The golden age of American railroading was in the Upper Midwest

In a factually-inaccurate-and-not-yet-corrected post, Michael Tomansky heard an anecdote (the Beatles made it from New York to DC in 2:15) and reported it as fact, claiming that it represented a golden age of American railroads which we will never see again. It most certainly is not: the GG1s the Pennsylvania Railroad rain in the 1960s were only capable of 100 mph as a top speed, and would have had to average 100 mph to get from New York to DC in that time (it’s quite nicely 225 miles in 2.25 hours). Scheduled times never fell below 3:30. 2:15? It didn’t happen. By the late ’60s, the Metroliners were running up to 125 mph on the corridor, with trains making stops clocking in at 3 hours and nonstops running in 2:30 once a day—it turns out it makes sense to stop in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Acela Express trains now make the trip in 2:45 making six stops; speed improvements could conceivably get this to 2:30, or to 2:15 non-stop (which is unlikely as intermediate stops cost only a few minutes and account for a lot of ridership).

But the fact of the matter is that before the Metroliners, there were very few trains that eclipsed 60 mph average speeds. Many streamliners of the ’40s and ’50s ran between 55 and 60, and a few, notably the Twentieth Century Limited and one of the Pennsylvania’s New York-DC runs, broke the 60 mph barrier. (The site linked has decent schedule information; easier than combing through the 1000-plus page Guide to the Railroads.)

The notable exception to this is not a single train, but a competitive market: from the late 1930s through the early 1960s, three separate railroads ran five trains per day between Chicago and Saint Paul at damn near—and in one case, over—70 miles per hour over a distance of over 400 miles, with several stops. (It was another half hour, after a long stop and at slower speeds, to the trains’ termini in Minneapolis.) In fact, for two decades between the beginning of World War II and the opening of the Shinkansen, they were likely the three fastest rail trips over 200 miles in the world. Here a good primer on the competition and the Chicago-Minneapolis schedule from 1952:

9:00-2:30, Morning Zephyr, 431 miles, 66 mph (in 1940: 6 hours, 72 mph)
10:30-6:05, Morning Hiawatha, 410 miles, 58 mph
1:00-7:15, Afternoon Hiawatha, 410 miles, 66, mph
3:00-9:15, Twin Cities 400, 409 miles, 65 mph
4:00-10:15, Afternoon Zephyr, 431 miles, 69 mph

There were several other trains, including overnight options, each day, and these five schedules which could get you between the Twin Cities and Chicago in barely the time it takes to drive today (without traffic). Today’s Empire Builder runs the route in 7:45, at a respectable 55 mph, but nowhere near the 70+ of yesteryear (between some stations, the trains averaged over 80 mph, stop to stop; runnings speeds well over 100 were not uncommon). So while railroad speeds have slowly increased on the East Coast, it’s the rest of the country that has seen speeds come down: in particular, the Twin Cities to Chicago market.

Why did this route have faster speeds than anywhere else? Part of it is geography. Each line had its advantages, but none had many tight curves or long grades, and there were few intermediate stops to slow the trains. But part of it is competition: not with car or air travel, but with each other. Nowhere else was there a similar three-way competition over this distance. Once one railroad established the 6-hours-or-so benchmark in the mid-30s, the others quickly followed suit, and it proved to be good business. They kept the speeds in to the 1950s, when regulations bogged down the railroads, and subsidies flooded road and airport construction; the trains slowly disappeared in the 1960s. Today’s Empire Builder follows several different pieces of the former roads.

In another country, there never would have been three trains plying the same route. French railroads were nationalized in the 1930s, and Germany and Japan’s railroads were decimated during the war and rebuilt afterwards. If American railroads had been similarly nationalized or had the same sort of investment, there’s a chance that the three competing railroads could have combined resources to build a single, higher-speed line: all had rolling stock capable of over 100 mph, so five or perhaps even four hour trips would have been possible even without electrification. However, after the war American railroads did not see government investment (we certainly spent more money rebuilding railroads in Europe than we did in the US) and without a time advantage over airliners or interstates, trains that averaged near 70 mph, and except for one line on the East Coast, haven’t come back.

Hyperloop as the Concorde

An article about the Hyperloop recently crossed my Twitter feed. Now, normally I wouldn’t really spend much time on this topic, but this article is particularly risible. Why? Because the backers of the project are now favorably comparing it to the Concorde.

