Speed and Ridership

Report by Noel T. Braymer

In 1913 the airplane had only been invented ten years earlier. Few planes in 1913 could fly faster than 100 miles per hour. Race cars and trains attempting to set speed records in 1913 could travel just over 100 miles per hour as well. The Ford Model T car by comparison had a top speed of 45 miles per hour which was adequate for the roads and most travel 100 years ago . By 1963, a mere 50 years from 1913 which was in the life time of many saw Freeways with speed limits of 65 miles per hour which most cars then could drive even faster. There were military planes by 1963 that flew at speeds of 1,200 miles per hour and airliners flew at speeds near 600 miles per hour. The cruising speed of passenger jet planes in 1963 was over 100 miles per hour faster than the top speed of fighter planes in 1943.

In this atmosphere planning was going ahead for the next generation of passenger planes going faster than the speed of sound. In the 1960’s Britain and France were working together and shared the costs to build a commercial airliner that could go as fast as 1,200 miles per hour or twice the speed of sound. A person flying from Europe to New York would arrive at a earlier time than when they departed because of the time zone differences. In the United States there were calls to compete with a larger plane paid for with taxpayers money that would go 3 times the speed of sound. Experts in the 1960’s were predicting that in the 21st Century passenger planes would be flying at up to 5,000 miles per hour. At such speed passengers could fly from London to Los Angeles in 90 minutes. The reality today in the 21st Century is you have to be at the airport at either city at least 2 hours before the planes leaves for international flights.

So what happened? Economics! Air travel in the United States and most major countries was highly subsidized by governments from the 1920’s onto the 1970’s. The reason for this was to sustain an aircraft industry and a pool of people trained to design, build, fly, repair and operate facilities for airplanes. Justifying this subsidy was National Defense which would require building large numbers of new modern airplanes and training crews to fly and maintain these new planes in a time of war. The United States and many other countries also regulated air service to protect the airline industry.

By the 1960’s it was very difficult to get permission from government regulators to start a new airline. The number of flights on a route was also regulated. Airlines were often given monopoly rights over some routes and even on routes with more than one carrier regulations kept fares fairly high and uniform between airlines on the same routes so there was no price competition.These regulations made it possible for airlines to make money even with moderate passenger loads and prevented excess seats coming on the market. Because fares were fairly high, passengers were usually affluent or flying on business at corporate expense. Business travel could be largely written off corporate taxes as a business expense which was a form of government subsidy. The entertainment industry were good customers of air travel and a reason comedians who often flew made air travel the butt of their jokes. But a major part of the business travel was related to business with the government which often included defense contracts. Much air travel was also by government officials and government employees. For the general public air travel was often for a once in a life time vacation or emergencies.

By the late 1960’s before the Concord (the English spelling) or Concorde (French Spelling) was ready for commercial service the Jumbo Jets were introduced. The combination of larger size and new more efficient sub-sonic fan jet engines greatly reduced the costs per passenger of flying with Jumbo Jets over that of the first generation of passenger jets.The Concord was designed to compete economically with the jetliners of the 1960’s but not for the new Jumbo Jets. But Jumbo Jets gave the airlines a new problem: filling up the seats of these new planes and handling the crowds of new passenger at the airports. This started bringing down the price of airplane tickets and brought in more middle class passengers flying for pleasure. By 1977 the Carter Administration introduced deregulation to the airline industry which brought in competition, more discount fares and upheaval for the the airline industry which brought about the end of many established airlines.

One of the first changes after deregulation was that many non-stop flights were dropped which are the least economical to fly. Many cities lost air service or direct service to other cities that had existed before 1977. This resulted in slower flying times because of the need to transfer. Also as the price of fuel went up after 1974 airlines flew slower to save money. Because air traffic grew faster than airports could be expanded or built there was more congestion in the air and on the ground so flight times got even longer then they were in 1963. Airlines that survived deregulation discovered they needed to have hub and spoke service. Having passenger transfer at a hub airport allowed airlines to serve the maximum number of markets with the least number of flights. For example with four long distance flights each making one stop instead of flying non-stop between 2 cities would give each flight 3 instead of 1 market-pair of cities for a total of 12 market-pairs instead of 4. Connecting all four flights together at the same hub gave these 4 flights 36 market-pairs.

