International Links: a Revision

In 2011, I wrote a post arguing that international links underperform. I gave examples, using many links nearly all of which have rotted in the 8.5 years since, showing that the ridership on various air and rail city pairs was lower if they were in two different countries than if they were in the same country. The most important example is Eurostar, connecting London and Paris. Eurostar has 11 million passengers per year, of which a growing minority go between London and cities other than Paris, like Brussels and Amsterdam. In contrast, the TGVs from Paris to the southeast have 44.4 million annual passengers; the major secondary cities on the line combine to about half of London’s population. The newly-opened LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique has 6 million annual passengers on the Paris-Bordeaux city pair alone – and Bordeaux has an order of magnitude fewer inhabitants than London.

My assumption was always that Eurostar’s problem is that it connects two distinct countries, speaking two different languages. Thus, similar international connections, like oft-mooted proposals for high-speed rail between New York or Boston and Montreal or even between New York and Toronto, are likely to severely underperform domestic ones. This is not too relevant to the United States, which is not building high-speed rail of any kind, but is increasingly relevant to Europe, which is slowly building international links. But what if the assumption that the important aspect is the national or linguistic border is incorrect? What if there are other issues on Eurostar and various international air links, which national railroads can choose to solve if they care?

The issue of fares

I fired up Eurostar and SNCF’s sites and looked for tickets departing Tuesday in 13 days. I got 14 trains from London to Paris, charging fares ranging from 52.50 to 144.50. The average is 91.46, and the median is 98.50. From Paris to Lyon, I got 22 regular TGVs (“InOui”), charging 45-97, with an average of 84.63 and a median of 97 – but I also got 5 OuiGo trains, charging 10-25, all but one leaving from Gare de Lyon rather than Marne-la-Vallée with its difficult RER transfer.

On city pairs where SNCF expects more competition than Paris-Lyon, fares are lower, even when trips are longer. Paris-Marseille has 15 regular InOui departures and 8 OuiGos; the InOuis charge €49-79 with an average of €57.33, and the OuiGos charge €10-28, half serving Paris proper and half leaving from Marne-la-Vallée. The OuiGo services overall are unprofitable, but the InOuis aren’t – the Spinetta Report claims the fully-laden cost of TGV service is €0.07/seat-km, and seat utilization is very high (too high, in fact – it’s at the expense of off-peak frequency).

The other international service using the LGV Nord, Thalys, charges high fares as well, if less high than Eurostar. The site shows me 18 departures from Paris to Brussels on the 4th of February; one has a 29 ticket, but the others state that cheap ticket is sold out and offer me 66-99 tickets and one is entirely sold out. Going to Amsterdam, there are 10 departures, charging 98-135. To Cologne, the final of the major cities served by Thalys, there are 5 departures, one with a cheap 35 ticket and the rest charging 76-122. Thalys has 7.5 million annual riders, roughly within the same range relative to metro area population one would expect from Eurostar, depending on what one counts as the metro areas of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Cologne.

I compare Eurostar and Thalys with domestic TGVs not just out of convenience. SNCF owns a majority stake in Eurostar and Thalys. The yield management systems are likely similar, making a comparison of trips on the same day reasonable. In contrast, I would not want to do such a comparison with, say, the Shinkansen, which has no yield management at all and charges the same fare for the same class of seat and train speed.

The consequence of high fares

It’s quite likely, then, that the low ridership on Eurostar is connected with its high fares. Once tickets are expensive enough to discourage price-conscious customers, the ridership profile consists of price-insensitive travelers, making it possible to keep escalating fares.

A 2009 study by Christiaan Behrens and Eric Pels on air-rail competition in the London-Paris market finds that in a nested logit model, Eurostar travelers have a price elasticity of -0.14 to -0.15, compared with about -0.43 out of Heathrow on BA for businesses travelers and -0.77 for leisure travelers. The study compares different airlines and airport choices, with most of the market in the 2000s using Heathrow and either BA or Air France, with Air France having higher elasticity. In a mixed logit model, fare elasticities are all much higher, but Eurostar is still much more inelastic than flying, around -0.50 vs. -1 for business flyers and -2.5 for leisure flyers.

The second link in this post mentions growth in American tourist travel as a reason for Eurostar’s recent growth in ridership. It is not surprising that foreign tourists who paid high fares to travel to Europe and are staying in expensive hotels are a significant source of revenue to Eurostar. Presumably American tourist travel on domestic TGVs is up too, but it is far less significant, first because no secondary French city has the tourism of Paris and London except for Nice, 5.5 hours from Paris by train, and second because the domestic market is strong enough that American tourists are barely a blip on the radar.

Regardless, the elevated American tourist numbers present a peril to the state of the American discourse on the subject, even if they generate much-needed revenue for SNCF. Those tourists then come back to the US talking up the convenience of high-speed rail, or at least the version of it with security theater and passport checks, but bemoan the high ticket prices.

We already see what happens when train trips are priced for the top of the market in the United States. Fares per the 2016 annual report, the most recent one to include this data (on PDF-p. 41), average $0.58/p-km on the Acela and $0.30/p-km on the Regional; per an ARAFER report using 2016 data, the corresponding number for domestic TGVs is 0.10/p-km (PDF-pp. 15, 26). With Amtrak’s cheaper trains charging 2.5 times as much as the TGVs, price-conscious travelers decamp for intercity buses – just as price-conscious Europeans ride FlixBus where train travel options are too slow or too expensive. By now, a decade after Megabus and Bolt entered the market, Amtrak is largely only used by people who are price-insensitive or who get motion-sick on buses.

