Is the California High Speed Rail Plan ignoring accelerating technological change?

(Of late I have been writing a few articles for some other online sites. The following is an article that appeared on It was also commented on positively and negatively with angry threads.)

There’s been much debate in the USA about High Speed Rail (HSR) and most notably the giant project aimed at moving 20 to 24 million passengers a year through the California central valley, and in particular from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes.

There’s been big debate about the projected cost ($68B to $99B) and the inability of projected revenues to cover interest on the capital let alone operating costs. The project is beginning with a 130 mile segment in the central valley to make use of federal funds. This could be a “rail to nowhere” connecting no big towns and with no trains on it. By 2028 they plan to finally connect SF and LA.

The debate about the merits of this train is extensive and interesting, but its biggest flaw is that it is rooted in the technology of the past and present day. Indeed, HSR itself is around 50 years old, and the 350 kph top speed of the planned line was attained by the French TGV over 30 years ago.

The reality of the world, however, is that technology is changing very fast, and in some fields like computing at an exponential rate. Transportation has not been used to such rapid rates of change, but that protection is about to end. HSR planners are comparing their systems to other 20th century systems and not planning for what 2030 will actually hold.

At Singularity University, our mission is to study and teach about the effects of these rapidly changing technologies. Here are a few areas where new technology will disrupt the plans of long-term HSR planners:

Self-Driving Cars

Cars that can drive and deliver themselves left the pages of science fiction and entered reality in the 2000s thanks to many efforts, including the one at Google. (Disclaimer: I am a consultant to, but not a spokesman for that team.) Readers of my own blog will know it is one of my key areas of interest. By 2030 such vehicles are likely to be common, and in fact it’s quite probable they will be able to travel safely on highways at faster speeds than we trust humans to drive. They could also platoon to become more efficient.

Their ability to deliver themselves is both boon and bane to rail transit. They can offer an excellent “last/first mile” solution to take people from their driveways to the train stations — for it is door to door travel time that people care about, not airport-to-airport or downtown-to-downtown. The HSR focus on a competitive downtown-to-downtime time ignores the fact that only a tiny fraction of passengers will want that precise trip.

Self-delivering cars could offer the option of mobility on demand in a hired vehicle that is the right vehicle for the trip — often a light, efficient single passenger vehicle that nobody would buy as their only car today. These cars will offer a more convenient and faster door-to-door travel time on all the modest length trips (100 miles or less) in the central valley. Because the passenger count estimates for the train exceed current air-travel counts in the state, they are counting heavily on winning over those who currently drive cars in the central valley, but they might not win many of them at all.

The cars won’t beat the train on the long haul downtown SF to downtown LA. But they might well be superior or competitive (if they can go 100mph on I-5 or I-99) on the far more common suburb-to-suburb door to door trips. But this will be a private vehicle without a schedule to worry about, a nice desk and screen and all the usual advantages of a private vehicle.

Improved Air Travel

The air travel industry is not going to sit still. The airlines aren’t going to just let their huge business on the California air corridor disappear to the trains the way the HSR authority hopes. These are private companies, and they will cut prices, and innovate, to compete. They will find better solutions to the security nightmare that has taken away their edge, and they’ll produce innovative products we have yet to see. The reality is that good security is possible without requiring people arrive at airports an hour before departure, if we are driven to make it happen. And the trains may not remain immune from the same security needs forever.

On the green front, we already see Boeing’s new generation of carbon fiber planes operating with less fuel. New turboprops are quiet and much more efficient, and there is more to come.

The fast trains and self-driving cars will help the airports. Instead of HSR from downtown SF to downtown LA, why not take that same HSR just to the airport, and clear security while on the train to be dropped off close to the gate. Or imagine a self-driving car that picks you up on the tarmac as you walk off the plane and whisks you directly to your destination. Driven by competition, the airlines will find a way to take advantage of their huge speed advantage in the core part of the journey.

Self-driving cars that whisk people to small airstrips and pick them up at other small airstrips also offer the potential for good door-to-door times on all sorts of routes away from major airports. The flying car may never come, but the seamless transition from car to plane is on the way.

We may also see more radical improvements here. Biofuels may make air travel greener, and lighter weight battery technologies, if they arrive thanks to research for cars, will make the electric airplane possible. Electric aircraft are not just greener — it becomes more practical to have smaller aircraft and do vertical take-off and landing, allowing air travel between any two points, not just airports.

These are just things we can see today. What will the R&D labs of aviation firms come up with when necesessity forces them towards invention?

Improved Rail

Rail technology will improve, and in fact already is improving. Even with right-of-way purchased, adaptation of traditional HSR to other rail forms may be difficult. Expensive, maglev trains have only seen some limited deployment, and while also expensive and theoretical, many, including the famous Elon Musk, have proposed enclosed tube trains (evacuated or pneumatic) which could do the trip faster than planes. How modern will the 1980s-era CHSR technology look to 2030s engineers?


Decades after its early false start, video conferencing is going HD and starting to take off. High end video meeting systems are already causing people to skip business trips, and this trend will increase. At high-tech companies like Google and Cisco, people routinely use video conferencing to avoid walking to buildings 10 minutes away.

