flat/declining slightly, the core neighborhoods & especially around Union Station is growing rapidly. I would also pay closer attention to the composition of the housing mix versus aggregate MSA growth.

    In Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison about 60% of new housing starts is multi-family. That translates to substantial infill in the walk-shed/transit-shed of these downtown HSR alignments. As opposed to say Austin (~28% MF buildings), Atlanta (26% MF). No growth Chicago is adding about 50% more apartment building units than high growth Atlanta in nominal terms. The elevated rates of MF housing is the case across the western half the north central USA (basically Chicago north & west). The eastern half of the north central – Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – really resembles the sunbelt in terms of housing mix, except very low growth. The region has really bifurcated in the last 20 years.

    The sunbelt is growing but it continues to be horizontal & automobile-oriented. Airports – with their giant parking lots, huge car rental facilities – are just better equipped than compact, downtown train stations to accommodate that type of traveler.

    • Alon Levy

      The Midwest doesn’t have that many housing starts, though. In contrast, metro areas like Austin, Dallas, and Atlanta have very high housing growth, so even at a lower rate, their multifamily housing growth is pretty solid. It’s all auto-oriented multifamily, rather like Los Angeles’s density, but it’s not all single-family subdivisions anymore. I focus on Dallas because it’s had pretty impressive growth this decade and is more of a focus of HSR crayon than it used to be because of how Texas Central has changed the map.

      You can get permit data by jurisdiction here, by the way.

      • Michael

        Thanks for the link! I don’t really know. In 1945, there were 80 round trips per day between Milwaukee & Chicago. Both cities were much smaller in aggregate but considerably more dense. Today, that corridor continues to be amtraks second highest passengers/mile route. The route is supplemented by at least 34 coaches per day between the metros. There’s another least 26 coaches per day between MKE & Madison. It’s a pretty robust corridor & the cores of all three cities are getting more dense again.

        Wanderu (admittedly not the most accurate source, per se) tells me there’s 18 buses per day between Dallas & Houston. 16 between Houston & Austin. 18 LA to SF. I think highway-oriented design is a pretty big obstacle to rail ridership, but maybe these places are thickening faster than it appears to me.

  6. AlexB

    A high speed rail network that goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific was never something that made sense except in the extreme long run. The problem in the US has always been about political will and ability build actual HSR cost effectively, NOT about whether a given HSR corridor would be cost effective. If those things could get under control, I think a semi-national network would be very successful if comprised of 200+ mph lines extending from Minneapolis and Kansas City to New York through Chicago and Boston to Atlanta with regional networks in Florida, Texas and California. Existing regular lines could also be electrified and made usable for high speed trains.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the main thing I’m criticizing is attempts to connect the main network in the Northeast and Midwest to Texas. Even the connection to Florida is suspect, but Atlanta-Jax is marginal rather than lolzy.

  7. Reedman Bassoon

    It is 540 miles/880km from New Orleans, LA to Jacksonville, FL. It is an 8 hour drive. To go by train, you have to go through Washington DC (35 hours). Getting functional low speed rail would be a major step forward.

    • adirondacker12800

      There’s so little demand for New Orleans-Jacksonville there are no direct flights. Or non stop Greyhound buses. Anything other than the really slow trains that used to wander that way would cost too much.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        A slow train is better than “no train”. Getting a slow, but direct, train from New Orleans to Jacksonville (the 12th largest city in the US, bigger than San Francisco, Denver, Boston, or Washington DC) would service Mobile, AL and Tallahassee, FL (the state capital) as well. Pre-Katrina, the SUNSET LIMITED did this. (note: Florida is the third most populous US state. It passed New York state.)

        • adirondacker12800

          They let people from the suburbs use the train or bus station in the city just like they let them use the airport. There’s so little demand for New Orleans-Jacksonville there are no direct flights. Or non stop Greyhound buses. Anything other than the really slow trains that used to wander that way would cost too much.