Why are they like this?

If the problem is that international links underperform because they are expensive, then it raises the question, why are fares high to begin with? SNCF charges high fares on Thalys and Eurostar, but not on its domestic trains. This isn’t just about American tourists – I heard too few American accents when I took Eurostar for Americans to be a big enough proportion of revenue. Nor is this about business travelers, because there are many of these traveling between Paris and other French cities.

Rather, my suspicion is that the difference is political. National railroads offering domestic train service face demands from various interests in different directions: the executives themselves as well as the treasury want to maximize revenue, the government writ large wants to give the appearance of successful service, the public wants cheap travel. The major European national railroads seem to have converged on the same solution: intercity trains are not to receive public subsidy for operations or depreciation, but subject to that constraint they should set fares to maximize ridership rather than revenue. The EU even promotes this policy – its directives on passenger rail competition do not allow state subsidies on routes with competition, but do not mandate revenue-maximizing fares.

The political pressure on international rail services is different. The riders are usually foreigners. There is no populist pressure to keep fares low, even on the many French citizens who ride trains to London and Brussels – on the contrary, any inkling of the state not extracting maximum revenue from foreigners may lead to populist pressure to increase fares.

It is possible that more competition will lower fares. This happened in the domestic Italian market, where the entrance of NTV’s Italo service reduced fares on the thicker markets. There is some competition between Paris and points east, such as Frankfurt, where SNCF runs a daily TGV, charging 45 on the 4th of February and DB runs 4 daily ICEs, charging 70-90. Averaged out, it is barely higher than the domestic TGV fare per kilometer.

Which international connections become viable?

European high-speed rail networks are largely domestic. Eurostar stands as the one major exception. What’s more, France, Italy, and Spain have already built the strongest domestic corridors; the only low-hanging domestic fruit are in Germany, where high-speed construction is desirable but is beset by economic austerity, and Britain, where it is beset by very high construction costs. The future of European rail investment is therefore international.

I do not want to claim that charging domestic TGV or ICE fares will automatically lead to ridership density comparable to that of domestic TGVs and ICEs. The language difference probably still matters, just not to the point that Eurostar’s ridership is one quarter that of the LGV Sud-Est.

Moreover, some international routes are clearly a low political priority, so the infrastructure is not optimized for them, leading to low speeds. Trains leaving Brussels going north and east run on a mixture of fast and slow lines, and overall average speeds from Brussels to both Cologne and Amsterdam are within the range for all-legacy upgraded lines. French rail planners, infused by ideas of airline executives who think trains aren’t competitive past three hours, are not trying to optimize the under-construction Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel for intercity passenger traffic, on the theory that Paris-Turin and Paris-Milan trains would not be competitive either way.

So it’s important to get everything on an international connection right: breakeven rather than revenue-maximizing fares, infrastructure optimized for speed between different cities, sufficient frequency relative to travel time. If these are done right, then city pairs that may look weak may become attractive high-speed rail corridors: Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Madrid via Bordeaux and Basque Country, Munich-Milan via Innsbruck and the Brenner Base Tunnel, Madrid-Lisbon, Hamburg-Copenhagen, Cologne-Amsterdam.

This is applicable in North America as well, except that there, an additional complication is border controls; the hassle must be reduced to preclearance with short lines (maximum 10-15 minutes), or ideally eliminated with a Schengen-style agreement. This affects Vancouver-Seattle and Toronto-New York, both of which look marginal if we assume international links always underperform. If we accept that New York and Toronto share a language and many cultural features and the weak air travel market is an artifact of high fares, then cross-border trains become an attractive target for investment. In that scenario, New York-Toronto is the strongest North American high-speed rail corridor not touching the Northeast Corridor – it’s like Los Angeles-San Francisco but with stronger connecting public transportation and no mountains to tunnel under.

The upshot is that, given good management, there remains a future for high-speed rail investment, with a plethora of strong lines. The EU can and should take an active role in promoting Union-wide links, ensuring that fares are within the reach of the broad public and that connections between any pair of European cities are reasonable. In North America, two specific links are strong – New York-Toronto and Seattle-Vancouver – and so the federal governments as well as the states and provinces should make sure to invest in them and to charge affordable fares with minimally intrusive border control.

62 comments

  1. Martin

    It is notable that the Baltic countries have been dragging their feet for over a decade on building high-speed tracks connecting their capitals (the distances are very appropriate), even though it basically free for the Baltic countries (the EU picks up 90+% of the cost).

    • Eric

      The EU pays 90%, really?

      Ridership would be low though. The three Baltic capitals have a total population around 1.5 million, and all speak different languages.

  2. Lukas

    I’m interested in your opinion on holiday rail travel. Today, most international travel for holiday purposes and is not done by rail. Germany’s Autobahns are always full during winter and summer holidays. Ski tourism has some understandable opposition to rail travel because a lot of Ski resorts are hard to get to with rail alone + people tend to have lots of unconventionally sized baggage. Summer holidays are a bit different though. Surely it can’t be too hard to buy rolling stock that runs some trains to the Mediterranean, the Adreatic, etc?
    Most holiday travellers aren’t extremely time-cautios (they are prepared to spend epic amounts of time in cars to get to the beach), so even loco-hauled rail like German IC could do it between lots of destinations, eliminating the electrification problems. But I guess DB has no interest in running such a peak service…

    • Paul

      Many Swiss ski resorts are easily accessible by train. SBB even has train + lift ticket combos which are great if you live in Switzerland. Might not be as easy from outside the country, but there are plenty of British tourists who fly into Geneva and take the train to Verbier, for example.