No. Seriously:

“It’s similar to what the Concorde did for air transport … This will revolutionize how we transport people from city to city.”

Oh, lordy. Here’s what the Concorde did for air transport. It created a very small, niche industry which offered a somewhat faster product than what existed. This product was available only at a huge markup to the main market. It had severely constricted capacity. Development cost 12 times (*) initial estimates (so much so that it is an above-the-fold example in the “cost overrun” Wikipedia article). It received massive government subsidies. And after 30 years of serving a very small market, it was retired from service.

Let me repeat that: the Concorde is no longer in service. It didn’t revolutionize how we transport people by air. It first flew in 1976, and last flew in 2003. The 747 first flew in 1969, and continues to transport people by air today. If the Concorde had revolutionized how we transport people from city to city, we’d probably still be using it today. We’re not. The jet? It revolutionized travel—before that most everyone crossed long distances of water by boat, and on land by train. The Concorde? We’re still flying conventional jets.

And they’re crowdsourcing this? Let me just take a flyer here. Elon Musk scribbled some ideas on a napkin (and the Tesla is doing great, at least when it’s not catching fire) and now a couple people are crowdsourcing the project, and comparing it to something that, while a technological marvel, was for all intents and purposes, a financial disappointment.

However, unlike the Concorde, I doubt the Hyperloop will ever get off the ground.

(* Note that with the same level of overrun, the Hyperloop would cost $72 billion to construct, which is as much as the High Speed Rail proposal. Except the High Speed Rail system can carry 10 times the passenger load (or more). Remember, the Concorde only had 100 seats. Most everyone else flew—and still flies—on conventional jets.)

Monorail vs Hyperloop

There’s a lot of hubbub going on about Elon Musk’s, uh, fanciful “hyperloop” idea coming out of California. There’s a lot of fawning in the press. There are people who know things writing long missives taking down most every bit of the lack of details in the report.

In any case, I think there’s another angle here. Basically, the fact that the Simpsons predicted this 20 years ago. And not only did they predict it, but there are some uncanny parallels. Of course, I refer to the Marge vs. the Monorail which first aired in 1993. Not only is it surprisingly prescient, but hilarious, too, making several best-of lists of Simpsons episodes, and being called “the best sitcom episode ever.” (And it was written by the inimitable Conan O’Brien, who would go on to some other fame. You can watch via a sketchy link here.)

Basically, the premise is that serial villain and nuclear power plant owner C. Montgomery Burns is caught illegally disposing of nuclear waste, and pays the town $3 million in fines. The town then has a meeting to decide what to do with it. From here on in, I’ll parallel it with the LA-San Francisco transportation corridor:

Simpsons: after several proposals and ideas, Marge leads the outcry to repair the town’s main street.
California: after several fits and starts, the state passes bonding for high speed rail.

Simpsons: Huckster Lyle Lanley, after the town has approved the street idea, shows up with a plan for a monorail, leads the town in song, and the Main Street (proven transportation improvements) is replaced with a mock-up model of the monorail.
California: After the state has all but started construction on high speed rail, Elon Musk shows up with a sketch of an idea for a hyperloop, which will be faster, cheaper and better than the high speed rail.

Simpsons: The townsfolk ask Lanley questions with the following exchanges:

I hear those things are awfully loud—It glides as softly as a cloud.
Is there a chance the track could bend?—Not on your life, my Hindu friend.
What about us braindead slobs?—You’ll be given cushy jobs!

California: Questions about where the system runs, its technical merits and such are not addressed.

Simpsons: Monorail runs on solar power.
California: Hyperloop runs on … solar power.

Simpsons: Lanley has sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook
California: Musk hasn’t sold a hyperloop to … anyone.

It turns out that Lanley builds shoddy products, and that in the end the monorail winds up running at warp speed (slowing temporarily during a solar eclipse) before again running out of control, only stopping when Homer uses an M attached to a lasso to hook a giant doughnut (eliciting the line “Doughnuts, is there anything they can’t do?”).

So basically, in both cases, the citizens have a pressing transportation issue and appropriate money to fix it. In both cases, they make a choice based on proven technology only to have it upended by an unproven idea (perhaps more nefarious in the case of the Simpsons). Both systems run on solar power, but at least with the monorail there were proven (and proven bad) systems Marge could visit to disprove its worth. If the case of the hyperloop, if it somehow upends the high speed rail project and succeeds, I’ll be glad, if surprised. But I’d more likely expect a monorail.