Telepresence robots, which let a remote person wander around a building, go up to people and act more like they are really there are taking off and make more and more people decide even a 3 hour one-way train trip or plane trip is too much. This isn’t a certainty, but it would also be wrong to bet that many trips that take place today just won’t happen in the future.


Like it or not, in many areas, sprawl is increasing. You can’t legislate it away. While there are arguments on both sides as to how urban densities will change, it is again foolish to bet that sprawl won’t increase in many areas. More sprawl means even less value in downtown-to-downtown rail service, or even in big airports. Urban planners are now realizing that the “polycentric” city which has many "downtowns" is the probable future in California and many other areas.

That Technology Nobody Saw Coming

While it may seem facile to say it, it’s almost assured that some new technology we aren’t even considering today will arise by 2030 which has some big impact on medium distance transportation. How do you plan for the unexpected? The best way is to keep your platform as simple as possible, and delay decisions and implementations where you can. Do as much work with the knowledge of 2030 as you can, and do as little of your planning with the knowledge of 2012 as you can.

That’s the lesson of the internet and the principle known as the “stupid network.” The internet itself is extremely simple and has survived mostly unchanged from the 1980s while it has supported one of history’s greatest whirlwinds of innovation. That’s because of the simple design, which allowed innovation to take place at the edges, by small innovators. Simpler base technologies may seem inferior but are actually superior because they allow decisions and implementations to be delayed to a time when everything can be done faster and smarter. Big projects that don’t plan this way are doomed to failure.

None of these future technologies outlined here are certain to pan out as predicted — but it’s a very bad bet to assume none of them will. California planners and the CHSR authority need to do an analysis of the HSR operating in a world of 2030s technology and sprawl, not today’s.


Brad Templeton, I completely agree with your argument. However, it's irrelevant. The California high-speed rail project is not about building an obsolete high-speed train system. It's about the money. They actually already know that once the currently available federal and state bond funds of around $6 billion or $7 billion run out, there won't be any more. You will note that the original vision has evolved dramatically over time, based on anticipated funding. What is being proposed currently has nothing whatsoever to do with the initial plans.

This project is not about solving infrastructure, or public transit problems. It's not about moving people from one major city to another in 2:40 hours. It's about political pork. It's about a nearly bankrupt state getting around $3.3 billion in free federal dollars, and raising several more billions in bond funds. These will be spent by a Democratic Administration in both Washington and Sacramento as well as the Legislature in Sacramento to ingratiate themselves to a grateful voting population. Hence, we hear more about "jobs" and the "economy" than about intercity transit.

Californians have been lied to about this project from the start. It was full of "pie in the sky" promises, with construction costs in the neighborhood of $25 billion, nowhere near the actual costs of nearly $200 billion that would be spent bringing this project to completion. (See: Boston Big Dig for a good example of Parsons Brinckerhoff construction cost over-runs.) They forecast 117 million annual riders. Tickets were to cost around $50. for one way. All of this was nonsense, of course. They acknowledge it now, but there is still no stopping this boondoggle charade.

Finally, existing high-speed rail systems world-wide are luxury train rides for the affluent. That is the case even in "Communist" China. With only one or two exceptions, these fancy, premium trains for the well-to-do are government subsidized, all claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Which is to say that they are at the extreme end of cost/benefit ratios, too high on cost, too low on benefits. There's an old saying in engineering: Just because something is possible doesn't necessarily make it necessary or desirable.

So how have airlines in other countries reacted to HSR? What have the effects been in France, Japan, etc?

As far as sprawl, I was speculating recently on what newly planned suburban communities would look like after self-driving cars have become commonplace. I can imagine developments with centralized parking areas, resulting in little to no on-street parking, driveways, or on-property garages for cars. This would result in narrower roadways, wider sidewalks, bigger yards, and space for dedicated bike lanes. Housing density would go up, because developers could squeeze more houses into the same amount of land, with each house still having as much or more front and back yard space as before.

With higher density housing, more nearby local businesses become viable. This would be the ideal location for the centralized parking (e.g. underground under the businesses), as it could serve as both permanent parking for nearby residents and temporary parking for non-local shoppers. Transit, walking, and biking become more effective in these communities at the same time.

In this scenario these communities begin to look like something in-between high density cities and lower density suburbs.

While initially these new developments will happen at the edges of existing communities, I can imagine may existing areas will eventually be redeveloped like this due to both their desirability as places to live (bigger yards, more and closer shops), and dollar signs in the eyes of developers who can sell more homes in the same amount of space.

At the other end, cities can get rid of a lot of existing on-street parking once there are reliable self-driving cars. Again, the space freed up can be used for dedicated bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and lots of parklets like the many that are sprouting in San Francisco along Divisidero, in the Mission, and in the upper Haight. It'll be even easier to not own a car at all, since self-driving shared car services and/or self-driving taxis will be very reliable, more flexible for different uses (single passenger/group/cargo), and ultimately cheaper than years of car payments, insurance, registration, parking costs (meters, garages, fines, etc.), and so on. For those who still own a car in a city it'll also become easier, since it can drop you off at your door or destination and then drive itself to the nearest open parking spot or garage, rather than having the driver deal with going around and around in ever widening circles to find the closest street parking.