  8. RVA_Exile

    Do the air travel statistics fully capture change in demand for point-to-point travel?

    In the intervening 2011/2018 period, the American airline industry was in full consolidation / capacity removal / no competitor watchdog as in Europe mode. US Airways / American, Continental / United and AirTran / Southwest Airways integrations took place (along with the 2 just underway just prior to 2011), and Southwest and JetBlue stopped acting like discount airlines.

    In addition, the low-speed, low-cost bus market fully matured, Megabus et co, which presumably affected the Northeast and Midwest more than the South and West Coast as the cities are closer together with a bit more public transport on arrival.

    Just hoping there may be more demand, including latent demand, for these short, regional trips not shown by air travel numbers.

    PS. Too bad about Chicago-Omaha, & what about the Chicago – Toledo main line dipping to run through Fort Wayne with Chicago-Columbus branch?

  9. Jhonny

    Just curious have you ever looked at night trains? I know they’re a dying breed inin Europe, but could they “extend the range” of hsr?

    And what about security theater getting worse and worse? I think there’s some hints that hsr is starting to get competitive where it “shouldn’t” if one believes the four hour model borne out by older studies….

    • Matthew Hutton

      Unfortunately there are too many places the railways ruin sleeper trains. In Germany the whole train was woken up at 6am so that people knew they could get the S Bahn if they wanted to get to the centre quicker.

      In the U.K. the sleepers to Scotland work well. However you aren’t able to share with strangers and there are no 4 bed sleepers which raises costs. The Cornwall sleepers (and the sleepers in Vietnam say) arrive in some places at 4:30am which is ridiculous.

    • Michael James

      Jhonny, 2019/01/04 – 22:13
      Just curious have you ever looked at night trains? I know they’re a dying breed inin Europe, but could they “extend the range” of hsr?

      In fact it is HSR, along with LCC flights of course, that has killed wagonlits. I took the Paris to Madrid overnighter about ten years ago and it closed shortly afterwards. Though SNCF put out tenders to see if any private operators wanted to step in. I haven’t read anything since, which suggests there just isn’t the market anymore. Though the Paris-Barcelona TGV takes approx. 6-7 hours (not sure if it is yet HSR all the way) and that could fit in as an overnight, it still wouldn’t justify having special sleeper trains versus seats. And myself, I’d go in daytime because that is an excellent journey thru France, down the Rhone and thru Languedoc etc. The Paris-Madrid train used the west-coast route, not that it matters because you see nothing.
      Outpaced: Europe’s sleeper trains disappear
      Brian Melican , December 20, 2013

      Some may think that the first through train between Madrid and Paris, inaugurated in 1969 using ground-breaking Talgo train technology to switch between standard and Iberian gauges, deserves a classier send-off. Aside from anything else, it was a diplomatic masterpiece, given the strained relationship between left-leaning France and Franco’s fascist Spain. Yet the last direct train between the two capitals set off on Saturday, December 14 from Paris Austerlitz at 19:45, rolling into Madrid Chamartin at a little past 9am the following day, without so much as an official announcement. This is how the Talgo ends: not with a proud press release, but with whimpered confirmation three days before its last journey.
      For fans of the units’ en-suite sleeper cabins and nifty gauge-swapping axles, it is a familiar story: the night trains linking Zurich and Milan with Barcelona disappeared earlier this year; now it’s the turn of the trains from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid. SNCF stresses that this is by no means the end of rail services southwards: in fact, as of this weekend, Paris will be little more than six hours away from Barcelona by rail.
      …. There is an inexorable logic to the disappearance of night trains. They are costly to run (instead of 80 seats, a sleeper carriage offers only 30 beds); they are limited to one trip every 24 hours; and numerous staff need to be paid for long, unsocial shifts (the Talgos even had a very talented on-board chef).

      • Jhonny

        Part of the issue is politics.

        Airports in the middle of nowhere are subsidized, long distance trains are not or hardly.