In 1964 Japan introduced the first modern High Speed Trains during the Tokyo Olympics, This roughly 250 mile route between Tokyo and Osaka had a top speed of 130 miles per hour which by 1965 was run in 3 hours 10 minutes. The technology of these trains themselves was fairly conventional, most of it was built under license with American patents. What made these new Japanese Shinkansen High Speed Trains novel was the amount of civil engineering used to build a new railroad with many tunnels and bridges to create a fairly straight and level right of way in a crowded and often mountainous country.

This allowed these trains to have high average speeds for most of the trip. Also this new right of way was used exclusively by the Shinkansen trains which simplified operations since the line was double tracked there was no need for sidings for train meets and because the trains traveled at the same speed there was no need for passing tracks for faster trains to pass slower trains. There was a great need in Japan for more travel capacity between its two largest cities by 1964 and the Shinkansen was able to fulfill it.

The reaction in the United States to the Shinkansen was a demand by some in the Northeast for a even faster new train between New York and Washington. The Federal Government approved funding in the mid-1960’s to build the “Metroliners” as an electric multiple unit train (meaning it ran like a transit train without a locomotive) for speeds up to 160 miles per hour. The Pennsylvania Railroad which owned the electrified railroad between Washington and New York agreed to run this new equipment.

Rail Passenger service was in serious decline in the United States at this time and the railroads in general where in bad shape and many were losing money including the Pennsylvania Railroad. The hope was that the Metroliners with their greater speed would jump start both passenger service and the fortunes of the railroads. The problem was the Metroliners were run on the existing tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad which for years had been deferring maintenance. Also this line was very busy with several major commuter railroads between Washington and New York. The problem was akin to trying to run a Grand Prix race in city streets with potholes and without closing the streets to regular traffic.Congestion from mixed traffic and long stretches of track not capable of high speed prevented the Metroliners from running at its designed speed. The new trains did increase passenger traffic on this route, but didn’t set record ridership or fulfill the high expectations of its supporters.

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945 American Railroads found themselves struggling to stay in business. Most of the press coverage at this time about the railroads centered around attempts by the railroads to reduce or abandon rail passenger service. For most people their only contact with the railroads were as passengers. With the constructions of new roads and improved airline service the conventional wisdom was that the railroad’s problem were largely the result of losing money because of declining passenger traffic. This ignorance by the general public about the American Railroad industry continues to this day.

Passenger service was never a major source of income for the railroads. Passenger rail service generally turned a modest profit before 1950, although government regulations often forced railroads to operate passenger service at a loss if such service was considered necessary for the “Public Good”. Historically the railroads made most of their money through land development and carrying freight.

Railroads in the past were often given land grants by local, state and federal governments to build railroads. The land for these grants was cheap and undeveloped. Building a railroad was central to developing land in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Carrying passengers was necessary to bring people to this open land to buy land for new farms from the railroad and to buy houses on railroad land and land for businesses from the railroad . Selling land gave the railroads the money to pay for building the railroad. As farms, towns and business took root in what had been sparsely populated areas this developed freight traffic for the railroads which was more profitable than passengers.

It was during this time that railroads built many miles of new railroad and often railroads built duplicate lines next to other railroads. Many of these railroads were never very profitable even in the best of times. Even in populated areas such as the East Coast the railroads were in the land business. The railroads built the first suburbs with homes for people with jobs in the city. Commuter trains were run not so much to make money, but to sell houses owned by the railroad. Railroads often did this without railroads. Southern Pacific developed much of Oakland and the East Bay as suburbs of San Francisco. Instead of commuter trains Southern Pacific ran many of the ferry boats years ago in the Bay Area to sell houses. In 1962 my Father bought a new tract house under construction in Orange County, California. After some research he discovered that the parent company of the developer we bought the house from was the Pennsylvania Railroad.

