Why high speed rail hasn’t caught on

High Speed Rail (HSR) has been in the news, with a recent New York Times article listing some of the reasons that the California HSR project seems unlikely to ever be completed. Quite aside from California’s development quagmire and the article’s author’s unstated involvement in the story, there are a series of much deeper, physical reasons why HSR hasn’t really caught on. I haven’t seen these developed in accessible blog form so I thought I would write this brief note on the topic.

[Edit: This blog generated more controversy than usual, and a thread on HN. I was surprised to see how readily some of the core ideas were misunderstood, though it is true that I haven’t written as much recently as I used to, and I’m almost certainly less sharp as a result. This blog contains generalizations and inaccuracies – it’s intended as a jumping off point for the interested reader. One of them (Ashton) wrote a rebuttal! The bottom line is that California high speed rail won’t work for dozens of reasons, and I wrote about a few relatively obscure but quite fundamental ones.]

My personal background on trains is that I love them! I’ve taken hundreds of trains across multiple timezones, in China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, all over Europe, Vietnam, Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. I also worked on track-based transport as a levitation engineer at Hyperloop between 2015 and 2018, so I have some appreciation for the art. I also spent a bunch of time on transport economics at Hyperloop, which taught me a lot about why my frustrations with rail’s failure to take over actually occurred, as well as some of the deeper reasons why Hyperloop is a rather challenged idea. For those who want more depth, parts of this blog derive from academic studies on wheel-rail dynamic vibration and rail spalling, more rolling contact fatigue, and Japanese shinkansen maintenance analysis.

Despite my ongoing enthusiasm for HSR, I have to concede that it is not a universal panacea. It remains relatively niche and relatively undeveloped. It is possible that its failure to be deployed everywhere since it was first developed 50 years ago is due to short-sighted governments and cost disease (the tendency for modern construction within developed cities to cost much much more than the original project did historically), but other factors also contribute to its lack of competitiveness.

To illustrate this, let’s examine past and current HSR development.

Despite decades of development, only a handful of routes in Europe operate at anything like airplane-competitive speeds, which for all but the shortest routes, require > 300 km/h or > 185 mph.

Even turboprop aircraft, which are relatively slow, cruise at > 500 km/h, while jets cruise at > 800 km/h. Over longer routes, the relative hassle of getting to and from an airport instead of an HSR rail terminal is eroded by the higher speed of aircraft, even in places where the rail terminal is in a densely populated city center and the airport is way outside. Comfort and convenience are other important factors, but there aircraft are also quite competitive.

In general, the number of >300 km/h HSR networks on Earth can be counted on one hand, and the total track length is a minuscule and mostly static fraction of global rail network length, which itself is shrinking at a reasonably rapid pace.

Japan, a linear archipelago, famously developed the high speed Shinkansen but like recent Chinese development, it must be seen in the context of very heavy-handed government subsidies and a response to geographic and structural factors that inhibited the development of airports. For example, while the US has more than 15,000 airports (most of which are untowered paved strips), Japan and much of China is relatively mountainous, historically relatively poor, and historically beset by relatively poor transport networks. Add to that various Japanese prohibitions on certain weapons technology in the post war period and high speed rail served as a government imposed solution to mass transportation.

It did not come without cost, however. Japan’s ostensibly private rail companies have gone bankrupt and been bailed out so many times I’ve lost count, racking up billion dollar yearly deficits year after year. Indeed, as far as I know there isn’t a single HSR route anywhere on Earth that operates profitably on ticketing revenue, and so operation always requires substantial subsidies. I should probably mention here that actual ridership and thus fare revenue is, as a rule of thumb, typically around a third of the projections used to justify initial development.

One can argue that aviation and any other kind of transport also benefits from various subsidies, such as expenditure on the US Navy guaranteeing freedom of navigation, without which the global oil trade wouldn’t work. Or that CO2 emissions from aircraft are an unpriced externality that HSR partly alleviates. But if we care about HSR and its ability to enable people to travel with fewer emissions or lower costs, we need to understand why it’s so expensive, no matter who is building it or where.

Why is HSR so expensive?

I will discuss three main groups of reasons: rail is suboptimal, HSR grading requirements are really tough, and steel-on-steel rolling is less perfect than you might think.

Rail is kind of obsolete

The first set of reasons are common to all kinds of rail. As mentioned in my post on traffic congestion:

There are a few reasons. Some are similar to car economic problems, with peak and average demand variation, particularly for commuter services. But I think the fundamental reason is that compact diesel engines got, if not good, then acceptable, in the 1930s. After that, shippers could move freight in almost any form factor between any two points directly. Even in 2022, freight by rail is much slower as rail cars must wait in yards for trains to be assembled.

There is another direct issue with trains, which is that rail systems are, by their nature, one dimensional. Any disruption on a rail line shuts down the entire line, imposing high maintenance costs on an entire network to ensure reliable uptime. To add a destination to a network, an entire line must be graded and constructed from the existing network, and even then it will be direct to almost nowhere.

Contrast this with aircraft. There are 15,000 airports in the US. Any but the largest aircraft can fly to any of these airports. If I build another airport, I have added 15,000 potential connections to the network. If I build another rail terminal and branch line, at significantly greater cost than an airstrip, I have added only one additional connection to the network.