2.7 million kilowatt hours is a lot of power, but …

There’s a good* article on California’s high speed rail plans in the LA Times. I’m not going to focus on the questions of how to engineer a high speed rail system through mountain passes (it’s interesting, though), but look at one number which is put forth in the article:

When completed and fully operational, the bullet train will need an estimated 2.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity each day — about a quarter of Hoover Dam’s average daily output.

2.7 million kilowatt hours! That’s a lot. That’s … 2.7 gigawatt hours! A big scary number! A quarter of the Hoover Dam! A number worthy of exclamation points! What a power-hungry system this will be. Why not shelve it, and have everyone drive and fly between San Francisco and LA?

Because as far as transportation goes, this is pretty darned efficient. Transportation uses a lot of power, and high speed rail is one of the more efficient ways to move people from one point to another. How much power does a car use? One gallon of gas has the equivalent of about 34 kWh. Now, let’s assume that the average vehicle, being driven at highway speeds, gets, oh, I’ll pick a number out of the air: 34 miles per gallon. This yields the very convenient measure of 1 kWh per mile. If the average vehicle has two occupants (a reasonable estimate for long-distance drives), it yields 0.5 kWh per mile. (Airplanes have a similar fuel efficiency.)

It’s about 400 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. So the average person will use 200 kWh for that trip. 2,700,000 (2.7 GWh) divided by 200 yields—13,500. 2.7 million kWh is enough power to transport, using current technologies, 13,500 people each day between Los Angeles and California, or about 5 million per year.

The current HSR plans call for 1000-passenger trains (approximately—this is what is run in many other HSR systems) running every 9 minutes between San Francisco and Los Angeles at peak hours (7-10 a.m., 4-7 p.m.). That yields a peak-hour capacity of about 6.5 trains in each direction, or 13,000 passengers.

In other words, 2.7 million kWh would be enough to power the entire California High Speed Rail system—or enough to get one hour’s worth of high speed rail passengers to make the same trip by car or plane. To put it another way, 2.7 million kWh in it’s equivalent of gasoline will move about 5 million people between LA and San Francisco. It will move 20 to 30 million Californians along the same route by high speed rail—six times the efficiency!—with power left over for another 30-50 million shorter, interregional trips.

And this doesn’t address where the power comes from. For vehicles and air travel, it is from fossil fuel. For electricity, it can come from renewable sources in a state blessed with hydro, wind and solar. Right now, 20% of California’s power is from renewable sources; by 2020 the mandate is for 33%. With high speed rail drawing power from the grid, some of it’s power will probably come from the Hoover Dam.

( * if slightly concern-trolling—yes, crossing faults is a worry but it’s not like Japan’s Shinkansen runs through a seismically-inactive region)

Are buses the wrong technology for the Northeast Corridor?

In the past few years, most every budget-conscious (read: cheap) traveler in the northeast corridor has jumped on the bus. Fifteen years ago, Peter Pan owned the Boston-to-New York corridor, and with an almost-monopoly charged fares which were not much less than Amtrak. Since then, the industry has changed very significantly:

  1. The trains have gotten faster, better, and more expensive. 15 years ago, train travel still required an engine change in New Haven and barely cleared 100 mph north of there. Travel times were four and a half hours. Despite Acela’s lack of actual high speed, travel times have been shaved by an hour (or, for the cheaper alternatives, half an hour). And the train has gone from competing to the bus to competing with the airlines, so fares have risen (as has ridership) significantly.
  2. Bus options have multiplied and fares have dropped. It was only in the late-1990s that the Chinatown Bus fad began. While Peter Pan would charge (and I’m going on memory here) $25 to $40 each way from Boston to New York, Fung Wah and its many competitors had fares of $10—often payable in cash to the driver. They had no overhead (bus stations), very low personnel costs and, with full buses running constantly, at high rates of speed, a profitable, if uncomfortable and traffic-prone service. But, $10! Almost instantly, fares were cut by 50-80%, and the bigger players, once they caught on, came up with copycat services for lower prices. Now there are as many as half a dozen buses running between Boston and New York each hour, most of them express service. It’s the free market at work.
  3. Technology has made non-air service much more productive. Fifteen years ago, if you had a laptop, it was big, clunkly and slow. Sure, you could write up a report on it, but only with the information you had on hand. Otherwise, if you got on the train, you were in the dark for four hours. Same with cell phones: keeping a connection through the wilds of Connecticut and Rhode Island was an iffy proposition at best. Oh, and if your NiMH battery ran low, well, hopefully you’d packed a magazine. Airplanes had the same downfalls, but you were only in the air for 45 minutes. Now? Cell service is uninterrupted. Most buses and trains offer free wifi (it has a way to go, but you can generally send email at least). Laptops are light and powerful, most have long battery lives, and many buses and Amtrak offer 110V power outlets. Productivity is attainable, at least on the train where you’re not packed in like sardines.
To boil it down, however, the allure of buses is their cheapness. The legroom of an airplane (if that) and the speed of a car (if that). If the bus and the train were priced similarly, would anyone take the bus?