So cities become more desirable places to live as streets get greener and safer, and the "can't find a place to park" drawback evaporates as either your car goes off and parks itself, or you simply have little to no need to own one. At the same time the suburbs get denser. This is likely to significantly counterbalance sprawl, if not even reverse it in some areas.

As far as how this relates to high speed rail: I don't think the overall value of downtown-to-downtown service for longer distance travel is going to change much from today. Self-driving cars will make it easier to get to and from downtown hubs at both ends of your journey, and then the speed of the downtown-to-downtown journey will be anywhere from 1.5x to 2x that of taking a self-driving car over the same distance.

One last thing:

"How modern will the 1980s-era CHSR technology look to 2030s engineers?"

How modern does 2012 HSR technology look to 1996 engineers? That's the same time scale. Will the next 18 years of technological improvements really change rail travel all that much? We're used to Moore's Law in the computer industry, but the pace of change in other industries appears to be much more gradual. Of course, we can't expect to be able to accurately predict it, but... boy, looking around at 2012, other than everyone carrying around Star Trek-style communicators/PADDs it looks a heck of a lot more like 1992 than I would have expected back in 1992. Don't forget, though, that the Dynabook was a 1968 concept, the GRiDPad came out in 1989, and the 1987 Knowledge Navigator concept video was set in September 2011. So even all the smart phones and tablets around in 2012 aren't necessarily so unusual or unexpected to someone who was paying attention to technology in 1992 (and the Newton MessagePad first came out the following year).

I have an article underway called "Robocar Oriented Development" talking about new urban forms driven by the elimination of the need for large parking lots around suburban and some urban retail and commercial centers. It has many of the same themes you describe.

Rail will not go nuts, but nor will it stand still. But largely, once you have chosen your rail platform, that is what you will have 20 years later when it starts operating, even if a better rail platform is available.

Some possible innovations in rail include thing like docking while moving (thanks to more accurate computer control) as well as uncoupling. For HSRs to work well they must have few stops, and this pisses off people because the HSR blows through their land and they can't use it as the station is 50 miles away. A rail system with a never-stopping train and local vehicles that can dock with it using modern tech would be a big improvement.

I'd sure like to think that technology for high speed trains to dock and uncouple while moving would become feasible in two decades' time. After seeing the speed of progression over time of train tech like maglev (first linear motor patents in 1905, first linear induction motor working model in the 1940's, train experiments beginning in 1979 and through the 1980's), monorails (various types in limited operation since 1820), and etc. call me skeptical that even 20 years makes that much difference in advances in train technology.

In fact, considering how slow progress is in rail tech, what I'd want to see most is a system based on tried and true technology that's already in operation in other places, using as much off the shelf infrastructure as possible. I don't care if the tech is going to be officially 20 years "out of date" by the time it's running, if it means that it will actually get running. It's almost inevitable that big transport systems based on technology that is unproven or still under development are destined to have large cost overruns and be delayed by years, if not outright fail. See: BART, Concorde, SST, the Space Shuttle, HST, VentureStar, B-1 bombers, V-22 Osprey, B-2 bombers, F-22 Raptor, A-12 Avenger II, F-35 Lightning II, etc. For counterpoint, see transit systems based on the PPC streetcars, the Soviet/Russian Soyuz manned spacecraft, and other systems that have evolved gradually over decades.

If CHSR had tried to do maglev, monorail, or something else exotic and "sexy" it'd already be dead (and critics would be rejoicing, but we'd be that much further away from anything to take it's place).

So, will "a better rail platform" become available in the next 18 years that it's projected to get CHSR running? Maybe. Will it be that much better than what's available to CHSR today? Probably not. Would it be a good idea to try to adopt it at any point within the next 18 years? Almost unequivocally no. I don't think it'd matter even if we only had to wait five years for some great breakthrough in train tech, and put CHSR on hold until then. That'd be a guarantee of having wasted money already spent, another, new cost factor to balloon, and an unproven transport technology that will inevitably have cost, technical, and time challenges in development.

Y'know, speaking to the title of the OP, "Is the California High Speed Rail Plan ignoring accelerating technological change?," for much of your main arguments I actually kind of hope the answer is "yes." The one thing I will hope that they remain the most flexible on is software, which can be kept up with as long as your systems are adaptable enough and not tied into proprietary, single-vendor "solutions."

As self-driving cars become reality, air travel improves, train tech improves, telepresence improves, and sprawl does or doesn't happen to shift population concentrations, I still think a 2.6 hour passenger rail travel time between SF and LA city centers will be worth it in 2030 provided the cost of the system doesn't get too out of hand, and the cost and preparation time of a trip is reasonably competitive with air travel. (Somewhere between half the cost with the same transit/security/etc. preparation time, or only a little lower cost with half that preparation time? Yeah, I'll take it. This actually reminds me of comparisons between Eurostar Channel Tunnel crossings, English channel ferries, and airlines.)

If the airlines get on the ball, and fix their security problems once the train becomes a threat, how wil the train compete?