By the 1950’s the railroads were no longer selling land for new houses or farms near their rail lines. The railroads were losing much of their freight traffic which provided most of the money to run the railroad. Many of the large factories which by the 1970’s were created the “rust belt” in the Mid-West and East Coast had been dependent on the railroads for shipping and deliveries of coal to power these factories. After 1950 many new factories were built away from rail heads and that used new pipelines of Natural Gas instead of the much dirtier coal to replace the old factories. Railroads also lost a great deal of business carrying oil to new oil pipelines. Truck traffic also grew at this time using new government built highways which was often faster, cheaper and more flexible than shipping by rail.

The central problem that the railroads had at this time was they had much more railroad than they needed. The overhead cost of money losing branch lines and underused mainlines was what was killing the railroads, not passenger service Per Se. Railroad route mileage in the United States peaked by 1916 at 254,000 miles. Between 1950 to 2000 the railroads abandoned 79,300 miles of railroad while railroad employment went from a peak of 2.1 million in 1920 to 94,000 by 2006, Today the United States has roughly 140,490 route miles of railroad which is as much as it had in the 1880’s.The main problem the railroads had with passenger trains was mostly with government regulations which if a rail line had passenger service it was harder to get permission to abandon that line. On secondary and even mainlines with passenger trains, it was harder to be allowed to remove double tracking and reduce the number of sidings as well as reduce the level of track maintenance to save money if they had passenger service.

The simple truth in the post World War II era was the railroads were not making enough money carrying freight to maintain railroads to standards for decent rail passenger service. This wasn’t as big a problem for the Western Railroads as it was in the Mid-West and East Coast. The railroads hit hardest were the ones in the “rust belt” and with commuter railroads they couldn’t get rid of because ridership remained high enough that these services were still considered necessary for the Public Good. The most troubled railroads were the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads.

If we look at how people travel in the United States on a passenger miles basis we find that air travel is responsible over the years for about 10 percent of all travel in this county. This isn’t total trips but miles traveled. If we add up all the rail travel in this county today, that is intercity, corridor, commuter and even transit rail traveled, this makes up less than 1 percent of all miles traveled. But when we look at travel by private road vehicles, including cars, pickup trucks, SUV, and RV’S they make up at least 82 percent of all the miles traveled in this Country. Again this isn’t just trips many of which are short by cars but total passenger miles traveled. Many long trips are taken with private vehicles. For proof of this just count the number of motels just in your home town or along a major highway on you next trip.

Proposing a High Speed Rail Service with limited stops or few connecting services even between major cities is similar to air travel in the 1950s and 60s. Such High Speed Rail service would require premium fares to cover expenses which would depend on a small market of affluent or expense account travelers. But to attract even the type of ridership seen with air travel since the 1980’s will need greater volume of travel from lower fares and connections to more markets than between a few major cities. Many people who live in major metropolitan areas rarely or never travel to the central city near where they live where a High Speed Rail Stations will be.

Comparing the TGV to what is proposed for California notice the many branches on this TGV Mainline

Comparing the TGV to what is proposed for California notice the many branches on this TGV Mainline

The experience of the airlines since the introduction of Jumbo Jets and hub and spoke operations shows that price and service to the maximum number of markets is more important to attract ridership than travel times which are slower today than 50 years ago by Air. Rail service can’t match the door to door connections to almost anyplace in this county by private vehicle.There is still a large travel market in this Country and plenty of room for growth of travel by rail. As part of a system of transportation services that connect with other rail passenger and bus services, intercity rail passenger service can greatly expand the number of places people can travel to and be competitive with the auto for travel time and price .

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