    • Alon Levy

      Holiday travel mostly co-evolves with the mode of transportation. Back when trains were the only way to travel between cities, resorts were placed near railroad mainlines and vice versa, e.g. Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper in Alberta. The Niagara Falls are objectively very pretty, but the New York Central still marketed them, since they were on a branch off its mainline to Chicago. Then came cars and planes and popular vacation spots changed based on the new modes of travel.

      Leisure travel by train is 100% possible, but probably not from Northern Europe to Alicante, Dubrovnik, etc. Instead, it probably involves getting to places that can be served by trains for more than just two months’ worth of holiday peak travel. Things like big-city tourism (London, Paris, Barcelona, etc.), on-the-way places like the Rhine, ski resorts with good rail connections, cities that have just enough population + tourism to justify a line (Nice, Edinburgh)…

      • Herbert

        Night trains are perfect for tourists, particularly families… If only they’re cheaper than air travel…

    • Herbert

      The East Frisian Islands are largely car free, but apart from Emden and Norddeich getting to the port where the boat departs requires a bus ride as the erstwhile rail line has been shut down…

  3. seb

    Two additions to your post:
    1) There is Eurostar Snap for price sensitive, but time flexible riders.
    2) DB and SNCF are not in competition between France and Germany, but rather run trains jointly through Alleo.

    I think another thing that slightly depresses ridership is the not acceptance of reduction or subscription cards on cross-border train, like BahnCard or TGVMax. So it’s comparatively more costly for the riders who ride the most.

    • Herbert

      There are some offers for people who ride the same corridor frequently. Like Prague-Berlin, ten rides 200€ or similar…

  4. df1982

    The border controls and security theatre for the UK also add at least a half-hour to the real travel times (more for cautious travellers worried about missing their trains), whereas Paris-Lyon travellers can hop on two minutes before their train departs. This must be a factor.

    Intra-Schengen I don’t think the “international” effect is as high. Maybe it would be worth comparing something like Cologne-Brussels or Geneva-Paris with comparable intra-national services.

    But then the other factor is the boutique train operators (Thalys, Eurostar) and their lack of any fare integration, which means that trips involving transferring to national carriers become even more expensive. Doing Frankfurt-London or Manchester-Paris on a Friday afternoon, for instance, can be extortionate.

    Interestingly Eurostar and Thalys at least look set to merge with each other, which makes a hell of a lot of sense (and it’s kind of amazing it’s taken 20+ years to do so).

    • Alon Levy

      I think Thalys underperforms too? It’s hard to tell by how much exactly, because the average speed from Brussels to Amsterdam or Cologne doesn’t really qualify as HSR (it’s slower than London-Manchester or Stockholm-Gothenburg), and also because the definition of “metro area” in the Rhineland and the Netherlands is weird. It’s definitely doing better than Eurostar taking into account that HSL 2-4 is a crawl.

  5. wiesmann

    What about the Lyria lines, i.e. between France and Switzerland?
    Train fares between Zürich and Paris superficially seem similar to airlines fares.

  6. Bgriff

    Do Eurostar fares include a surcharge for the passport control processing? International airfares often have such surcharges (which are clearly broken out on sites like ITA Matrix). Such a surcharge shouldn’t in theory apply for Thalys, but there might still be something — whether it is reasonable or not to be there is up for some debate, and if it does exist arguably it to some extent is just a manifestation of the political pricing pressures you mention above, but it’s a distinction anyway.

    But I actually think you may be underplaying the effect of national borders. Totally anecdotal but as a businessperson who lives in NYC, I have conference calls with and business trips to places like Boston, DC, SF, LA, and Chicago vastly more often than Toronto, by a factor of easily 10x or more. Even much smaller US cities like Denver or Atlanta arise more often. And the same dynamics hold in things like personal connections and where I’ve seen friends and colleagues leave NYC for. (Indeed all of those things probably reinforce one another.) And to the extent I have worked with people in Toronto, I get the sense they spend a lot more time with people in Montreal — despite the language difference — and Vancouver and Calgary than with those in NYC and elsewhere south of the border.

    • fjod

      Neither Eurostar nor Thalys fares have passport surcharges; Thalys has no security checks either. Passport surcharges are also unheard of on flights in Europe, where international flying is the norm rather than the exception.

    • Luke

      Certainly does underscore the role of international economic integration in transportation. As a counterfactual, state borders in the U.S. are virtually meaningless to U.S. businesses, especially in smaller northeastern states. Opening branches across states and commuting accordingly, or job shopping from the Merrimack River Valley or Providence into Boston is extremely common, to the point of notable non-car mode share…obviously to say nothing of Newark and Stamford to New York or Alexandria and Bethesda to D.C.

  7. Yom Sen

    This “international premium” exists in other sectors like telephony or bank transfers, probably also for psychological reasons. In both sectors, the EU have been quite active to reduce this premium, so yes it could be more active for railways as well.

    How much does Eurostar needs to pay to Eurotunnel per passenger (or per seat?)? I remember quite a high number, can it be part of the reason for such high prices?

    My impression is that Lyria prices (between Paris and Switzerland) are a bit higher than for domestic french trains but not excessive as Thalys and Eurostar. Probably the reason is the trains have several stops in France, including some (Mulhouse, Bellegarde) quite close to swiss largest cities so Lyria can’t be too far from domestic fares.