But as cheap as buses are, they have several minor deficiencies which, when compounded, make for a transportation mode which lacks many safety features of air and train travel. It’s not just a question of oversight of small, fly-by-night (or, um, drive-by-night) companies. It’s an issue of buses using over-capacity infrastructure clogged with other large vehicles traveling at high speeds.

Buses are, in a sense, quite scalable, which is one of their selling points but also a cause of many problems. If you run out of room on one bus, you just add another bus (although buses have to run at or near capacity to attain the efficiency which makes them so cheap). One more driver, one more set of wheels—the only issue is that peak travel times tend to have more traffic, so companies often have to charter tour buses (known as wet leasing) at these times (which may not have the same amenities). However, this further segments the industry, and means that while airplane pilots and railroad engineers have stringent training and safety guidelines, bus drivers from tour operators may be driving routes for the first time (I heard a story recently of a bus which took the Merritt and somehow didn’t hit any bridges before it was pulled over by the state troopers).

The bus companies afraid to ever have prices above a set maximum (since their product is based solely on low prices), so they vary pricing on the low end of the scale (Buy in advance for $1 tickets!). No company has started charging $40 or $50 for travel on Thanksgiving weekend even though the extra $20 would be pure profit. The fear is that higher prices, even when demand may call for it, might drive their customers to other lines or other modes. But it means that during times of high demand, wet leasing is almost a given.

The issue with scalability then becomes the terminal facilities, which are more scalable than airlines and railroads simply because there is an alternative: load the buses curbside on the street. (At least in New York; Boston effectively banned this a few years back by threatening to write tickets to Chinatown buses which would block streets for twenty minutes at a time loading and unloading passengers.) This makes it much easier for the overall bus network to add capacity, but it impedes street flow in several locations in Manhattan.

Buses also seem prone to rather catastrophic failure, as is the case with most mass transit. However, while train derailments and airline mishaps—despite the over-capacity infrastructure—are rare, bus issues are commonplace. Several years ago, after watching Chinatown buses roll along well above the speed limit and seemingly take corners on two wheels, my mother offered to pay the difference between them and a more traditional bus line (whose drivers’ main concern didn’t seem to be their next cigarette break). It’s not to say that bus travel isn’t quite safe: it is. Buses on city streets never get going too fast and drivers have rest at the end of their routes, and buses on rural highways don’t have much other traffic to contend with. Which leaves buses on heavily-traveled highways, with drivers behind the wheel for four hours straight, or, with traffic or weather, much more.

In a most of the country, this is not as much of an issue as in the northeast. But in the northeast, there is very little highway which resembles rural interstate. Every conceivable route between Boston and New York is three lanes wide (save 95 or 395, which is narrower in portions but significantly longer than other routes). Exit ramps are often short and abrupt, speed limits change continually, and gridlock is frequent. Complicating the matter, south of Hartford, there are several automobile-only parkways, concentrating commercial traffic on I-84, I-684 and I-95. (And thank goodness that buses aren’t trying to buses aren’t vying for space on the raceway known as the Merritt.) (Update: This doesn’t necessarily keep buses off of low-bridge roadways; a driver in Syracuse got lost and took a cars-only parkway, resulting in four deaths in 2012.)

Finally, buses are solely dependent on the vigilance of their drivers, who often drive long shifts under less-than-ideal conditions in traffic and weather. Airlines are heavily regulated and operate under the auspices of the air traffic control system as well as their own companies’ dispatchers. Oh, and they have “operator redundancy” in the form of a copilot (if one pilot nods off there’s another to fly the plane). While railroads can implement systems such as positive train control, speed limiting and, in the long run, exclusive right-of-way to separate their operations from other traffic, buses assuredly can not. There’s no backup safety system: one minor slip-up by the driver can result in a major incident. There’s also little oversight: bus drivers are not tracked by speed (some claim to speed limit their buses, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen buses over 80 on the Mass Pike), leaving that up to state highway authorities, who may not be particularly vigilant in ticketing speeding or otherwise unsafe drivers.

