In my last piece, in which I discussed the relative costs of riding world high-speed rail systems, I don’t believe I adequately expressed the need to provide lower fares. In the process, I confused my argument. By directly opposing rail and air prices, I implied that the main point of comparison was between those two modes. In reality, and as was suggested by several individuals in the comments section, the major issue here is attracting people away from cars and buses.
That’s because true high-speed rail, offering services at fast average speeds, will demolish any airline competition in virtually every corridor of less than 600 miles where new trunk lines are built — as long as tickets are somewhere near air prices. Trains are simply more convenient, more comfortable, and more reliable than airplanes; that’s been proven time and time again in Europe and explains why Amtrak has its larger-than-airline market share between New York and Washington even though its tickets can often be as expensive or even more expensive than those on airplanes. Success in dramatically reducing air traffic along the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor is assured if California High-Speed Rail is built as planned — even if tickets prices are at 100% of air fares.
Rather, the aim of reducing ticket prices should be to attract people away from buses and cars that clog the roadways and that are not particularly effective in providing travel between cities more than 100 miles apart.
There are two ways to encourage people currently relying on road-based transportation to travel by trains: one, lower ticket prices; two, increase speeds. Both actions would provide a substantial motivation for highway users to reconsider their options. The first would put train travel back into the sphere of the economical. Plenty of bus companies market service at less than $20 between New York and Washington. At $2/gallon, a 26 mpg car could be driven between the cities for less than $20 in gas. That number doesn’t account for maintenance and ownership costs, but drivers rarely consider those factors when making decisions about how to get from one place to the next.
By increasing speeds, train travel’s time benefit multiplies significantly. While buses get into traffic, they can still make the trip from the capital to Gotham in five hours — versus the three hours required by rail. This is an advantage for train users, but increasing speeds to allow for a 1h40 trip would make it nearly impossible to justify riding the bus or driving, even at a lower cost.
There is no magic fare that will increase American rail ridership while maintaining financial stability in the short-term, but it is clear based on an international comparison that Amtrak’s costs per distance and per speed in the Northeast Corridor are far higher than those charged by foreign operators of true high-speed trains. Fares seem hardly justifiable and the majority market share of car and bus commuters along the corridor shows the inevitable consequence of such pricey tickets. Rail ought to command a pure majority of traffic between Washington and New York as it does on similar corridor around the world.
All that said, while faster, cheaper Amtrak service would be a welcome improvement in the American transport landscape, Amtrak has little motivation today to lower fares. Its Acela and Regional trains run at a high occupancy rate and are sometimes sold out — because its train capacity is too low. Any increase in service would require more frequent, longer trains. It’s too bad such operations expansions are nowhere in Amtrak’s future plans. Even worse, not one state submitted an application for stimulus funds to finance a serious upgrade of service along the Northeast Corridor. We won’t be getting lower fares or faster trains any time soon — at least between New York and D.C.