  • Self driving car trip from Palo Alto to the airport security entrance for my appointment at security: 18 minutes
  • Security: 3 minutes
  • Self driving car trip from security station to plane, and wait for my boarding slot: 20 minutes
  • Wait for departure: 5 minutes
  • Flight: 50 minutes
  • Taxi: 3 minutes
  • Self-driving car from plane stairs to security gate: 4 minutes
  • Self driving car from Burbank airport to Pasadena: 17 minutes

Total time: 2 hours Rail time: 2:40 plus Palo Alto to station plus wait, and LA Rail station to Pasadena: probably 3 hours 20.

Well, I guess that's a reason you don't need to x-ray the people getting on the train

Can one really be anywhere near that optimistic about airlines, airport security, government regulations about that security, etc.?

Also, is a single HSR line in California all that it would take to get the lumbering airlines and security apparatus to fix the horror that is current airport security all across the U.S.? Because of course if they can do these things just in California, simply to combat CHSR, then they'll have no excuse to not do them at all airports across the country.

Backing up to the very first line of the first comment I made on this post, I'll repeat it, since it was never addressed:

"So how have airlines in other countries reacted to HSR? What have the effects been in France, Japan, etc?"

Call me a pessimist, but I just can't imagine the "threat" from CHSR being acknowledged as such that it would be a significant force in combatting the inertia of the airlines and airport/U.S. government security apparatus.

Beyond that: Applying to CHSR that same amount of optimism about airlines getting on the ball to fix their security hassles would remove all doubts about CHSR from absolutely anyone's mind. :)

Yes, I think one can. The reason is that there's a difference between a little competition, and the CHSR eating their lunch as it forecasts. When you take a lucrative corridor and you're going to lose it, you finally take the real effort. Including using your lobbying power.

If you think about it, our security procedures today, while a nightmare of inconvenience, are also woefully insecure. The insecurity is often there because the airlines would not have tolerated the real business-killing requirements of real security. Or rather even the TSA knew "if we make people do a strip search, we will hurt the aviation business."

But security is just one area. My main assertion is the airlines will not just sit still and watch their business be taken away. How they will not sit still is up to them.

Well, call me surprised that anyone would be that optimistic about airlines, airports, and the government losing their inertia about the security theatre that's currently in place and actually change it so drastically, in the face of the evidence of the past several decades of history.

I would also argue that the CHSR corridor, while it may be lucrative, is but a single route that the airlines cover. What percentage of any one airline's business is that corridor, right now? What percentage will it be in 2030? (Virgin America started with that as one of their two initial routes, but it's just one of their 19 routes, now. They may be much bigger by 2030, or they may have gone out of business.)

And my question of "So how have airlines in other countries reacted to HSR? What have the effects been in France, Japan, etc?" has still not been addressed in any way. One would think it would be quite relevant as a direct historical example of the same situation faced in California if/when CHSR goes into operation.

Another question that's similarly relevant, if not even more so because it's much more historically recent, is "How have the airlines reacted since Eurostar via the Channel Tunnel went into operation in 1994?" Now, according to Wikipedia, "Eurostar has become the dominant operator in cross-channel intercity passenger travel on the routes that it operates, carrying more passengers than all airlines combined" (references under Operational performance). London Heathrow is a busier airport than LAX, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris is comparable to LAX, and SFO has about 2/3rds the traffic of any of them. Why have the airlines not reacted in a more drastic fashion to this Eurostar threat that's truly demonstrably "eating their lunch" by taking 80%+ of their business in this lucrative corridor?

So far all this of course is even ignoring the limitations and constraints on airport runway capacity, especially in the Bay Area. So even if they wanted to the airlines wouldn't be able to serve all the potential passengers for the CHSR corridor by 2030 anyway. This serves as a further disincentive to them making drastic changes in order to combat the "threat" of CHSR. The history of airlines has shown them to not be very quick & nimble, and to tend to adopt a "wait and see" attitude to changes happening around them. It's a much less risky bet to envision that they will keep this up rather than suddenly wake up and change their spots just because of CHSR. This is especially true due to the long 18 year timescale we're looking at.

It is the first or second busiest air corridor in the USA, around 8-9 million pax, and ranks among the biggest in the world. If they would not get upset about losing that, what would they get upset at? (It is not, however, the most lucrative corridor because fares are lower due to competition.)

What I point out is that the CHSR plan of 50 million pax/year does include making a serious dent in that (though it does not plan in taking all of it.) Perhaps they will just sit still for that, but I doubt it.

In Europe, train travel is viewed much more favorably, but airlines there are indeed upset and trying to change their pocedures on short haul to compete. (Lufthansa even held a contest for ideas, which I won.)

San Jose is undercapacity right now, SFO less so as you say.

I'm not doubting airlines would get upset at losing a significant chunk of the CHSR corridor business. What I'm doubting is that they'd suddenly start reacting so nimbly and drastically as you describe to changes that effect them, rather than how they they're been historically lumbering and full of inertia.

As example again, Eurostar has been in operation for 16 years already. When did Lufthansa hold that competition for ideas?