    • Herbert

      I have also heard that Eurotunnel imposes some quite unreasonable demands. Among them high track access charges and demands on trains which apparently are asking the reasons why London-Frankfurt service while first announced ahead of the London Olympics is not happening any time soon

      • po8crg

        Eurotunnel (the commercial operator of the tunnel) is responsible for the track access charges, but the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission (the regulator) that imposes a bunch of other things that restrict the use of the tunnel.

        For instance, any train leaving any station for the tunnel has to leave from a secured platform, and everyone has to go through security theatre before reaching the platform. The physical changes required to the station mean that only relatively frequent services (like the new 5 times a day service from Amsterdam) are economic. They also mean that the trains are very limited in terms of passengers who are not going through the tunnel – they still have to go through the full security theatre, which means that using Eurostar for a short journey like Brussels-Lille is a very poor alternative to Thalys or TGV.

        This combination completely killed off the prospects for sleeper services through the tunnel. There were two attempts, first the BR-run Nightstar which was intended to run from various UK cities to Paris and Brussels, but foundered on being badly outcompeted by the then-new low-cost airlines, and then the later private London Direct Sleepers Group, intending to run from London to eight destinations (each departure would be four trains that would separate at Lille after going through the tunnel, so only paying one tunnel access fee per four destinations). This foundered, ultimately, on the (understandable) refusal of stations to reserve a secure platform for a single departure per day, and the refusal of the CTIGC to accept any other form of security check. LDSG had investors arranged provided they could resolve the security issue, and they couldn’t. UK borders were, at the time, prepared to do passport checks on-board the train, provided there would be an optional stop at Calais to disembark any passenger refused UK entry and provided the train operator paid for the cost of border agents riding trains all over Europe.

        Daytime Eurostar services do run from stations without secure platforms (e.g. Marseilles), but they do so by stopping at Lille, disembarking everyone, checking them, and then reembarking them all – an annoyance on a daytime service, but a disaster on a night train where passengers would be awakened at 5am or so.

        Another issue is that the CTIGC had (may still have – they were talking about changing this a few years ago and I lost track) a minimum length of 380m for any train in the tunnel (to ensure that some part of the train is alongside an evacuation door at all times), which results in very long infrequent trains rather than shorter more frequent ones. The multi-section splitting trains proposed by LDSG were a clever solution to this, which DB adopted for their later Frankfurt-London proposal, though that is still in abeyance (partly, AIUI, due to regulatory issues with ICE in Belgium).

        • po8crg

          Another service that has never been able to get off the ground because of the CTIGC and the excess track access charges from Eurotunnel is the Transmanche metro, which is intended to be a relatively frequent service running Ebbsfleet-Ashford-Calais-Lille and selling normal turn-up-and-go tickets rather than everything booked in advance like the Eurostar.

          UK Borders was also a problem with this, though that appeared to be more solveable.

        • Nathanael

          Wow, that’s security theater hell, isn’t it? There’s no reason not to accept passport checks on the train before entering the tunnel from the Continent, unless you’re just a jerk bureaucrat trying to obstruct train service.

  8. Herbert

    For several European countries HSR only really makes sense for international routes. For example the Czech Republic with routes from Prague to Vienna/Bratislava to Dresden and Berlin, to Nuremberg and Frankfurt, to Munich and to Warsaw…

    • Alon Levy

      There’s a pretty decent potential network of domestic HSR in Czechia, connecting Prague, Brno, Olomouc, and Ostrava, but the natural end of that line is not Ostrava but Katowice, connecting onward to Łódź and Warsaw. Unfortunately, the best place for a branch down from this line to Vienna and Bratislava has to leave the mainline just west of Brno rather than just east, which makes it hard to run frequent service from Brno and points east to Vienna and Bratislava; leaving the mainline east of Brno is possible but slower.

      If we believe that language similarity makes Prague-Katowice not have any ridership malus as an international route, then that by itself is fairly strong. Prague-Bratislava should have little to no malus as well for historical reasons, but Bratislava is a small city.

      • Herbert

        If the 60 km link between Vienna and Bratislava is made faster than one hour, the two cities count basically as one for many purposes…

        And as for domestic travel by high speed train in the Czech Republic, I don’t say it wouldn’t exist, but it wouldn’t move people from aviation and bus/car pax have been a bit more reluctant to change to a new hsr service if speed is the only enticement…

        • Alon Levy

          Wait, why are drivers reluctant to switch to trains? Especially in a country like Czechia, where drivers tend to be higher-income because poorer people can’t really afford a car…

          • Herbert

            If speed is the only incentive. If it’s also cheaper, they’re more likely to switch. Similarly if the new service is more frequent or if driving is made less attractive.

            Airline passengers are the most time sensitive and the least cost sensitive on hsr relevant corridors. Bus passengers are the exact opposite

        • Eric

          HSR won’t shift domestic Czech passengers from aviation, because there seems to be no domestic aviation… (the country is too small for the market to exist)

  9. mrpresident1776

    I always thought Eurostar ticket prices were high because of the Eurotunnel charging $21-25 per person to use it as well as whatever HS1 charges. Not sure how that compares to what other international HSR line operators charge compared to domestic track charges.

