Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
Followup: Was Cecil wrong to claim
high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis makes no sense?
I'm surprised at you! Your
high-speed rail showed little of the care or deep investigation that
we've come to expect from the Straight Dope. I think you overlooked two
things that would probably change your analysis of high-speed trains in the
You'll excuse my not getting back to you sooner, Ben, but I figured I'd wait till the funding for the first high-speed rail projects was announced. Word came down a couple weeks ago, and sure enough, the Chicago-St. Louis route was earmarked for $1.1 billion. Trains will operate at a top speed of 110 MPH, half the 220 MPH high-speed rail advocates say is needed for truly transformational change. So we all agree the billion dollars will be wasted. What I'm out to demonstrate today is that money spent on 220 MPH trains would be wasted too and God bless you, you've thrown me a softball that's going to simplify the job.
Comparing Chicago-St. Louis to Paris-Lyon I'm guessing you got the idea from this web page is one of those absurd exercises that demonstrates how little grasp HSR buffs have of the transportation realities. In fact, the two pairs of cities are only superficially similar.
Paris and Lyon are much more closely linked than Chicago and St. Louis. They're the largest cities in France and the capitals of the wealthiest regions. Lyon is France's culinary capital and a major business and tourist destination. Even before high-speed rail, Paris-Lyon was the most heavily traveled corridor in France. The French national railway system began planning a high-speed line following the success of Japanese bullet trains because the existing rail route was approaching capacity. Operating at 168 MPH, the TGV Sud-Est cut rail travel time between Paris and Lyon from 4½ hours to 2. In 1982, its first full year of operation, the line carried 6 million passengers and by 1990 was carrying 19 million. As of 1996, the TGV Sud-Est was carrying 72 percent of all traffic between the two cities (see page 5 of this document), whether by airplane, auto, bus, or rail.
Chicago and St. Louis have nowhere near as close a relationship. The Chicago-St. Louis route ranks 68th on the list of busiest U.S. air corridors. A study conducted for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) estimates annual traffic between the two cities by all modes airplane, auto, bus, and rail is less than 3 million trips (see Table 5). My back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests total traffic between Paris and Lyon by all modes is more than eight times higher than traffic between Chicago and St. Louis.
(The MHSRA study, it should be said, assumes a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed line would make intermediate stops, and that total traffic in the corridor is about 9.5 million trips, but we'll take up that contention later.)
The other big difference between Chicago-St. Louis and Paris-Lyon is in their physical layout. Both French towns have densely populated cores and heavily traveled subway systems that connect to the downtown TGV terminal. The U.S. cities are much more thinly populated with lower transit ridership:
Paris and Lyon are ideally suited to rail they have dense concentrations of potential riders in the urban core and excellent local transit to funnel those riders into the railroad terminals. Private auto travel, in contrast, is impractical in central Paris and none too easy in Lyon (see page 106 of this book). In both cities, the airports are far from the city center 9 and 14 miles in the case of Paris, 12 miles for Lyon. As a result, rail is the fastest method of travel:
Nobody can seriously claim the same would be true of a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail route. Unlike their compact French counterparts, both U.S. cities are spread out. In much of the Chicago area, it takes as long to get to Union Station as it does to O'Hare, and I venture to say the situation is similar in St. Louis. Since the flight time from Chicago to St. Louis is a little over an hour whereas a high-speed train would take two hours, the door-to-door travel time for most riders would be shorter by air. Why would anyone switch to rail?
Fact is, even high-speed rail's promoters don't think Chicago-St. Louis service would be much like the TGV. For one thing, unlike the Paris-Lyon route, midwestern high-speed trains would have to make intermediate stops to generate enough traffic. Here's a ridership projection from the MHSRA's study (see Table 8):
As you can see, there's an element of fantasy here:
Which brings us to one of the fundamental problems of midwestern high speed rail. Even if the optimistic projections above panned out, traffic would be less than 10 percent of Paris-Lyon ridership. A big attraction of the TGV is that trains leave every half hour. A Chicago-St. Louis route would never support that level of service, and wouldn't offer either the convenience of a car or the speed of a plane.
As for your last point, Ben, about relieving congestion at airports come now. Surely you understand the futility of spending billions to slightly lower air traffic at one pair of towns.
Look, I'm not some right-wing ideologue. I like trains as much as the next guy. But we need to be practical. Does high-speed rail makes sense in France? You can see that it does. Here? We might wish it were otherwise, but no.
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