Don’t bring a train to a plane flight

by Eric Shierman

Is high speed rail fast enough?

Given that transportation is about mobility, it is helpful to ask which is faster – planes, trains, or automobiles? Since the act of moving is almost purely a cost towards the final consumption end of merely reaching one’s destination, it is also helpful to ask which is cheaper?

In the case of light rail, it is hard to imagine a slower means of getting around a city. The Red Line to the airport for example takes about 45 minutes to get to the airport from downtown Portland for what amounts to barely over a ten minute drive even under moderately congested traffic. During rush hour one can take Sandy Boulevard instead adding another ten minutes while the I84 is a parking lot.

The greatest outrage however is that the #12 bus line which goes down Sandy Boulevard used to stop at the airport, getting there in half the time that Max does now. The 12 still passes by the airport on its way to Gresham, but it no longer stops there. Think about this for a moment. The marginal costs of having the 12 stop at the airport are vanishingly small, but if Trimet did not eliminate it, smart travelers through our highly connected world of social media would quickly realize that the 12 is a faster option for the same ticket price. It is not the miniscule cost of having the 12 divert down Airport Road once again that prevents Trimet from offering this no brainer option; it is the reality that this competition would leave the extremely expensive Red Line even more empty.

In the case of heavy rail, Amtrak’s inability to compete with intercity busses without massive federal and local subsides, is essentially the same story playing itself out over a longer distance. The latest fad now is to assume that if rail was substantially faster than busses, then it could be more competitive. As always the other side of this equation is cost. People choosing intercity busses do so not for its speed but for its price; otherwise they would fly. Both the fixed costs and the variable costs of high speed rail approach, and in many cases exceed, the costs involved in running an airline rout covering the same distance.

If you think Amtrak’s subsidies are a waste, wait until you see the permanent subsidies required every year to make high speed rail competitive with Southwest Airlines. If the ticket prices are equal, who wants to take the slower option? Randal O’Toole recently called these proponents of high speed rail out by engaging in some truth in advertising. Here is a popular poster the rail lobby has been presenting to lawmakers and the public:

trains

But since high cost, high speed rail cannot compete against the slower, less expensive passenger rail service of today for these price sensitive customers, O’Toole modified their poster to remind us what’s really going on here:

plains

If you are not a regular reader of his blog The Antiplanner; you are missing out.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog. 

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Transportation, TriMet | 6 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • valley person

    “The Red Line to the airport for example takes about 45 minutes to get to
    the airport from downtown Portland for what amounts to barely over a
    ten minute drive even under moderately congested traffic.”

    You could make it to the airport in 10 minutes from downtown only if you discount a few things like:

    1) getting from where you are to your parked car
    2) getting to I-84 from where you are parked
    3) getting from where you park at the airport to the terminal

    When you add those up, even in light traffic it will take you 30 minutes minimum from your door to the terminal.

    Now for that 15 minutes you save, you should compare the following:

    1) 55 cent per mile cost of car use ($5.50) 1 way
    2) Parking fees at the airport, which I think run $15 a day or more
    3) Tipping the shuttle driver (come on Eric…you do tip him or her no?)

    Versus a $2.50 1-way rail ticket.

    Is 15 minutes worth $25 or more to you?

    Now do the same math on high speed rail versus flying. If we actually had high speed rail between PDX and Seattle, you would go downtown to downtown in 2 hours with 4 stops in between. If you fly, you spend only 45 minutes in the air, but then you have to add that half hour to and from each airport, the security lines, the wait for the plane that always leaves 30 minutes behind schedule, and so forth.

    And we haven’t even factored in pollution costs, which are dumped on everyone else when you fly..

  • 3H

    “… for what amounts to barely over a ten minute drive even under moderately congested traffic.

    Ummmm.. no. It’s 12 miles from 5th and Washington to the Airport. You’d have to average around 65 mph to get there in 10 minutes… 60 mph to “barely over 10 minutes.” That might be the case after 11:00 p.m. Maybe. But during the day? Try at least 20 minutes.

  • 3H

    “The greatest outrage however is that the #12 bus line which goes down
    Sandy Boulevard used to stop at the airport, getting there in half the
    time that Max does now.

    From downtown Portland??? No. Not even close. You cannot drive from downtown Portland to the airport, via Sandy Blvd, in 20 minutes. Unless, again, it is after 11:00 at night.

  • Bob Clark

    One other problem with the red line, or anyother Max line for that matter, is hoisting luggage around on the Max and between transfers to get to the Max is an absolute headache. The truth is relatively very few PDX air travelers use the red line Max compared to the vast majority using the free mobility of an automobile with park and ride.
    Taxis do a fabulous job; but even here, city government has corrupted the provision for Taxi cab service. Taxis could do a lot more than they do now, but government imposed barriers have been errected against a much more robust taxi cab service provision. Maybe these barriers get imploded by the availability of street side rental cars. Maybe a flower busts through our government laid concrete.
    Government beyond a certain point is not smart, but becomes too conflicted with competing goals (not too mention, corrupted) to actually make economical decisions. Big government as we have now makes for a toxic stew. We are into the negative returns to super-sized government.

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