    • michaelrjames

      Here is something relevant from a different comment on PO:

      https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/06/13/trip-chaining-redux/#comment-61086
      michaelrjames 2019/06/16 – 08:33
      HS1 was supposed to be built via PFI (private finance initiative =PPP) but it was a total disaster and had to be completely bailed out by the state. It cost £5.8bn when it opened in 2007 (12 years after Eurostar began operation–at lower speeds on the British side). Then the state sold a 30 year lease on it in 2010 for £2.1bn to an entity called HS1 Ltd (mostly Canadian Pension Funds) who charged the various users (mostly Eurostar and some local trains) fees to use the line. Then in 2017 HS1 Ltd sold it to another consortium for £3.6bn. Last week this new owner announced massive increases in their charges:
      “Eurostar claims that on a per km basis, access to HS1 is four times more costly than the Lille – Brussels high-speed line and 55% more expensive than using the Paris – Lille high-speed line.”
      So there is going to be a fight about it but in the UK there will be no intervention in the “free market” (even if this infrastructure was built by public funds, “privatised” for 36% of construction cost, and it’s a monopoly) so it will be Eurostar travellers who will pay. And likely British business and tourism.

      That nifty move netted a 71% capital gain for their ≈7 years of the agreement. One could say that they deserve that profit because they took the commercial risk, but did they? When they only paid ≈36% of the cost of building the thing. It also suggests that the government seriously undervalued the concession. Note, these concessionaires don’t own any of the infrastructure but simply buy the right to use it (or the right to charge someone else to use it.) Terms of the concession should not allow such profiteering, especially when that fat profit has to come directly at the cost of tax-payers and then users of publicly-funded infrastructure which is also a monopoly. At the very least the price increases (which are 43% for pax and 78% for freight) should be regulated. The fact that they are not apparently subject to limits by any regulator obviously fed the increased bidding in the resale.

      Having said that, it’s not exactly fair to compare HS1, with its 25km of tunnel, to the Paris-Lille or Lille-Brussels lines.

  10. michaelrjames

    It’s quite likely, then, that the low ridership on Eurostar is connected with its high fares. Once tickets are expensive enough to discourage price-conscious customers, the ridership profile consists of price-insensitive travelers, making it possible to keep escalating fares.

    Yes, but also the fact that you can only get reasonable fares by booking far ahead. At least last time I tried. And reallocation fees that are the equivalent cost of a seat. Also, as others have pointed out, the various rail passes are not accepted by Eurostar (incidentally, not by Ouigo either–which is probably fair enough). It may be majority-owned by SNCF but the mentality dates from its early days and that was all pure British nitpicking on fares; in fact its first incarnation had only very high fares and failed (it was going to fail financially no matter what but this didn’t help). In its second incarnation it had a range of more reasonable fares. The original collapse of the tunnel and the debt it left behind is part of the continuing legacy and part of why Eurotunnel has to charge high access charges as it’s a private company–and presumably from mutual distrust, all of its physical assets (tunnels, rail-lines, switching, and power supply) are entirely separate and independent of SNCF or UK rail companies (so it can’t be held hostage). It is jointly listed on Paris and London stock exchanges–which presumably applies another level of “market discipline”. Eurotunnel (now called GetLink) made its first tiny profit in 2007/8.

    Incidentally Eurostar has only recently been released from British part-ownership. The UK government sold its 40% share in 2015, to a consortium (Patina Rail) of two investors, one Canadian & one French (private, nothing to do with SNCF, or SNCB) so, finally freed of British deadwood, and with just three owners (SNCF, SNCB and Patina) of all the assets, this rationalisation of Eurotunnel, Eurostar and Thalys will probably finally happen. Interestingly this is doing what Euro-directive open-access warned against: transnational monopoly replacing national monopolies, and by the biggest players, in this case SNCF. Personally I think that is a good thing but we’ll have to see if it results in more genuinely flexible tickets and fares (and maybe my long grievance, late-night trains, ideally at heavy discount:-). Whatever happened to the 2018 attempt to introduce a Ouigo type service? Speaking of, it is interesting that the report on Ouigo largely removed SNCF’s fear that Ouigo would simply parasitise pax from regular TGV; the prediction was 70% but in reality it was only 50%, so that is probably another factor in why they converted some TGVs out of Gare de Lyon to Ouigo. And I hope, create true discounted fares on Eurostar (not ones with typically prohibitive British conditionality that renders them useless to most people).

    They have got to do something to meet their goal of 30m pax pa by 2030. Though I believe the growing disenchantment with LCCs along with flyksham, the German repudiation of its destructive neoliberalism w.r.t. rail, are going to regenerate a new golden age of European rail.

  11. Herbert

    Do you have any comment on the Moroccan hsr project? Apparently their ridership is already at roughly 9000 per day despite not overwhelming frequency, but they claim they have to hit six million per year to “pay back the credits”. Of course there was a lot of criticism of the project arguing such a “poor country” should rather spend the money on other stuff… But you’ll never hear that criticism when it comes to highway spending…

  12. Henry Miller

    I suspect a Minneapolis to Winnipeg link could work if construction costs can be controlled. Preferably with service continuing on to Chicago. Few people would continue on for the full trip (flying has a significant advantage at that distance), but the psychological idea that you could ride it is worth something.

    Having lived in Minneapolis for a while I know that the big retail destinations bring in extra staff for Canadian thanksgiving indicating a fair amount of demand. Of course this means Minneapolis needs to change their transit system from focused on downtown rush hour to getting around. The outlet malls too far out to get any transit are important destinations for travelers coming to Minneapolis.