Now, if CHSR goes into operation and is finally a kind of "straw that broke the camel's back" to cause changes to airlines' and airports' current ridiculous security theatre, would that not be a worthy side benefit? :)

BTW, that 16 years of Eurostar operation is also a good comparison for the question of how today's CHSR technology will look to 2030s engineers. Does Eurostar's technology look ancient, decrepit, outmoded, and/or out of date, now, 16 years after service began? No, of course not. In fact it still looks quite modern.

As far as airport capacity, what are the projections for demand at San Jose airport in 2030, as well as all Bay Area airports combined? They're all ultimately capacity constrained by runways, land, and surrounding habitation. San Jose airport also has a noise curfew between 11:00pm-7:00am. CHSR wouldn't have this problem, and could offer late night and/or very early morning "overnight" trains outside of these hours. Caltrain in fact currently runs 9 trains northbound and 5 trains southbound that stop at San Jose Diridon station outside the hours of the SJC flight curfew.

Some airlines will be slow. A large part of this corridor is Southwest, which tends to be more nimble. Other major players are Alaska (reasonably nimble) and United (not so much.)

Everything I've seen says that the California High Speed Rail system is going to be designed for a mix of local and express trains; if you're going from downtown SF to downtown LA, there will be a train for you making few if any stops, and if you want to get on or off in the central valley, there will be a train that makes more stops and goes more slowly.

In the central valley, there will be one track for each direction at places far from stations, but at stations, there will be a second track in each direction for the platform, so that an express train can pass a train stopped at a station.

Perhaps the stations they are building are still spaced too far apart for a train making an extremely large number of local stops. IIRC, they expect the system can accomodate 20 trains per hour in each direction, and in the peak hour, they were planning to run about 11 trains per hour in each direction on the busiest part of the system. Adding more stations for a super-local train might therefore have no negative effect on the current schedule for all the other trains.

However, adding more stations would undoubtably raise the price tag, and there are undoubtably folks who don't want that.

Great article, thank you for stimulating this debate in the broader press.

Someone put out a figure of $25 Billion to upgrade Highway 99. That number is bandied about a lot but at $62M/mile this seems way high. This document suggests a tenth of that amount which seems much more realistic:

In any case, extending and improving the road infrastructure has got to be MUCH cheaper than building an entirely new rail system.

During last year's HSR debate, I wrote and met with my state legislators about self-driving cars and the obsolescence of HSR in California as soon as it is built. (One ended up voting for HSR, the other against.) Self-driving cars still seem too far-fetched to politicians; even if they are intrigued, they cannot get too far ahead of what their constituents are thinking. Public visibility---such as your article---is vital.

I suspect politics dominated the rational aspects of the decision. The deal that was engineered front-loads badly needed upgrades to the S.F. Peninsula and L.A. commuter rail systems, in exchange for starting a train to nowhere in the Central Valley as required by the Feds. At the current trajectory, by 2020 the handwriting about self-driving cars will be on the wall, the costs of HSR will mount, and the plug will be pulled much to Jerry Brown's disgrace. But we will have succeeded in electrifying Caltrain.

I got around to reading that criticism of your article and I'm quite surprised at the negative tone they take in regards to self-driving cars.

It seems to me that self-driving cars are perfect complements to long distance travel via rail (high speed or not), airplanes, or otherwise.

A drawback of taking a train or flight between SF and LA versus driving your own car is that you won't have a vehicle at your destination unless you rent one. (Less so a problem going to San Francisco, and more so a problem in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.) Of course reliable self-driving car services or taxis allow easier point-to-point "last mile" transportation and general mobility, without needing to have a private vehicle with you. The drawbacks of renting of a car such as needing to go out of your way to pick it up or drop it off, paying for it for several days even if you only need it at the beginning and end of your trip, etc. are eliminated.

Not having your own private vehicle at your destination also confers the benefits of not needing to find and pay for parking. Plus it allows getting a vehicle that is more optimized for your use at the time and may be able to take advantage of HOV/diamond lanes.

In the other direction, rail (and airlines) complements electric cars, so you don't need to have as long a range on a charge. Self-driving electric cars are more optimized for local use, with public or shared service cars going automatically in and out of service as they need to be charged or have finished charging.

Personally I'd expect proponents of self-driving cars and CHSR to be great allies. While there's "competition" in the idea of having a self-driving car take some of the tedium out of a trip in a personal vehicle between SF and LA, it looks to me like the ways that they complement each other are much greater and significantly overshadow this overlap.

As I write, the cars help both the trains and the airlines. If your origination and destination are not in the downtowns, however, the airports are often better placed than the downtowns -- but that varies from trip to trip.

However, one of the key arguments in the rail vs. air debate is that all the other hassles around travel (and particularly around air) make the train more "competitive." They don't suspect the train trip will be faster, but rather than when you add up all the times, the train is only a bit slower than the plane, and is more comfortable, greener and (they used to say) cheaper.

There is a tipping point here. If you can make the mode-switch hassles go away (which robot cars help to do) then that tilts in front of the planes.