      • Max Wyss

        The reason for discontinuing the Barcelona – Zürich “Pau Casals” Talgo sleeper train was extensive construction work in France, which made it very difficult, if not even impossible, to provide a reasonable schedule. I wonder if now, after that work has been finished, and France eventually getting it with the Rail Reform Package, that train could be revived as an Open Access operation.

        The same would be for the Paris-Madrid Talgo. I think the market would be there, but it is all politics…

        • Jhonny

          Those are usually just the “last straws” – excuses to scrap a train that was on the chopping block for years.

        • Michael James

          discontinuing the Barcelona – Zürich “Pau Casals” Talgo sleeper train

          I know nothing about that train, but naming it after Pablo Casals (I assume) was maybe not such a good idea. In WW2 as he fled Franco’s Spain using the Pyrenées route, he decided to stop and go no further, at the first French town he came to, Prades. He stayed there for the rest of his life. This area was infested with the maquis (mostly run by Spanish Republican exiles) and resistantes, so many were fearful for his safety but when the Germans occupied Prades, the commander asked Casals to put on a concert for him and his Wagner-loving troops. Even the Germans tried to coax him to move to a safer locale under their protection.
          There is today the annual Prades music festival in his honour.

          You can get there (or nearby, Villefrance-de-Confluent) by train but hardly HSR, from Perpignan (or Toulouse) you take a SNCF local train then Le Petit Train Jaune which can take you all the way to the border at Latour de Carol. “(Wiki) … the station at Latour de Carol is the only station in Europe, possibly in the world, to serve three different “normal” railway lines operating with three different gauges*. The metre-gauge Train Jaune, the European standard gauge SNCF line to Toulouse, and the Spanish broad-gauge line to Barcelona.”

          This is on my list of must-do train journeys: SNCF Toulouse to Latour-de-Carol then Train Jaune to Villefrance-de-Conflent, then SNCF to Perpignan. One could even do a (short) stretch of the G10, as well as look into (literally, from the train) or step into, that peculiar bit of stranded Spanish sovereignty of Llivia –with a 2km strip of France separating it from the motherland since the 17th century; this is where the Train Jaune traverses. Like with the maquis-resistantes, this part of the world–the Cerdagne in Pyrenées Orientale–has a certain ambiguity to it, in language (French today but via Languedoc mixed with Catalan), in people (ditto), allegiances, cuisine, rail gauges and even actual sovereignty.

          • Max Wyss

            Agreed about the train journey; one can hope to do it in one day, considering the SNCF’s quality of schedules… OTOH, one should do that trip soon, as the Train Jaune is not doing well, and one fears that the line will get closed.

            As a three-gauge station, I would throw in Jenbach.

    • Alon Levy

      Is security theater getting worse? I don’t think it’s changed much in the last ~10 years on airlines, or since forever on most railroads.

      I haven’t looked at night trains myself, but one of the people I’ve drawn inspiration from has. He contends that night trains on new routes, like California-Oregon, are viable but only if the same route can also support day trains and some regional rail in urban areas. If all you have is a night train, you need to maintain tracks to tolerable standards for 1-3 daily trains in each direction, which isn’t worth it. This is how the US passenger rail network has degraded over time – outside the Northeast, Amtrak is slower today than it was when it was formed in 1971, when long-distance mainlines were still maintained to faster standards.

      • adirondacker12800

        There aren’t enough people out there. Seattle-Sacramento is a similar distance as Chicago-Atlanta. …. to have regional rail in urban areas they need urban areas…

      • Jhonny

        Could high speed freight ever happen?

        E.g. To harvest (sub) tropical fruits when route and deliver them to areas where they don’t grow?

        • adirondacker12800

          No, freight doesn’t get bored, need to be fed, get thirsty etc. on it’s slower trip.

          • Jhonny

            But there is freight that is too cheap for air but too urgent for the ship. At least between China and Europe.

