One can build a commuter rail network, an intercity network, or a point-to-point HSR line

Tuesday, November 15th, 2022

Rail systems are, by their nature, one dimensional, Casey Handmer explains:

Any disruption on a rail line shuts down the entire line, imposing high maintenance costs on an entire network to ensure reliable uptime. To add a destination to a network, an entire line must be graded and constructed from the existing network, and even then it will be direct to almost nowhere.

Contrast this with aircraft. There are 15,000 airports in the US. Any but the largest aircraft can fly to any of these airports. If I build another airport, I have added 15,000 potential connections to the network. If I build another rail terminal and branch line, at significantly greater cost than an airstrip, I have added only one additional connection to the network.

Roads and trucks are somewhere between rail and aircraft. The road network largely already exists everywhere, and there aren’t any strict gauge restrictions, mandatory union labor requirements, obscure signaling standards, or weird 19th century incompatible ownership structures. Damage or obstruction isn’t a showstopper, as trucks have two dimensions of freedom of movement, and can drive around an obstacle. In Los Angeles during the age of streetcars, a fire anywhere in the city would result in water hoses crossing the street from hydrant to firetruck, and then the network ground to a halt because steel wheels can’t cross a hose or surmount a temporary hump!

California‘s High-Speed Rail (HSR) project had to make too many promises it couldn’t keep:

Routing HSR on the east side of the central valley via Bakersfield and Modesto means those cities can have a station, but frequent services means that most trains have to stop there, and each stop adds 20 minutes to the travel time just to slow down and speed back up. Alternatively, the stations and their railway corridors are extremely expensive city decorations that help no-one because the trains, dedicated to a high speed SF-LA shuttle, never stop. Because they are trains, we can’t have both. If it was aircraft, we could have smaller, more frequent commercial aircraft offering direct flights to dozens of destinations from both cities. But rail has relatively narrow limits in terms of train size and frequency meaning that any route will be both congested at peak times and under-utilized for much of the rest.

Serving peripheral population centers in California is a nice thing to do, but aircraft pollution from Modesto is not driving global warming. Car traffic from Modesto would hardly overwhelm the Interstate 5. HSR minimizes financial losses when it is serving large population centers with high speed direct services. By failing to make the political case serving the main mission, the CA HSR project adopted numerous unnecessary marginal requirements which added so much cost that the project is unlikely to succeed. Even if the money materializes and the project is completed, the train will be so slow that it will hardly impact aircraft demand, so expensive it will be unable to operate without substantial subsidies, and so limited in throughput that it will hardly even alleviate traffic from LA’s outer dormitory suburbs.

In other words, one can build a commuter rail network, an intercity network, or a point-to-point HSR line, but forcing all three usage modes into the same system cannot succeed.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Antiplanner has a large number of posts on transport in general and on public transport in particular:

    He (a self-described train enthusiast) notes that for urban public transport the preferred method is buses. On a per passenger mile basis, buses have the lowest capital and operating costs, the lowest fuel costs, the lowest emissions rate, and very great flexibility in routes and schedules. Trains and trolleys have the worst in every category. Automobiles, surprisingly, are a close second to buses.

    He also notes that in the BosWash corridor, buses carry more intercity passengers than does Amtrack, and the trips are quicker.

  2. David Foster says:

    “frequent services means that most trains have to stop there, and each stop adds 20 minutes to the travel time just to slow down and speed back up.”

    This is true of aircraft travel as well; the plane has to descend, land, and taxi to the terminal, then reverse the process on departure. Not to mention air traffic delays in many cases. In general, the stop & go time will be greater for airplanes that are faster and fly at higher altitudes.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    We have to start with the distribution of the population — i.e., housing. How do the people live? And where do they work?

    High Speed Rail is very effective in China, because most of the people are highly concentrated in 30-story apartment buildings. The residents can walk across the street to supermarkets, entertainment facilities, and parks. They can take effective mass transit systems to HSR stations. And when they get to the HSR station at the other end of their journey, there are effective mass transit systems to take them to their final destination. (Rather different than landing at a Western airport remote from the traveler’s final destination).

    It all starts with a highly concentrated population. If we start with the typical low-density Western population, both mass transit and HSR don’t work.

  4. Jim says:

    If you’re going to build a rail, priority number one is getting the lawyers out of the planning committees.

    Priority number two is dispensing with the planning committees.

    Priority number three is hiring twenty-year-old men to make the trains run on time, as nature intended.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    I generally find bus travel to be an unpleasant experience.

    HSR is fun. I also appreciate a good subway – not an old, decrepit system.

    Driving gets me where I want to be, when I want to be there – so long as it’s not more than seven hours. Beyond that point, it’s a drag.

  6. Cold War Kid says:

    We need to remember why we have a transportation network as well as decentralized population and manufacturing centers. Nukes, boy and girls. Just like a decentralized internet was developed to maximize comms post-hits, we are decentralized for that reason. Nukes are city busters, and if the opponent is concentrated at la China.. well let’s just say the population centers would experience rapid depletion.

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