    Cost control is critical for this project. The populations involved are not large enough unless this can be done for record low costs. I don’t think the required cost savings are technically unreasonable, but they might be politically impossible.

  13. adirondacker12800

    New York-Toronto is the strongest North American high-speed rail corridor not touching the Northeast Corridor – it’s like Los Angeles-San Francisco but with stronger connecting public transportation and no mountains to tunnel under.

    There are the hilly parts between Utica and Springfield. Or Saratoga Springs and Plattsburgh.
    New York is not on the NEC? Greater greater Toronto, Niagara Falls around the lake to the eastern suburbs is very roughly the same amount of people as greater London or Paris. With 35, 40 million people in HSR range in New England, metro New York and metro Philadelphia. It’s real hilly between Utica and Springfield but the tunnels and viaducts would be built for other trains so Toronto is “free” assuming the Canadians build something on their side. There is some really really straight stuff between Niagara Falls and Toronto.

    Three hours for New York to Montreal easily brings in Philadelphia. Assuming customs and immigration is done, while in motion, between Saratoga Springs and Montreal it makes Washington D.C. to Montreal look good for some people. There’s most of New England that could piggyback on the tunnels and viaducts. Albany is a very busy place if you make it fast enough. Busier than Bakersfield will be because there are a lot more people. 10 million in the Buffalo-Toronto agglomeration, ten million in southern New England and 20 million in metro New York, that’s more people than in all of California. East of Las Vegas or Phoenix there is a whole lot of nothing. West of Pittsburgh or Buffalo there’s Ohio and Detroit. And it’s all going to be nominally 48 inch high platforms that accommodate 10’6″ wide trains. If you want to stop the Kodama in Princeton Junction and Poughkeepsie you can.
    Or one from Detroit to Boston via Pittsburgh. Or Buffalo.

    • Alon Levy

      New York is on the NEC, but New York-Albany-Buffalo-Toronto doesn’t touch the NEC. In contrast, New York-Washington-Richmond-Charlotte-wherever touches the NEC because the northern segment of it is literally half the NEC, and likewise New York-Philly-Harrisburg touches the NEC.

      • adirondacker12800

        Are the trains going to use Grand Central? If the train to Montreal is on track six in Penn Station the train to Cleveland can’t be on it. And it started out in Washington D.C. not using the NEC would be difficult. South of Philadelphia anyway. Half hourish between Philadelphia and New York there is going to be a lot of demand from Philadelphia.

  14. James S

    I was very surprised when I took the Eurostar from Brussels to London and flights were cheaper. I took the plane because here I am on this blog, but the flights were attractive. I bought my tickets well in advance.

    • michaelrjames

      I took the plane because here I am on this blog

      Did you mean to say train?
      Otherwise I find your comment confusing. Anyone having used Eurostar is unlikely to want to take those cheap flights (which with connections and luggage surcharges etc, not to mention your time, are probably not much cheaper at all). And especially if you booked well ahead.

        • michaelrjames

          Right.
          But I remain sceptical that the plane would have been (much) cheaper. Sure the plane ticket may have been but flying always involves quite a few other expenses, and of course massive time-wasters.

  15. michaelrjames

    I suppose there must be logical commercial and operational reasons, but I wonder why, instead of independent Ouigo trains, they don’t just have one or two carriages on regular TGVs for discount seats. These carriages would be segregated (locked doors) from the rest of the train so the cheap seats cannot access the restaurant car, and of course have those cheap and nasty seats (thinner and non-reclining; must be awful Paris to Marseilles etc?). And so the rest of us are not pressing up against the chavs and bogans who like to travel LCC etc.

    Of course this wouldn’t satisfy the EU Directive on competition … though I suppose SNCF would have these carriages entirely filled and run by its independent Ouigo division, so maybe ….
    Note that the removal of the restaurant on Ouigo trains, and of being single-class, ‘freed’ up 20% of capacity. From that p.o.v. it was useless because I don’t think Ouigo have ever approached 80% capacity (they’d be making a profit if they had), however it did reduce costs and the excuse to install awful cheapo seating (some of which is 3-abreast where it replaced former business class, apparently due to a trough in original format). Would this cause more serious parasitism of regular seats? Dunno. I myself may be willing to be in close proximity to a braindead Brexiteer chav if I could buy a last-minute ticket at discount, and when it was only a 2 hour run between London-Paris, but not for anything much longer.

  16. Onux

    What about Chicago-Toronto? Distance is comparable (~825km vs ~850km for NY-Tor), Chicago-Detroit is a valid HSR corridor in itself (the strongest in the Midwest according to the America2050 plan) and the ViaRail Corridor is also a natural HSR route.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, that too. Even flatter than New York-Toronto, which can be done without tunnels north of the Hudson Highlands but does require some grading through hills between Albany and Utica.

    • F-Line to Dudley

      CHI-TOR was served by Amtrak’s International and International Limited via the Port Huron, MI–Sarnia, ONT border crossing until 2004. Which had the distinction of being run-thru with an eclectic either/or mix of Amtrak and VIA Rail equipment as it acted as a load-bearing Corridor slot inside Ontrario. In its heyday it was a well-patronized train. Crippling post-9/11 Customs delays, early-00’s funding cuts to AMTK Michigan Services, punitive Paul Martin Admin. cuts to VIA, and a one-time ridership collapse due to the ’03 SARS epidemic outbreak in Canada combined to kill it with a 30% ridership crash over its last 5 years of operation. U.S. portion is now the AMTK Blue Water, Canadian portion is VIA Corridor Toronto-Sarnia train following the north-fork Toronto-London routing that hits Kitchener (though pre-1990 the International followed the slightly faster south-fork Corridor through Brantford).