            And e.g. Mangoes are being down from the tropics to the temperate zone today. If a train gets fast enough that they arrive in time, they can undercut the price of air freight

          • Eric

            How much cheaper than air is HSR really? Seems to me there is a very small niche to be filled here.

          • Jhonny

            That depends on a lot of factors.

            Running a train over long distances without stopping is cheap.

            Loading and unloading, shunting and so on are expensive…

        • Michael James

          Adirondacker is correct. And the time difference between regular freight and HSR is not enough to matter, even for those tropical fruit. I don’t know how mangoes grown in far northern Australia get to the cities that are thousands of km away but I doubt it is by regular train because they are so slow in Oz. Probably truck but maybe by air, as they are a high-value item. Also freight handling uses highly developed networks and HSR lines don’t fit into it, and the high cost of building HSR lines … (though the last few miles don’t have to be HSR).

          I remember that La Poste in France uses TGVs to deliver to major provincial centres. I assumed this would be part of a pax train or an extra carriage etc but no, it was entire trains especially constructed for the purpose. Sadly they were discontinued in 2015:

          The trainsets were built by Alstom between 1978–1986. These TGV units are essentially TGV Sud-Est trainsets that are modified for transporting mail. 5 half-trainsets were built, numbered 1-5. A further two, numbered 6 and 7, were converted from former TGV-SE trainset no. 38. Each half-trainset consisted of a power car and four intermediate-trailers.[citation needed]

          In 2009, La Poste reduced services from 8 to 6 daily round trips.[2]

          On 21 March 2012 a demonstration freight train ran to London-St Pancras,[3] but there was no follow-up.

          In mid-2015, La Poste ended TGV postal services, shifting mail services to swap bodies instead as part of a major logistics restructuring and expansion which the trainsets were not capable of handling.[4][1] Additionally, the demand for fast overnight mail services has been decreasing in recent years. The final service was on 27 June 2015 between Cavaillon (Marseilles) and Charolais (Paris).[4] La Poste originally was seeking a buyer for the fleet,[4] however in December 2016 three trainsets were dismantled by SME (Société Métallurgique d’Épernay)[5] leaving only a half spare trainset left.

      • Michael James

        Is security theater getting worse? I don’t think it’s changed much in the last ~10 years on airlines, or since forever on most railroads.

        You are correct but what has changed is travellers tolerance of it, ie. increasing recognition of it as empty theatre and political and institutional posturing. It has taken time but even “national security” geeks and RWNJs have come to realise so much of this stuff is not just irrelevant to real security but quite possibly counter-functional. In the beginning there was a lot of passive “whatever to keep us safe”. A few years ago, they downgraded all sorts of insane regulations brought in after 9/11, which only confirmed to everyone that it was all b.s.
        Like most people I have my own little anecdote. Soon after the new regs were introduced I got stopped and searched for maybe 15 minutes because something had shown up on xray. It turned out to be a tiny nail clipper that had eaten its way thru the bag inner-lining and was hiding inside. (Had to empty the bag and run it thru the xray machine again to find it.) A decade later they rescinded the interdiction on exactly that item!
        Meanwhile it is widely acknowledged and reported (in Oz) that the biggest weakness was and remains, the back-office airport staff who get up to all sorts of nefarious crap with luggage (not withstanding video surveillance), yet they are barely checked on entry or on leaving after work!
        As for night-trains, I can’t see them coming back. First, they would have to use the exact same trains as the day trains (economics wise), which means seating only. Second, “kids these days”. Which is to say everyone; LCC have succeeded in persuading everyone that they must get to their destination a.s.a.p. and of course at lowest possible cost. I see that just this past week RyanAir has been voted ‘worst customer experience’ (for the fifth year in a row?). People also don’t have the patience to stay put for an hour let alone an overnight.

        • Jhonny

          Some of the things that allow Ryanair to be cheap are coming to an end.

          For example they’ve had more strikes the last year than Lufthansa despite their attempts at union busting.