These are all relatively minor issues, but they compound. Let’s run them down:
  1. Bus scalability results in frequent wet leases, and drivers who are unfamiliar with roads, routes and traffic patterns
  2. Buses frequently speed, increasing the likelihood of an accident
  3. Buses, due to their profile, are prone to rolling and flipping
  4. Drivers are often poorly paid and work long shifts in excruciating traffic, leading to fatigue
  5. Roads between Boston and New York are confusing and often have short merges and sharp turns, and congestion, in addition to delaying buses and fatiguing drivers, creates more dangerous traffic conditions
  6. Many roads are car-only, so buses are squeezed on to roads with heavy truck traffic.
It is this last point, truck traffic, which was responsible for the recent bus catastrophe in New York. No one knows if the bus was actually clipped by a tractor trailer or was attempting to avoid it, but it is clear that an incursion by a truck’s trailer played a part in the accident (as did driver fatigue and the geometry of the roadway). And another driver cites trucks as a major problem:

“Tractor-trailers are our biggest problem,” Mr. Ha said. “When the rear of the truck slides toward you, you have to stay calm because if you steer too hard to avoid it, you might flip.”

Drivers know that trucks are a problem. And accidents—truck-related or not—are frequent. While there haven’t been any accidents of this magnitude yet, the bus service in the northeast has been a powder keg with a lit fuse, and the frequent breakdowns, fires and rollovers have had remarkably few deaths. Until now. It will be interesting to see if this accident, which seems more related to the structural operation of buses over busy highways with fatigued drivers rather than glaring driver error, changes the demand curves for transportation in the NEC.

In any case, it’s time to look at our regional transportation structure and decide whether the low end of our transportation structure should be road based or should be modernized for safety, speed and reliability. Amtrak’s antiquated Northeast Corridor is maxed out, New York’s airports are as well, and the roads are congested and not particularly safe. Perhaps Amtrak’s $100b+ proposal for the Northeast Corridor, with the potential to have capacity to move most traffic off the road, is a safety issue.

Interregional High Speed Rail: which corridors work where

A recent study (PDF) from a group called America 2050 has put together one of the most data-heavy (and that’s a good thing) approaches to examining high speed rail corridors in the country. There are still some issues, most notably the fact that corridors over 500 miles were ignored (yes, they should be weighted less than 200-400 mile corridors, but, no, with proper speeds attained, they shouldn’t be dropped) and their map does not seem to fully mesh with their data. Still, they take in to account such factors as transit accessibility in cities analyzed, economic productivity (higher local GDP is better), traffic and air congestion and whether the city is in a megaregion (this seems to be a rather ancillary data point).

Their subsequent phasing map, while better than most, seems to be, well, not completely in-line with their data. This is mainly because each corridor seems to be analyzed separately, and overlapping corridors, from their report, are not shown well.

First, they did get the two big corridors right (the “no-brainers,” if you will): California and the Northeast Corridor. Both of these corridors have multiple city pairs in the top-10 of their analysis; in California the San Francisco-San Jose-Los Angeles-San Diego line and in the northeast the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor. Of course, those are obviously the top high speed rail corridors in the country. However, the rest of their “first phase” corridors are less obvious.

In an effort to, perhaps, not leave out the Midwest (where much of the current political support for high speed rail originates), they include, in phase 1, lines from a Chicago hub to Minneapolis, Saint Louis and Detroit. These are all worthy corridors but, according to their analysis, are not in the same echelon as the coastal corridors. Chicago to Saint Louis clocks in at 14th, trailing Chicago to Columbus by a spot. Chicago to Minneapolis ranks 25th, behind corridors such as Cleveland to Washington and Phoenix to San Diego.