      It’s been a hot restoration topic ever since now that the Blue Water and Wolverine to Detroit have been upgraded to near-contiguous 110 MPH operation, all the proposals are floating around in Canada for Corridor 110 MPH upgrades, the new Customs treaty that will significantly streamline the border layover at other crossings like Niagra Falls has been ratified, and some grudging degree of truce has been forged between VIA and CN on their longstanding cold war over CN freight interference on the Corridor. The Blue Water has grown its annual ridership 224% in the 16 fiscal years since it replaced the International, thanks to the leaps-and-bounds schedule improvements. In its best-ever performing fiscal year of 2018 it did–solely on the U.S. side–148% of the ridership of the International’s best-ever fiscal year in 1997. Also helps now that VIA and AMTK Chicago hub have ordered identical Siemens Charger diesel locos and very nearly identical Siemens Viaggio Comfort-derived coaches for their new replacement fleets, making run-thru service with mixed AMTK/VIA livery a much more consistent customer experience than before (VIA’s incumbent coach fleet fares much more poorly than AMTK’s on accessibility, which was a problem for the International’s U.S. ADA compliance back in the day). Though, caveat: Canada’s willingness to actually fund all its much-hyped paper proposals needs to be taken with massive grain of salt until proven otherwise; Junior Trudeau’s mouth has run far ahead of his Admin.’s wallet to-date when it comes to pax rail investment, just like every PM dating back to Daddy Trudeau. There’s willingness on both sides of the border to explore thru routes on the Port Huron-Sarnia crossing and the longer-disused Detroit-Windsor crossing, which with the speed increases enacted CHI-Port Huron/CHI-Detroit and proposed in Canada would make an International/Int’l Ltd. revival and other such services eminently more usable and higher-demand than they were 16 years ago.

      There’d also, if Canada follows through on Corridor upgrades, be a realistic shot at reviving the NYC-Detroit Niagara Rainbow, which was the pre-1979 extension of today’s Maple Leaf westward as a VIA Corridor Toronto-Windsor slot. A train that was last considered in the mid-80’s as a cross-border NYC-CHI reroute of the Lake Shore Limited, bypassing what was then unacceptable amounts of Conrail freight congestion gumming up the Buffalo-Chicago running miles. That re-route narrowly failed Congressional approval when the Ohio-Indiiana delegations blocked it in the Senate. As with the International, both sides of the border on the Niagara Rainbow/”Lake Shore North” would be subject to near-contiguous 110 MPH upgrade plans making the service a lot more out-of-box usable than anything prior. Plus a healthy amount of off-Corridor GO Transit funded track improvements from Niagara Falls crossing to Aldershot for the expansion of GO commuter rail frequencies to Niagara Falls, ONT from seasonal to daily.

      While none of these services would be considered “high-speed” aggressively pursued, the Michigan border-crossers are at least viable low-hanging fruit now that Michigan speeds are way up and the new Customs treaty slashes a lot of schedule overhead at the border. It’s now mainly up to Canada to follow through with a funding commitment for once in its life on badly-needed Corridor expansion, but if they–even haltingly–start that process on the ground these route combos are plug-and-play and of inherently high-enough demand to enact quickly, make their margins out-of-box, and stake out quite bullish long-term growth prospects with more follow-through on the upgrades.

      • Alon Levy

        The one thing I’d like to warn about is, Chicago-Toronto and NY-Toronto really suck for normal-speed rail. At an average speed of 130 km/h, they’re 6:20-6:30, which is too slow for trains to be competitive. You need to get this down to around 5 hours, maybe possibly 5:30, but that is only possible on a line with substantial 250-300 km/h segments, or on a line that’s 200 km/h with just about no curve whatsoever like London-York (and no, the Midwestern lines don’t qualify, they have short, sharp curves between long tangents).

        What is true is that non-terrible border crossings make Detroit-Toronto more reasonable even at medium speed – Toronto-Windsor is 359 km, so Toronto-Detroit is doable in just under 3 hours. But that requires using the tunnels to Detroit, not the one to Port Huron, which means restoring the Detroit train station rather than stopping at Woodward.

        • adirondacker12800

          Anything over 200 needs full grade separation. West of Utica and east of the Rockies there’s lots of straight flat railroad ROW. The Midwest advocates are proposing bypassing the squiggly bits that go through downtown Smalltown. It entices all the stakeholders. Smalltown gets rid of the freights coming through and the freight railroad gets grade separation that allows them to run faster freight. If you are going to spend money grade separating go for 350kph geometry.
          Average speed of 250 between NY and Montreal it’s 2.5 hours. Less than 3 to Boston via Springfield too. 3.5 NY-Toronto. Assuming they don’t loiter for an hour at the border. And assuming NIMBYs and BANANAs don’t quash the idea.

          • Alon Levy

            Technically, anything over 110 mph requires grade separation – the FRA regime for 110-125 is “impenetrable barrier,” which is currently vaporware. This is fine.

            The regime you’re proposing for mixed passenger and freight rail is how Germany has built a bunch of HSR. It’s not great. First, the curve radii have to be bigger because freight wants low superelevation, so more tunneling is needed; the Hanover-Würzburg line has 120 km of tunnel, whereas France has something like 15-20 km of HSR tunnel nationwide. And second, running passenger trains in the day and freight trains in the night means no nighttime maintenance windows, which raises maintenance costs.