          And the airports in the middle of nowhere they often fly to are having their subsidies checked and rescinded by the EU

        • Michael James

          Speaking of security … well, a feeble segué … but you know since the Dems took control of the House on 3rd January, it also meant that Adam Schiff became Chair of the House Intelligence Committee (taking over from Devin Nunes an outrageous Trump partisan). He seems a quite clever cookie–he gives very competent interviews on security matters (I catch them on PBS-Newshour) and should be a formidable Chair and Trump foe. Anyway, here’s the link (he was in the CA legislature before going federal):

          During his tenure in the state senate, Schiff authored Senate Bill 1847, Chapter 1021. Signed into law in 1998, this created the Pasadena Blue Line Authority, which continued work on the stalled then-Blue Line light rail extension to Pasadena, which would later be named the Gold Line instead.

          A transit geek as the new House Intel chair? Maybe. He’s also a marathoner and has cycled SF to LA in a AIDS fund-raiser.

  10. Pingback: HSR and Air Travel – partners and competitors « City Block
    • Michael James

      jonahbliss, 2019/01/07 – 15:36
      “since a direct Dallas-Houston line is already under construction” – that seems like an awfully generous interpretation of a proposed system that hasn’t even started acquiring land…

      Yes, but this demonstrates the problems of attempting to get a private company (Texas Central Partners) to build the thing. Texas and Texans find themselves in an exquisite quandary in that they laud business and especially big business, yet hate the imposition of forced sale of private land using eminent domain essentially wielded by the private company (and worse: Texas Central is mostly composed of Japanese companies who will supply the HSR technology and trains etc.). It is pretty outrageous that a tiny handful of landowners (of vast properties who will hardly be touched by the elevated line, regardless of their whining) can hold up such a project of state significance: it will link this zone that is destined to have ≈20m people and half of the state’s population, currently with 14m inter-city trips per year. I think it makes it more difficult and morally murky for it to be done by a private company.
      It is being outsourced on the usual false basis of the state budget, despite their biennial transport budget (mostly roads) of $26bn. However it is dubious that a privately financed project can be profitable on the normal commercial terms, so one can expect at some point the state (and feds–they better hope for a Democratic win in 2020! Maybe even a Texan prez! Will this make Texans uncomfortable about accepting federal “welfare”, no of course not) will have to step in and take it over if they really want it completed. Or fudges that amount to the same thing (say the way Eurotunnel was completed during peak Thatcherism).
      Here is the reference to that Trump embrace of HSR (yeah, it lasted all of the time it took him to say it):
      Melanie Zanona, 20 March 2017.
      Texas Central Partners has been making a pitch to the administration about why its effort to bring the first high-speed train to the United States is an ideal candidate for Trump’s promised $1 trillion rebuilding package. Trump has promised to modernize the country’s ailing transportation system with a major injection of cash. He even lamented the lack of high-speed rail service in the U.S. during a meeting with top airline executives at the White House.

      “You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump said. “I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train.”

  11. James Sinclair

    Alon, I have a question about the smaller file.

    “which means that just summing up ridership for all city pairs together yields double the actual traffic.”

    Lets say I am looking at Fresno, CA to Seattle, WA which shows 301 passengers.

    Are you saying this amount is double, or are you saying if I add in Seattle-Fresno I will get double?

    You say the passenger number is per day – many flights are 1x or 3x a week for example. Is this normalized across the quarter?


    • Alon Levy

      Fresno-Seattle shows 301 passengers. But there will also be a Seattle-Fresno line with another 301 passengers. The actual total is 301 in both directions combined, not 301 in each direction.

      And the figures are normalized across the quarter, yes. Older versions had fractional numbers in the passengers column because the numbers were divided by 90, 91, or 92.

      • James Sinclair

        Very interesting stuff, thanks for the resource. Looking again at the Fresno numbers, I assume any city under 10pax per day is excluded. Also, I am sort of skeptical on the accuracy at the lower end. There is no way 10 people per day are traveling to Wichita from Fresno. Maybe there was a farm expo or something that caused an anomaly?