  • Train = 3.5 hours, plane = 3 hours -- might as well take the train even though slower.
  • Train = 3 hours, plane = 2.5 -- tilts a bit more to the plane
  • Train = 2.7 hours, plane = 2 hours -- tilts heavily to the plane

"If you can make the mode-switch hassles go away"


Check-in for standard fares for a Eurostar trip through the Channel Tunnel is 30 minutes before departure. Check-in for first class fares is only 10 minutes before departure. These check-in times include dealing with airport-style security and border controls. The airlines and airports have had 16 years to become competitive with this over the same corridor. They haven't.

Putting mode-switch hassles aside (and we've already had that full other thread on them)...

As time goes on, fossil fuel-dependent airlines are going to face greater problems with fuel costs than electrified rail will. CHSR may not start out much cheaper when it first goes into service, due to the need to pay back the sunk infrastructure costs, but over time it will see much less pressure to raise fares due to fuel costs. Over the same corridor there may need to be surcharges added to airfares to pay for big airport improvements, like additional runways needed for increased capacity, too.

And as far as destinations:

For CHSR specifically there will be a Redwood City/Palo Alto/Mountain View stop, which will be much more convenient to a lot of people than SFO or SJC. The Millbrae stop will be as equally convenient as SFO. The downtown SF stop will be much more convenient for the majority of SF residents than SFO. The San Jose CHSR stop at Diridon will be adjacent to SJC, so that's a wash. In the Bay Area only Oakland airport has any notable advantage for a significant block of population, although it's not exactly "convenient" for many people. Luckily with BART service running throughout the east bay it'll be easy for people to get from there to the downtown SF terminus of CHSR (which is also 40 minutes faster than getting to SFO via BART, plus about $5 cheaper right now). If/when BART makes it to San Jose's Diridon station then the co-location of the CSHR stop there will give it a direct advantage over shuttling from there around to the SJC terminals.

LAX has a much smaller block of people who would find it a convenient destination than CHSR's LA Union Station stop. Burbank airport will maintain an advantage in convenience for people near it. John Wayne Airport won't be any more convenient as a destination than the CHSR Anaheim station that's currently planned to be operational at the start of full SF to LA service.

Then there are all the additional potential passengers along the corridor for whom CHSR will naturally be much more convenient. This of course holds similarly true as an advantage of rail over air travel in any corridor where a significant rail system is already in place, or has potential to be put in.

Really, I see much more immediate and definite synergies between self-driving cars and various forms of rail travel (both long distance travel as well as local rapid transit and commuter systems) than between them and air travel. The idea that self-driving cars will have significant effects on the current hassles of airline security is pleasantly optimistic, and useful as a potential promotional tool for robocar tech. I think it's one of the weaker pegs to hang hopes on for gaining greater acceptance from the public, though. Electric self-driving cars that don't need long-range capacity plus long-range electrified rail travel just looks more realistic and within our grasp, not to mention more environmentally friendly, and that combination can simply ignore the "big if" issue of trying to make the currently huge hassles of air travel mode-switching "go away."

Well, when it involves policy, it is harder to see the really quick progress that grounds-up tech can attain.

So you might be right. The airlines might find themselves unable to innovate, might give up a lot of that corridor's traffic to the train.

My point is that this is not certain. The rail plan says, "We will provide times almost as fast as today's sucky air travel, so we'll take a lot of those passengers."

I'm saying we can't be sure of that. It used to be able to check in for the plane 10 minutes in advance too. It's certainly physically possible. It's a question of policy, and of economic forces. London-Paris air travel did drop from 5.5M to 3M, but Europe has seen an explosion of low-fare airlines doing short and medium haul runs.

Studies suggest CHSR could capture about 30-40% of the air corridor, but again those studies assume the air experience is static. Maybe it will be, maybe it won't. If you are funding the CHSR (as we all are) are you willing to make that bet?

Part of my point is that it's even less certain that air travel will change significantly in order to become competitive with dedicated high speed rail service over the same corridor. History shows the evidence of this.

The other side of it is that there are big challenges facing any and all alternatives to rail travel over the CHSR corridor to carry the total capacity that's predicted by 2030. The airports don't really have room to grow. Increasing capacity on I-5 and/or upgrading route 99 to interstate standards are basically just conceptual right now, much less anywhere near getting funding and development. The fossil fuels required for airlines and most current automobiles will continue to get scarce and more expensive. There may be significant improvements to batteries and electric vehicle tech in order to cover the full distance, but you'll still have the problem of losing any "cross-range" at the end of your journey unless you can swap battery packs or there are some big breakthroughs in charging technology. The same problem exists at the beginning of the trip, where you'd lose the use of the vehicle for potentially hours beforehand to make sure it was fully charged since you can't "top off" its fuel right before you leave as quickly as a fossil fuel vehicle. Hydrogen-based fueling systems currently lack infrastructure and have other challenges.

Yes, it's a gamble to bet on CHSR. I'd say it's currently a bigger gamble to bet that there will be viable alternatives that will appear in the meantime. Meanwhile, development and funding on CHSR is proceeding right now. It's a tried-and-true technology. It has side benefits like the electrification and grade separation of Caltrain. And it directly integrates very well with self-driving car technology, which is the most promising major new transportation technology on the horizon.