With Chicago to Detroit (11th), however, things get interesting. Let’s introduce two maps in to the equation. The first is a map of the top 50 corridors analyzed by America 2050, with the color of a line indicating if they were in the top 50 (red), 40 (orange), 30 (green), 20 (light blue) or 10 (dark blue). Opacity is set rather low, so overlapping lines should show up considerably darker (see the Northeast Corridor, where four top-ten corridors intersect from New York to Philly). From Chicago to Minneapolis and Saint Louis, there are single lines. Despite the presence of some smaller cities (Decatur, Springfield, Urbana-Champaign; Milwaukee, Madison, Rochester) none of these corridors crack the top 50. (Milwaukee-Chicago was not calculated as it is less than 100 miles.) East of Chicago, however, there is a web of lines. From Chicago going east, three cities make the top 16: Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus. And east of there, these cities are all linked eastwards. (Any city with at least two corridors is shown with a point, its size corresponding to the number of corridors.)

So it begs the question: which routes are most applicable to high speed rail if we overlap corridors which could share significant trackage. For instance, Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus could all share one high speed link, with short spurs to each of the cities. These three cities could all share a link across Pennsylvania (with Pittsburgh) to Washington, Philadelphia and New York. 11 of the top 50 city pairs are between New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the east and Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit in the west. Since most of the capital costs of constructing a high speed rail line is the initial capital cost, combining several corridors could dramatically reduce the amount of line needed, saving billions.

So, the second map. For this map, lines with little or no overlap were ignored. Other corridors were assigned a (rather arbitrary) point value based on their ranking:

1-10: 6 points
11-20: 4 points
21-30: 3 points
31-40: 2 points
41-50: 1 point

(Why did the top 10 get a slightly higher weight than the rest? Well, the numerical rankings of the top 10 ranged from 100 to 91. The rankings of the next 40 ranged from 91 to 85.)

Here’s another scheme: assign a route with a score of 85 one point, and an additional point for each increase in the score. This is, perhaps, a more equitable approach for larger corridors, and it really pops out the Northeast Corridor. A possible network of 2450 miles (1870 in the East and Midwest, 580 in California) could serve Boston, New York, Philly, DC, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, LA, San Jose and San Francisco (and several smaller cities, like Toledo, Harrisburg and Hartford). Adding up only the top 50 MSAs served (those with populations over 1m) and 2500 miles would serve 90m people. That’s not bad.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Well, there are two. The first is that, as much as we want to build a multi-regional high-speed rail network, the Northeast Corridor is still, by far, the largest market for HSR in the country. The second, however, is that even when you exclude the Chicago-to-East Coast routes, the New York-to-Chicago Corridor should still be the third-highest priority to build. And if properly built (with top speeds of 200 mph or a tad more, especially across the flat land west of Canton) such a corridor could begin to compete with airlines, even on >500 mile routes.

Does high speed rail cost more than highways?

There’s been some discussion over at the California High Speed Rail Blog about the cost of the system. Basically, a Freakonomics guest blogger threw around the figure of $80b for the system, which is considerably higher than the forecasted $40b. No one really knows how much the high speed rail system will cost, but the numbers everyone quotes need to be contextualized. In other words, much did the Interstate Highway System cost? Per person, and adjusted for inflation? Was it considerably more than high speed rail?

According to the wikipedia site about Intersates, the highway system cost $425b (inflation-adjusted) to build over a period of 35 years. In 1950, the population of the country was 150m, and in 1960 it was 180m. So, in 2007 dollars, the Interstate system cost about $2500 per person alive at its inception (425b/165m, the approximate population when the highway system was funded, in 1956) to build. Per year, it cost about $75 per person.

California has a population of approximately 37m, and we can assume that the final bill for high speed rail would come in somewhere in this $40b to $80b range. Running these numbers, California’s HSR system would cost about $1100 to $2200 per person, spread over a period of about twenty years. Per person, it would cost less than the Interstate system—perhaps considerably less. Per year, it would be between $55 and $110—quite comparable to the Interstate system.

There is one minor difference between the Interstates and High Speed Rail. Say what you want about CAHSR’s business plan, but as far as I know, the Interstate Highway System never had a business plan which showed the system making a profit.

Upper Midwest High Speed Rail

(This post was originally written as a comment on Richard Florida’s Blog at The Atlantic in response to a comment about what new markets would be opened with a high speed rail link from the Twin Cities to Chicago)

Time-competitive rail service from Minneapolis to Chicago would transform the market dramatically. Currently there are three main options:

* By car, which is 400 miles each way and takes seven hours, without traffic. With traffic, it’s quite a bit longer. The cost is dependent on gas prices, but if you are going to Chicago you have to worry about parking, and tolls

*By train/bus, which takes about the same time as driving. By bus, it’s seven hours in a airplane-legroom seat (hell on wheels); by train it’s more spacious and more expensive

* By plane, which is pretty quick (1:20 in the air plus an hour-or-so on each end) but has extremely variable costs. Since Southwest is flying the route and demand is low, tickets with advanced purchase are currently about $100 roundtrip. Last summer, however, when only Northwest, American and United were “competing,” tickets cost on the order of $400. And without 14 days advanced notice, tickets on the route are over $200 even now.