        Do you know if theres a file that includes international destinations?

  12. EJ

    The biggest missed opportunity in California is San Diego-LA. While it carries significantly fewer passengers than the NEC, it’s Amtrak’s third busiest route, and that’s at current speeds that are only competitive with driving because traffic is so bad. It’s not a hugely popular air route because it’s so short and flights are expensive.

    Upgrading the Surf Line to full HSR is probably not very practical, but long sections of it could be upgraded to 110 or 125 mph. Straightening out the Miramar Hill segment should also be a priority, and electrification would be highly desirable.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, exactly.

      (I’m proud of the linked article, if I remember correctly it was the first thing that indicated to me 2 years ago that I really could work full-time as a freelance transit writer.)

      • Michael James

        I hadn’t previously seen your article on LA-SD.
        Does the Anaheim segment include a stop at Disneyland? Although Orange County seems to be one of the most car-dependent parts of CA, Disney is generally supportive of rail connections to its big themeparks. Isn’t Orlando on a perpetual wishlist for HSR?
        A half lifetime ago I was going to a conference at Newport Beach, OC, and unbeknownst to me until I landed (from Europe) I transferred at LAX to a small business jet for John Wayne-OC airport, and of course from there to a limo for the considerable trek to Newport Beach. I remember that at Newport Beach the only way to escape on foot, without a car, was to walk along the road verge (no paths) up to the adjoining Fashion Island mall. For the return journey to LAX I shared a limo with others and it took 4+ hours as it was stop-start traffic the entire way! This confirmed everything negative thought one had about nightmare transport in Southern California.

        BTW, didn’t I read that voters in OC in the recent mid-terms approved a $50bn transport plan that was 99% roads?

        • Alon Levy

          Disneyland isn’t next to the mainline. It’s on a plausible urban rail extension (which would be, like, line 12 regionwide), but nothing that gets it right to the LA-SD line. People would have to transfer to a short shuttle bus.

          In Orlando there’s no mainline to speak of, but the plans for Orlando-Tampa HSR involved a Disney-adjacent stop, yes. But Brightline as I understand it does not, since Disney World is on the way to Tampa rather than to Miami.

          • Jhonny

            Brightline is now virgin trains USA and has announced grandiose expansion plans

      • EJ

        Yeah, I remember that article – it is really good; I’d forgotten that you wrote it. The two main criticisms I had of it was that, like a lot of people who comment on it, you neglect the needs of freight traffic on the line, and you just kind of casually mention extending electrification to SLO, even though that’s twice again the distance between SD and LA.

        You can’t ignore freight traffic on this line – the bit between Redondo Junction and Fullerton is part of the BNSF Southern Transcon, with over 80 freight trains per day. The part between Orange Junction and San Diego only gets 6-10 freight trains per day, but as the only link between the US rail network and several huge military facilities, it’s part of StracNet, so any steeply graded line through Miramar is going to involve at least keeping the existing line active as a bypass for freight trains. There’s actually a half-decent proposal to run the line on the other side of the canyon that would allow 50 mph maximum speeds, twice what’s currently allowed. Not time competitive with I-5 through the hill, but a huge improvement.

        It’s hard for me to really justify electrifying the line north of Chatsworth. North (or really, West) of there you hit a lot of slow track in mountainous areas, with a lot lower population. I mean it’d be one thing if it were Switzerland and everything was electrified a hundred years ago (but SoCal doesn’t have the water for the cheap hydropower that Switzerland does anyway), but there’s really not a lot of bang for the buck there. Even Paul Dyson’t ambitious Electrolink proposal doesn’t really address Ventura county.

  13. kduble

    “…a direct Dallas-Houston line is already under construction….”

    In fact, it’s in the development stage. Construction is still a year or two out.

  14. Pingback: Where do people fly to from Fresno? - Stop and Move
  15. Pingback: Metcalfe’s Law for High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations

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