Wednesday, March 4, 2009

High Speed Rail... Ten Years after

I came into possession of a document that I thought would not have been produced. An Examination of I-75, I-64 & I-71 High Speed Rail Corridors. Wow, was all I could say.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet...I mean KENTUCKY's...Transportation Cabinet asked for a study on High Speed Rail. Ten years ago. How many people knew this existed? How well was this publicized? Ten years ago did anybody care?

Ten years ago, when the SUV was just coming into it's own and gas was fairly cheap, no state transportation agencies were seriously studying High Speed Rail. Forget the fact that the Europeans had basically created it and the Japanese had perfected it, Americans had no need for it. The Americans had gas(we liberated Kuwait for it), we had autos (GM & Ford saw to that)and we had the Interstates(Congress and the the 1956 Highway Revenue Act took care of that). The airlines had been deregulated two decades before and fare were about 9% lower than 1978, even though nine of the MAJOR airlines had been sent into bankruptcy. We Americans had everything we needed to move about the country-time, money and modal options galore. We, as a whole, were not thinking about rail in any form, commuter, regional, standard or High Speed.

For just those reasons, I believe the premise of the above study is flawed. The methodology is sound but the assumptions and the associated data may have directed the conclusions toward a less than accurate assessment of the travel demand projections between the three cities..Lexington, Louisville and Covington

The first flaw that I see is the intent to connect the airports of the these major urban areas. Two of the airports are greatly removed from the population cores and any existing rail facilities. If the desire is to build a seamless multi-modal transportation system, why add to the expense by starting at the least integrated modes terminals?

Secondly the search for comparisons of city pairs connected by existing rail that would be of similar size led to only two previously studied areas, Detroit/Chicago and North Carolina's Piedmont Corridor.

Thirdly, I think that they limited their ridership estimates to the trips between the three cities although the did generate their numbers as a percentage of the air passengers of the three cities. It was recently reported that in Spain the HSR trains will beat the airlines and this analysis was estimating the demand to get to a different airport for a longer distance trip.

I, for one, would desire to take HSR not just to Cincinnati for the day but on to Washington for the weekend, much like the short plane trip to connect on by air. A short hop to Cincinnati by plane would not only involve airfare, but cab fare or car rental fee, into downtown and back. A train should take you from downtown to downtown and connect with the urban mass transit node there. I took a trip to Washington D.C. in the early '90's where I flew into Reagan, switched to the Metro, changed trains in Farragut Center, exited the Metro, walked across the street to the hotel, signed in and changed clothes, back across the street and a train to Union Station, hopped a MARC train to Baltimore for a ballgame(opening season in Camden Yards), back to D.C., the Metro to the hotel. All with a minimum of effort and cost, plus the idea that I had never been to D.C. before.

This study needs to be redone, and this time the estimates of ridership should include the desired destinations of a 600 mile radius as an initial "order of magnitude". I don't want anyone to get me wrong, I am glad that they were thinking ahead but their thinking was clouded by the highway first mentality of most transportation planners today.


ps.Lex said...

Great find Carto. I have always been fascinated with train travel. So much so, I’m looking forward to my European vacation this summer. I’ve hated driving ever since I moved out of the foothills of Appalachia to Lexington. Not only would HSR be good to connect the major cities in KY, but I would love to see HSR to several areas in Eastern KY as well. I for one would love to take the train to my hometown, or close to it, for a weekend visit. The reason I don’t go back more often is because of having to drive those roads.

Ahavah Gayle said...

Your blog doesn't mention this plainly, although it is alluded to, but taking the number of airline hops from Lex to Louis to Cincy is a useless way to gauge demand. For the vast majority of people, the train trip would be replacing a CAR trip and not an airline trip. Most people who fly from Lex to Cincy or Louis are intending to catch a connecting flight to somewhere else. These numbers have no bearing whatsoever on the number of people driving to one or the other for a daytrip and intending to return that day. Almost everyone who does this travels by car now. They are your intended audience for the most part, not those flying to other places. HSR may pick up some regular business commuter flight passengers, too, and that's great. But I don't think replacing planes is the point of HSR, the point should be replacing CAR trips, not flights.

topazsfp said...

Ahavah Gayle, you're perfectly right. I suspect, however, they focused on airports because - well - how do you figure out how many people on the interstate JUST intend to travel from Lexington to Louisville, etc.
That said, I would be thrilled if this light rail existed between the big cities - and, honestly, it would mean that I would travel to both Louisville and Cincinnati more often, because I hate the drive and traffic deeply.