Friday, December 2, 2011

Running High-Speed Rail Half Empty

This is a good one from the Financial Times today.

It is the custom of the HSR promoters to refer to up-and-running high-speed rail-lines overseas in order to validate the intentions of the new, not yet built, California high-speed rail system.  Well, let's do that.

Here's the one in the UK, and guess what, they are running half empty trains most of the time.  Surprised? You shouldn't be. Please note in the article how difficult it was to extract this information for the government and train operators. Also no surprise. They did, apparently establish this data independently that the train occupancy average rate is 56%.

With all the complaining and moaning about Caltrain, by the way, their daily occupancy rate average is around fifty percent as well. I can testify that most of the day, the trains run half empty, or less. 

Yes, at peak hours, there is an occupancy spike, but in the case of the UK, right after that peak time, they cut prices severely and thereby increase ridership.  Does that count?  

What if anyone could ride this train for free, anytime?  What would occupancy rates be then?  Who cares?  That's an academic and meaningless hypothetical.  Transit is not, and cannot be free. Mostly it is balanced between fare-box receipts, which are always insufficient to cover operating costs, but which are then made up by government supplements.

That's a workable financing system unless the costs of the train, both in construction and operation, become really prohibitive. (Yes, that is possible. See: $100 billion to build the California train.)

There are two ways (at least) to interpret this problem.  One is that the system is badly managed; with too short train-sets at peak time and too long train-sets all the rest of the time.  

The other way to interpret this situation is that the HSR train system wasn't really needed in the first place; that the cost benefits are far to small, the real market for this particular modality is miniscule, and the reason it was built was that the promoters lied a lot to get consent and all the capital development funding in place.

In many, many ways, high-speed trains are not a basic necessity anywhere.  They are a luxury novelty way of travel and they are very expensive to build as well as to ride.  They are for the well-to-do, the affluent. Fast trains, such as those that travel 100 mph, serve most people quite well. They don't pretend to be on-the-ground aircraft, as does the projected California HSR. They have emblazoned on the side of their locomotive, "Fly California." 

Yes, to do that, to take a Southwest or JetBlue coach seat and get to your destination faster and for less cost.. . . . . . .by flying.

December 2, 2011 10:30 pm
Fast rail opponents point to half-full trains
By Mark Odell, Transport Correspondent

Opponents of the proposed high-speed rail link between London and the north will launch a fresh attack on the government case next week with data that suggest trains on the existing west coast main line are running at little more than half full at busy times

The coalition government, supported by Labour, is backing the £32bn High Speed 2 project and has built a large part of the case around claims that the current route is quickly running out of capacity and that some services will be full by the middle of the next decade.

Earlier this year the government published a consultation document that claimed there was overcrowding, particularly during peak times, of many services, despite the capacity increases from the recent upgrade of track and signalling.

Philip Hammond, the former transport secretary, told MPs at a hearing earlier this year that the case for HS2 “starts” with capacity. “If the compelling case for additional capacity .?.?.?was not there, then a large part of the case for high speed rail would be undermined,” he said.

The government recently refused a freedom of information request from 51m, one of the opposition groups representing 18 English councils, asking for traffic data showing how busy the peak services are on the west coast main line out of Euston.

That led HS2 Action Alliance, another opposition group, to conduct its own study, which has been independently verified by a market research company, looking at the evening peak period between 4.30pm and 6.59pm. The research, seen by the Financial Times, showed that on average the services had occupancy rates of 56 per cent.

The data showed that the first trains after the peak, when fares drop significantly, were much fuller, at up to 94 per cent, but opponents dismiss this as “artificial loading” because of the fare structures used.

“It isn’t a reason to spend £32bn on building a new railway,” said Chris Stokes, a former senior railway executive, who advises the anti-high-speed rail camp and who says the traffic assumptions underpinning the government’s case are “wildly optimistic”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “Our modelling has been calculated using conservative assumptions and a well-established approach to demand forecasting that is recognised across the transport industry.”

Opponents are turning up the rhetoric ahead of a decision this month by Justine Greening, the transport secretary, on the first stage of the line between London and Birmingham, which will cost £17bn.

The government already faces a backlash from Tory backbenchers, whose constituencies lie along the route of the 250mph line.

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