In other words, travel by air is relatively fast but has a very variable costs, and is quite dependent on fuel prices. Travel by road or rail is cheaper, but the time cost of at least half a day makes it very unattractive. There is currently no middle ground–a relatively fast service which has relatively low prices and does not have draconian fees for booking at the last minute. This is one market which currently does not exist.

The other markets which do not currently exist are for intermediate city pairs. The most logical route (despite what various Minnesota politicians continue to argue) is via Saint Paul, Rochester (Mayo Clinic), Winona (Winona State Univ.), La Crosse (Univ. Wisconsin campus), Madison and Milwaukee. Looking at it in a similar manner to a recent post on this blog:

Route, Gmaps driving time, distance, 155 mph HSR time, daily flights
Saint Paul – Chicago via Milwaukee,     7:05, 422 miles,     HSR: 2:43,     Flights: 50,
Saint Paul – Chicago direct Chicago – Madison,     6:33, 401 miles,     HSR: 2:35,
Saint Paul – Rochester,     1:33, 78 miles,     HSR: 0:30,     Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Winona,     2:21, 113 miles,     HSR: 0:44,
Saint Paul – La Crosse,     2:42, 150 miles,     HSR: 0:58,     Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Madison,     4:22, 262 miles,     HSR: 1:41,     Flights: 5,
Saint Paul – Milwaukee,     5:19, 328 miles,     HSR: 2:07,     Flights: 17,
Rochester – Madison,     3:30, 211 miles,     HSR: 1:22,
Rochester – Chicago,     5:41, 350 miles,     HSR: 2:15,     Flights: 6,
La Crosse – Madison,     2:30, 143 miles,     HSR: 0:55,
Madison – Milwaukee,     1:25, 79 miles,     HSR: 0:31,     Flights: 4*,
Madison – Chicago,     2:34, 147 miles,     HSR: 0:57,     Flights: 11*,
Milwaukee – Chicago,     1:42, 92 miles,     HSR: 0:36,     Flights: 12*

I threw in daily flights as an afterthought, and it’s not all it might seem to be, since both Minneapolis (Northwest) and Chicago (United, American, Southwest) are hubs. So a lot of people on those flights are going somewhere else and just making the first leg of their trip. I put an asterisk (*) where it seemed most of the flyers were in this group; flights where it wouldn’t make sense to fly for such a short leg. Some of these routes, particularly Madison to Milwaukee, could easily be replaced by rail service if it existed (Milwaukee has an airport train station). In fact, I was once on a Midwest flight which had a cracked windshield and we needed a new plane, so they pulled one off the Milwaukee-Madison route and, presumably, put the passengers in a couple of cabs to Madison.

Routing some trains via O’Hare could potentially eliminate a lot of short, inefficient feeder plane trips, which the airlines might actually want to drop. You can already buy a plane ticket and travel portions on TGV or even Amtrak (anywhere between New Haven and Wilmington to Newark, for example). If you’re on Continental flight 94XX, you’re on a train.

The other market this opens are the various intermediate markets along the route (and similar markets exist along other routes, for sure). First of all, several cities become suburbs. Rochester (home of the esteemed Mayo Clinic) and Winona (two colleges) become suburbs of the Twin Cities, and the Mayo Clinic becomes a quick trip from Saint Paul or Minneapolis. On the other end of the line, Madison and Milwaukee become suburbs of each other, and both become suburbs of Chicago.

La Crosse would be a bit more than an hour from the Twin Cities and Chicago, wuoldn’t quite be a suburb of either, but its location in between the two could be quite advantageous. The same can be said for Madison, which would be less than two hours from the Twin Cities. Each city would be linked with several major Creative Class-type economies (Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis).

Finally, some other intermediate trips link rather interesting pairs. Milwaukee-Madison-La Cross link three of the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. Rochester, which is currently an hour, by road, from Winona and La Crosse, would be linked in less than half that time. And Winona and La Crosse, now a 45 minute drive (with no real public transport) would be a 15 minute trip by train.