Thursday, July 26, 2012

High-Powered Thinking on High Speed Rail - Part 1

As I mentioned in the post of July 12, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail (HSR). A round-table discussion kicked off the second and third days with questions to some of the most influential and forward-thinking men and women in the HSR world. Countries represented included China, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and (transnationally) the World Bank. Panelists were presidents and CEOs of rail companies, upper-level government rail administrators, consultants, an academic dean, and a chief engineer.
Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, Director General of UIC
Moderator of Round Table 1

I've regrouped my notes from these two sessions to bring you their ideas in a more coherent, topical form. Today I'll share their thoughts about the present and future of HSR, and next time I'll turn to environmental and economic aspects.

How's it going?

In brief, HSR is having a great time except for one thing: the impact of the recession.

Ridership growth is exceeding estimates and capacity in many of the countries represented. Global congestion drives transit ridership in general, and emerging countries are experiencing a great deal of congestion resulting from population growth and a fast-growing middle class.

But economics are hurting the rail and transit agencies. Just as they need to accommodate more riders, their sources of revenue are shrinking. Globally, this has not hurt HSR as much as regional commuter and local transit services. Major investment in HSR is being made around the world despite the economic slowdown. Famously China, but also Japan and Europe are growing their HSR lines. Even Spain, despite its banking and debt situation, is investing half its $14 billion USD transportation budget in high speed rail.
HSR Trains in Málaga, Spain

Population demographics are favoring the growth of high speed rail: in real estate, 80% of growth has taken place in cities, rather than suburbs. This means that HSR, whose operation favors making connections between large center-cities, is ideal for connecting the growth hot-spots. Many observers around the world have described how innovation and prosperity increase fastest in cities, where people can most easily get together and share ideas. HSR makes it efficient and effective for people with new ideas to get together with other idea-generating people, and with sources of capital to bring their ideas to reality. It can do so with a minimum loss of productive time compared to air and highway transportation. Cities connected by HSR are prospering more than cities not so connected. As Neil Peterson said, "Agglomeration is real", referring to the economic theory expounded by Giles Duranton and Diego Puga (link below).

And how does it look for the future?

Participants identified several trends that will affect high speed rail in the coming years. (Some of these are economic, and I'll take a look at those in the next HSR post.)
  • (From Cogito, Johns Hopkins)
    Fuel prices are volatile and expected to rise (not news!)
  • Sprawl development is declining and center cities are being re-populated
  • Fewer young people (at least in the US) are getting driver's licenses
  • Young people are more inclined to make decisions at the last minute
  • A recent (unnamed) poll in California showed greater than expected differences between younger and older people
  • people are renting more and buying less in high-cost areas like housing and vehicles
Will electronic communication erode the market for transportation in general? The consensus was that although e-communication of all types has exploded in popularity everywhere, people are also traveling more. Karen Hedlund, Assistant Administrator of the US Federal Railway Administration, concluded, "Technology will never replace face-to-face interaction."

What can be done to improve HSR's future?

Lots of ideas here!

Consider HSR as part of a unified travel experience. Work to get travelers door to door, not just city to city. This means making it easy for people to book and pay for transportation regardless of mode, seamlessly, electronically, from the front door at Point A to the front door at Point B. People should be able to hop on and hop off public transportation in much the same way as they do with circulating tour buses. Work with bike-sharing and car-sharing organizations. Include taxis in the online booking and payment systems - even jitneys, rickshaws, and horse-drawn carriages where appropriate!

Take a cue from the automobile industry. Find out what your customers want, and aggressively work to give it to them. Move from providing "transportation" to providing "an experience" - and make sure it's a good one!

Barbara Dalibard, CEO of France's high speed rail company, SNCF Voyages, emphasized that the first step is to get the basics right. According to their customer surveys, the basics are:
  1. punctuality
  2. security
  3. timely information about delays and changes of service
  4. cleanliness
She went on to point out that after the basics are satisfied, what people hate most about rail travel is ... their neighbors on the train! How very true. And how very unfortunate. But as I look at my experience with public transportation, I can see it so clearly in my own behavior. Everybody tries to keep a double-seat for themselves, whether on the bus or the train. The biggest drawback to air travel in the last few years has been the near impossibility of having an empty seat next to you. On Amtrak's Wolverine service, business class - where there is a row of single-seats - is almost always sold out long in advance. I'm even willing to spend a lot of extra money on long distance trains to get a roomette, insuring privacy.

Frankfurt, Germany
Airport Station and Office Complex

So,how to provide a train both for the masses and the individuals? For families? For seniors? For businesses people? Private vehicles are available in a vast array of types, sizes, and prices, but trains provide a very limited array of accommodations. As Adrian Corry, Senior Consultant for Public Transportation at BMW emphasized, we must put ourselves in the traveler's place and ask, "What's in it for me?" (Interesting that BMW has a consultant for public transportation! And Mr. Corry appears to be a very sharp fellow.)