P.S. As far as studies that "suggest CHSR could capture about 30-40% of the air corridor," I wonder what percentage of the London/Paris/Brussels traffic that studies were suggesting Eurostar would capture while it was still in development, compared to it's current 80%+ market share.

The studies were based on the chunnel results but forecast a lower number. I should note that CHSR's forecasts do not claim they will take all the air traffic; they realize that many will still prefer to fly. Their main ridership claims are based on taking over traffic within the central valley.

I am not saying I would bet on massive innovation in aviation. I am saying I would not bet against it. The CHSR requires private financing past these large initial grants. Those are the ones making the bigger bet, though tax moneys are making some of the bet.

If I ran the airports or airlines I could make the process vastly faster than it is today, and so could many other people. So the difference is the big political or institutional will. Usually only harsh facts (like major competition) change that sort of will, and often not at all.

However, a major cause of corporate failure is doing your future planning assuming your competition will be standing still. Sometimes they do, and you survive. Sometimes not.

You're saying that it's a bigger gamble for the state not to build the railroad. We could have that argument, but it's a different argument.

Over a 16 year period would I bet against massive innovation actually going into operation in aviation that would transform it in a way that would make it cost, convenience, energy, and environmentally competitive with high speed rail over an identical corridor? Yeah, I might take that bet.

I'd be even more likely to take a similar bet that there won't be massive innovation in rail travel over the next 16 years that makes current rail systems so obsolete that if we'd just waited for that new rail tech we'd have a much better system and it'd be completed in the same timeframe.

There's no way I'd bet against innovation in self-driving cars, though. That's much more akin to the high tech innovation in computer technology that we're used to. We can see, feel, and practically taste how it's been reduced mainly to "just a processing problem," now. We know the inexorable march of processors and software is going to overtake and shoot past this problem in short order. Of course the other shoe to drop is the political/regulation one.

"If I ran the airports or airlines..."

If you ran them, if I ran them, if wishes were horses... yadda yadda. Big institutions. Big politics. Very slow changes.

What's kind of funny here is that I'd say your argument that airlines and airports will wake up and make significant changes due to CHSR being major competition is predicated by CHSR actually being a success in the first place. By that point CHSR's success is a fait accompli, so it doesn't really work as an argument against it going into operation and becoming that success. :)

Yes, that's the point. The CHSR plan says, "When we're a success, we will take away trips from the planes."

I'm saying, it's not enough for them just to build the train with a good travel time, price and experience. They also have to count on the competing alternatives not improving.

And I'm saying that any point raised against CHSR being a success based on the airlines improving their service due to enough competition from CHSR taking away their business on the California air corridor is a grandfather paradox.


1) The evidence of history points to airlines being slow to react even after the fact to changes affecting their business (See Eurostar).

2) The airlines and airports have a myriad of other visible challenges facing them in the future that will affect their competitiveness over the CSHR corridor and can't simply be ignored (fossil fuels, airport capacity, etc). In comparison an established rail system faces many fewer challenges.

It's certainly worthwhile to consider the improvements that may happen to competing alternatives over the timeframe that it'll take to build CHSR. I do believe though that the most clearly viable future technology you've brought up that actually involves moving people is self-driving car tech, and that it not only complements high-speed rail very well, it actually complements it better than it complements air travel.

P.S. Claiming the CHSR plan posits "When we’re a success, we will take away trips from the planes" is ascribing circular reasoning to them. I think their plans more likely align with a statement like "Once we're operating, part of what will lead to our success is that we'll begin taking away trips from the planes, in addition to serving many other passengers through the Central Valley corridor who are not currently very well served by air travel."

As a matter of fact, CHSR even complements longer-distance air travel. It opens up a passenger pool in the Central Valley & Gilroy for cross country and international flights who can get to San Jose and San Francisco airports more quickly and easily via CHSR than by current means (Fresno to SFO in ~1 hour. Fresno to SJC in ~45 min? Gilroy to SFO in ~30 min?, vs. ~2 hours on Caltrain). Plus Burbank airport will be more easily accessible for additional cross country flights (Bakersfield to Burbank in ~45 min?).

Once San Jose is connected to the Central Valley via CHSR (2026 by the current timetable) the airlines are actually likely to get more business there, not less. It'll still be three more years until CHSR finishes connecting into Los Angeles and San Francisco, so the airlines won't yet see any losses over the Bay Area to LA corridor. This becomes an additional counter force against the airlines waking up to make significant changes to their service in advance of CHSR going into operation over the full corridor.

In the end, with losses over the SF to LA corridor partially balanced by additional Central Valley & Gilroy passengers for cross country and international flights the airlines may decide it's better to focus their constrained airport capacity on long distance routes. This won't require any changes to their current security/etc. processes and procedures at all. Then this way they also won't need to fall over themselves trying to make process changes to counter the CHSR "threat," and/or engage in unprofitable price wars over the corridor.

In this, CHSR actually has a significant positive value over Eurostar, since CHSR can serve as a feeder from the Central Valley & Gilroy to international/cross country airports, while Eurostar has no passengers to pick up or drop off in the middle of the Channel Tunnel to get them to or from airports in London or Paris.