            I can see the first reason not really apply to the Midwest because what hills, but the second one is pretty serious, especially with US-weight freight trains.

          • adirondacker12800

            The Midwesterners are proposing two passenger only and one two or three freight tracks. Train hurtling along at 300 kph catches up the one toddling along at 100 and very quickly the sidings all link together into one separate track. If they don’t, you don’t have enough passenger traffic for the 300 kph trains.

          • Alon Levy

            The mixed lines here have two tracks, used by passenger trains in the day and freight trains in the night.

          • adirondacker12800

            A reasonable solution for the once an hour train to Scranton that has to wedge itself in between the 20 freights a week. something ALP-45ish would do. Doesn’t work out as well when it’s a lot more. Wikipedia has this tidbit about Selkirk. “Starting In 2017, Selkirk now features a two track mainline that runs east to west on the south side of the yard, allowing many run through trains to easily swap crews at a much higher rate of speed than ever before. In the past, it was necessary to run these trains through the body of the yard.” Throoooogh running!! There’s too much freight passing through Syracuse to mix high speed passenger trains with them. I hear Chicago and Pittsburgh are quite busy too. Probably Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit… Which is why the Midwesterners come up with three or more tracks. There’s too much freight.

          • Nathanael

            The entire New York Central route was four tracks as far as Buffalo: two passenger, two freight. This can and should be reinstated. Superelevation on the passenger tracks for passenger trains, on the freight tracks for freight trains, keep ’em separate. Not a problem. Where the ROW needs to be widened a little bit to allow for greater separation between tracks (to allow for a greater dynamic envelope, perhaps) or shallower curves… it can be done, because the land is present and mostly cheap. There are very few spots which are too narrow, mostly in the cities where you should be slowing down for the station anyway. Some are in the towns which should be bypassed entirely as Adirondacker suggests.

            Past Buffalo, there’s still an insanely wide right-of-way all the way to Cleveland, currently occupied by two CSX tracks and one NS track with plenty of vacant space between them (it used to be both the NYC and Nickel Plate routes).

            The Pennsylvania Railroad route from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia was likewise four tracks, but in much more mountainous terrain, making it harder to get extra room for more track separation; it would require serious tunnelling bypasses.

            Alon is right that the old midwestern routes often have fairly sharp curves with long tangents between them; this basically means that assembling a high speed route means making big sweeping curves through farmland to replace the sharp curves. There will be complaints about that, but it’s certainly affordable. The straightest route is probably the Chicago to Fort Wayne to Toledo route, formerly of the Pennsylvania Railroad and now owned by a shortline, which has some nasty tight local wiggles — straightening those out into very gentle S curves will face NIMBYs but will not be *expensive*. The problem is political will, nothing more.

      • Nathanael

        At the moment, the BIG problem for Toronto-Chicago and Toronto-NY services is the US’s absolute lunatic paranoia about border crossings post-9/11. Both routes ought to have lots of intermediate stops in *both* countries, so you can’t reasonably do the “do all the border checks on one end” which is going to be gone in Montreal and Vancouver. The border delays wreck the viability of the routes. It’s quite annoying, but the only way it ends is once we get rid of Republicans in the federal government, and it won’t be automatic even then.

  17. yuuka

    What about short metro-style hops like the Oresund Metro, and that link between Singapore and Johor they’ve been wanting to build for the past ~10 years?

    • Alon Levy

      These should be fine if there’s international commuting, there are S-Bahn lines in Zurich and Basel crossing international borders. Basel even vaguely has a tram crossing into France.

      • Herbert

        Basel trams cross into both Germany and France. Strasbourg trams cross into Germany…

        • michaelrjames

          The very first rail line and train service in Switzerland was …. French. Even more odd, for Switzerland, was that the short line into Basel and its station were apparently subject to extraterritoriality. It was under French jurisdiction!

          • Herbert

            Switzerland was a late starter in rail (for a European country anyway) but they’ve made up for it with early electrification and never shutting down major lines…

  18. electricangel

    “By now, a decade after Megabus and Bolt entered the market, Amtrak is largely only used by people who are price-insensitive or who get motion-sick on buses.”

    I tried buses between NYC and Boston. If your major concern is price, they’re OK. But not a SINGLE bus ride was ever on time. Which means either leaving a buffer of 2 hours to deal with the inevitable NYC or Boston traffic, or having no concerns about time whatsoever. If in the latter group, the bus is a fine deal, and Amtrak ought not try to compete.

    By contrast, if you need to use the time on the train to get work done, Amtrak’s Wifi works better and its smoother Physical operation means less trouble. When they run a sale, it’s possible to buy Regional tickets for $39. If the train isn’t too jammed (so Wifi becomes inoperable), there’s no more productive way to travel between the two cities.

    Flying, while possibly faster, suffers from unpredictability in traffic delays. I’ve left Boston on a noon flight (security theater being nonexistent for TSA Precheck; I got to the airport at 11:40 once and still made my noon flight) and made it to midtown by 1:10. Once. The worst was when my noon departure did not get me to midtown before 6:30. From my arrival at the airport to my arrival in midtown, I generally spent 3.25 hours, only 45 minutes of which were available to me to work on an open computer. Acela at 3:47 is a much safer bet.

  19. Pingback: New England High- and Low-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations

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