While the on-board experience is important - and rail has the advantage over most other forms of transport in comfort and productive use of time - the entire experience must be taken into consideration. Stations must be comfortable, roomy, and provide amenities (which, as airports have found, are a good way to increase the flow of cash from travelers' pockets to the facility's cash registers!). Boarding must be quick, and accurate information must be provided in a timely, understandable way. People with mobility challenges must be considered and graciously accommodated. Transfers to other modes of transportation must be clearly indicated and comfortably accessible.

...and the "Competition"?

One of the questions asked of the panel concerned which mode of transportation was high speed rail's most serious competition. There was vigorous and cogent objection to the question from Andrew McNaughton, Chief Engineer of the HS2 project in the UK. Transportation must be viewed as a holistic system, not as competing businesses. We heard a lot about integration and the need to make transportation a seamless experience for the traveler.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737
landing at Dallas Love Field

Airlines that once opposed high speed rail are no longer objecting. Why is that? Because HSR (and rail in general) fills a very difficult transportation niche, the 300-500 mile segment. Neil Peterson, Executive Adviser to CH2M Hill and an airline specialist, explained that "fuel burn" was the biggest cost to airlines, and also the most unpredictable part of their budgets. Because of the way jet aircraft operate, they are very costly to fly under 500 miles. This is why airlines are dropping flights to small cities, causing consternation among the citizens. Southwest Airlines started as a short-haul provider, and it was while they provided this type of service that they effectively scuttled Texas's plan to build HSR between Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Now, these routes are losing the airline money. What a shame.

Into this niche are stepping the bus companies. In the US, Megabus, Bolt, and Greyhound are beginning to be more profitable (or at least not losing as much money). Buses compete effectively in the low-budget market, and SNCF in France has felt the pressure to the extent of launching its own bus lines, according to Mme. Dalibard. SNCF rates buses ten times as safe as personal automobiles, and almost as cost-effective as their high-speed trains. And buses are effective on many routes, both in competition with trains and where trains are too costly to run.
Inside Megabus
In several parts of the US, Amtrak runs bus service to extend its reach, and I've taken Amtrak "Thruway Motor-coaches" in Michigan, Florida, and California. But I'm always glad when I get to the train, because it's roomier, far less jerky, much easier to walk around in, get a drink or a snack, and use the rest room. I've ridden in Megabus double-deckers to and from Cleveland, and they're much more cramped and bumpy than the train.

For rail, the "sweet spot" is that stretch between about 200 and 500 miles: too short for airlines to make a profit, and too long for buses to be anything but numbing. Above 200 miles, conventional-speed rail (max 80 MPH) takes more than 5 hours and loses its competitive edge with air, even though the airlines are reluctant to fly in the 200 to 500 mile gap. Hence the push in places like Illinois and Michigan for 110 MPH trains, which extend the practical range of rail and could theoretically bring 300 miles down to as little as 3 hours. But that still leaves the gap between 300 and 500 miles: which is grueling by car, torture by bus, and too slow by conventional train...unless you have true HSR, running in the 150-200 MPH range.

So high speed rail should be presented as a time-management tool, rather than as a sexy technology that runs very fast. After all, the airlines don't advertise how fast their airplanes fly (though they did at first). Surveys of users indicate that 90% can use their time productively on trains, as compared to only 6% on airline flights. What a difference! That's really what can "sell" HSR.

Automobiles have an important role to play in both short- and long-distance travel (especially if we can solve the energy and safety issues that plague auto travel). One is in carrying families and small groups. Because the cost of carrying five people is essentially the same as carrying one, cars - and especially vans and SUVs - are cost-savers on family vacations. SNCF's wildly popular and capacity-constrained HSR still only carries 20-25% of the traffic between northern and southern France, according to Mme. Dalibard.

On the short-distance end, especially the "last mile", cars are critical for travelers with heavy luggage or with mobility limitations. But that doesn't necessarily mean driving your car to the station and parking it there for two weeks. Taxis have long been used for this kind of travel, but other car-sharing plans are being tried in some places. One French company encourages travelers to leave their car at the bus station, where it will be rented to others while you rent someone else's car at the other end. (I can see drawbacks to this scheme...)

In short, high speed rail is filling a useful travel niche in many countries, and is being expanded in several of them. There are trends that indicate increasing success and importance for HSR, but there are also many things that can be done to improve not only HSR but the travel experience as a whole and the many modes of travel as a system.
Next time, I'll look at the environmental and economic aspects of HSR, especially the possibilities for public-private partnership.

To learn more:


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