That is what I meant. To be operating would be a mega-success for the CHSR plan, and is still pretty unlikely with the need for private investment. But I think I'm not writing it in the way that you would parse as I like. It's not circular at all, not a grandfather paradox at all.

It is my whole point that you can't say, "Here's a proposal. It will be a great success because it competes well with the technologies and systems of 2012." Nothing circular about this. You have to say, "Here's a proposal. It's going to be better than the competition when we complete it in 2029." Which is a tough thing to say because there's a lot we don't know about 2029. But what we do know bodes trouble with this sort of proposal.

Indeed, the model of bringing in extra plane passengers may alter their equation. I just did fly+TGV myself a couple of months ago.

However, they (and you) make the mistake of extrapolating linearly from the past. Planes have been slow to innovate in the past. Therefore they will be slow to do so in the future -- that's a risky claim to make. It may be true, but in so many fields the pace of change is accelerating rapidly. Even planes, which stat mostly stagnant from 1970 to 2000 are starting to change faster, due to both fuel prices and terrorism and changing economics.

Expect the pace of change to increase. That's the safer bet. Not a sure bet, but the most likely one.

There's a lot of interesting stuff possible, including self-flying planes doing short hops from small airports, lighter more efficient aircraft, biofuels and possibly (though it needs a big battery energy density breakthrough) electric VTOL craft. I am not promising these things are coming, I am saying I would not bet a lot of money that they are not coming.

No doubt there will be changes, and things we currently can't foresee, in many industries. The question is in the degree of the changes.

I'm not trying to argue that the airlines'/airports' pace of change will remain linear based on their past history. I'm saying that based on their past history I doubt that they are as likely to innovate to such a degree as you are proposing in the areas you state. I believe it's a reasonable bet that by 2028 airlines and airports won't have made such large improvements as to have completely eliminated CHSR's advantages over the corridor and prevented it from being a valid alternative.

I also don't believe that the airlines will see as big a threat from CHSR's development as you're postulating, especially when for about three years CHSR will be helping them without competing with them. Afterwards, even when it's truly competing with them CHSR will still be a feeder that increases their overall potential customer base.

As far as the definition of "success," new technologies may capture one definition of "success" by just going into mass production: Mass-market availability of self-driving cars will indicate that self-driving car technology has been successful. I wouldn't say that simply starting operation on a new instance of a proven technology makes it a "success," though. It'd have to be qualified as something like "the construction has been a success."

Regardless, avoiding the use of the word "success," I would argue that real evidence of revenue lost to CHSR would be necessary before the airlines and airports will even consider making the kinds of major changes to their operations and infrastructure that you would see as necessary to combat its "threat." At that point, again, CHSR has become a fait accompli.

I don't think it's a fait accompli. I think the whole point is that the public is fickle and will take whatever mode they think is fastest and most convenient. Air will be fastest (already is) but not much faster, but rail will be more comfortable and perhaps more convenient, or so the CHSR bet goes.

CHSR's plan is to get built, and start taking passengers. Can't say when the airlines will wake up but once the passengers start dropping they will wake up. The question is how they respond. Will they respond with, "Oh well, there goes our highest volume corridor?" The CHSR says they will. Because of the highly regulated nature of aviation they just might. But ordinary companies would not sit idle. If they do respond and make their product more convenient or even faster, the problem for CHSR is they don't have a way to change (at least as far as I can see) while the airlines have a lot of room in which they can improve. Neither can easily make their station to station travel time less, the the airlines can improve the airport situation a lot.

I vote for sustainable medium speed rail.
50 to 100 miles per hour. No at-grade street crossings.
Known technology, available today, well understood.
Service to all intermediary cities, and building of networks within metro areas for cachment / pooling of traffic for intercity traffic.
Bah to the federally financed trinket: a road to-nowhere highspeed rail boondoggle, without a sustainable capital plan, or sustainable operational plan.

Than this on older rail, though not a lot faster. The big issue is what does the mode change cost you in time? How much extra time to you spend detouring to the rail station, leaving a buffer to avoid missing the train and/or waiting for the train, getting through the station to the platform etc. -- and then repeating that at the other end.

The rail has to win even with that. This is difficult even for HSR on shorter trips, and it is this problem -- even worse -- at airports that gives CHSR the claim that it can take passengers from the plane.

There are some tricks we might see in 20 years go help this for all modes. We can expect live data feeds with real-time updates of mass transit schedules and delays so that we get just-in-time transfers. We could have train platforms designed to allow small cars to come onto them to do on-platform mode switches. This particularly makes sense at a train station which is designed for use by people coming in via robocars rather than walking passengers as is found in the typical downtown train station. If there's minimal luggage a car could drop people off on a platform in a very short time, allowing many pax to be transferred in the few minutes before the well-predicted arrival of the train.

The main advantage slower trains can have is dedicated right-of-way which bypasses congestion and offers predictable trip times. However, the question becomes, is having a train every 30 minutes the best use of a piece of dedicated ROW? What if that ROW were pavement and carried a mix of robocars and buses with shorter headways and offline stations? This gives you more capacity, more service and predictability.

you absolutely can legislate against sprawl. but I wouldn't expect some bloke who wants to pave the world to understand that. cars are the problem my dude, jesus christ

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