Saturday, December 31, 2011

When is too much enough? High-Speed Rail?

Although interested, I wasn't taking this article very seriously (since I'll be long gone if this aircraft ever becomes operational) but then I came across a few sentences that rang a bell.

"The ghost of Concorde also haunts the project. Concorde flew for 27 years but after an air crash investigation grounded it in 2000, its carriers British Airways and Air France realised they could generate more revenue by selling first and business class tickets on subsonic planes.
Tom Otley of Business Traveller magazine believes hypersonic flight could suffer the same fate because the demand for faster flights just isn't there.
"Speed isn't everything, comfort and cost play a big part. If you ask people how fast aircraft fly they wouldn't have a clue. They don't care but they do know which one is the most economical, which one is the most comfortable and which is the quietest."
Even business travellers are willing to take indirect flights in order to save money, a study found last year."
Does this argument pertain to HSR as well? I've been making the Concorde analogy since HSR came up on my radar screen in 2003.  The similarities are considerable.  Grossly overpriced tickets, yet the two carriers, (AF and BA), lost money on every seat.

In the case of the Concorde, although development was government subsidized, it was the commercial carriers that took the losses.  Who will take the high-speed rail losses?  You know who. 

There is a saying in engineering; just because something is possible doesn't make it desirable. If 150 mph is economically optimal for passenger rail, is 220 mph too much in cost/benefit terms?  

HSR is being developed as if it was a race for speed. Note the Chinese, of all people, doing a 310 mph train. Their deplorable HSR history hasn't interfered with their political/economic ambitions, apparently.  300 mph+ are on-the-ground speeds at Bonneville Salt Flats.  While a 150 mph train can use shared tracks and existing rail lines, 220 mph really can't -- at least, not at those speeds. The cost differential, construction and operation, are enormous. 

We seem unwilling to consider the trade-offs. Are there to be no cost limits on anything the government wishes to spend our tax dollars on?  Will the government rationalize its intentions regardless of the facts, the truth, reason, and the collateral harm that will be done to those who at the same time are obliged to pay for it?

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