Roads and trucks are somewhere between rail and aircraft. The road network largely already exists everywhere, and there aren’t any strict gauge restrictions, mandatory union labor requirements, obscure signaling standards, or weird 19th century incompatible ownership structures. Damage or obstruction isn’t a showstopper, as trucks have two dimensions of freedom of movement, and can drive around an obstacle. In Los Angeles during the age of streetcars, a fire anywhere in the city would result in water hoses crossing the street from hydrant to firetruck, and then the network ground to a halt because steel wheels can’t cross a hose or surmount a temporary hump!

Building a metro system in an existing dense city is also great (if we can avoid cost disease) but for most of the cities in the US, the suburbs are already not walkable enough to enable non-vehicle transport to a neighborhood station. The suburbs of LA will never be able to depend on a Manhattan or Vienna-style underground railway.

To make this concrete in the context of the ill-fated California HSR project, the NYT article quotes the rail authority chair Tom Richards saying “The key to high-speed rail is to connect as many people as possible.” There are a couple of unstated assumptions here, but it also reveals a fundamental problem with California HSR as it was conceived, which is that in order to get enough political buy in it had to promise too many things to too many stakeholders.

If we want to reduce CO2-generating air traffic between San Francisco and Los Angeles (a worthy goal!) then the HSR route must be, above all, fast. The oft-stated goal time of 2 hours and 40 minutes is both unachievably rapid with finite money and current technology, and also too slow to compete with aircraft, but for insane TSA security delays that will probably also affect HSR. It prompted the Hyperloop experiment, which sidestepped some of the problems and generated others.

Routing HSR on the east side of the central valley via Bakersfield and Modesto means those cities can have a station, but frequent services means that most trains have to stop there, and each stop adds 20 minutes to the travel time just to slow down and speed back up. Alternatively, the stations and their railway corridors are extremely expensive city decorations that help no-one because the trains, dedicated to a high speed SF-LA shuttle, never stop. Because they are trains, we can’t have both. If it was aircraft, we could have smaller, more frequent commercial aircraft offering direct flights to dozens of destinations from both cities. But rail has relatively narrow limits in terms of train size and frequency meaning that any route will be both congested at peak times and under-utilized for much of the rest.

Serving peripheral population centers in California is a nice thing to do, but aircraft pollution from Modesto is not driving global warming. Car traffic from Modesto would hardly overwhelm the Interstate 5. HSR minimizes financial losses when it is serving large population centers with high speed direct services. By failing to make the political case serving the main mission, the CA HSR project adopted numerous unnecessary marginal requirements which added so much cost that the project is unlikely to succeed. Even if the money materializes and the project is completed, the train will be so slow that it will hardly impact aircraft demand, so expensive it will be unable to operate without substantial subsidies, and so limited in throughput that it will hardly even alleviate traffic from LA’s outer dormitory suburbs.

In other words, one can build a commuter rail network, an intercity network, or a point-to-point HSR line, but forcing all three usage modes into the same system cannot succeed.

The Earth is kinda bumpy

To understand the challenges of grading HSR, we need to first examine the nature of the bumpiness of the Earth.

To ancient humans who first walked the Earth, it appeared flat enough, at least at local scales. Go far enough or watch a Lunar eclipse and it becomes clear the Earth is, at large scale, round. To a decent approximation (about 0.3%) it is spherical.

Let’s examine corrections to this approximation. First, the equatorial bulge. The shape of the Earth is an equipotential, and centrifugal forces add to gravity, which makes the middle bulge out a bit – about 20 km depending on how one measures. There’s also some triaxiality, which is to say the equatorial bulge is marginally more bulgy through Africa/Hawaii than SE Asia/Americas. Next come the geoid corrections. Local variations in the density of the crust and upper mantle cause deviations to the equipotential surface of up to 100 m. This is rather small compared to the equatorial bulge, but still rather large. Once the geoid is added, we know everything there is to know about the Earth’s gravitational field, at least at scales of 100 km or so. Excepting deviations due to weather and tides of order 1 meter, the geoid gives the altitude of the ocean.


The final layer of detail is hills, mountains, valleys, and other hard rocky stuff that pokes up on the Earth’s land surface. For essentially the entire world, this has been mapped to a resolution of 90 m by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, while substantial swaths of the US and other countries have been mapped to 1 m resolution or better, using airborne lidar.

Okay, the Earth has bumps. What’s the big deal?

The bumps have a really big effect on how fast people can move close to the surface of the Earth. There are two ways to understand this. The first is intuitively, and the second is by looking at the von Karman-Gabrielli diagram.

The force experienced due to bumps: F = m v^2/r. For a given curve of radius r, such as a hump in the road, the force experienced increases quadratically with velocity v. This is a big deal! The big deal, even!

Human passengers don’t like to experience high forces, especially while walking around in a train, so in practice this fundamental physical relation limits the r that can be experienced at a given v. For v = 320 km/h, r = ~8 km. This applies for both lateral and vertical deviations! For context, my children’s Brio train set has a radius of curvature of about 30 cm or 12″. 8 km is roughly the distance to the horizon.

This makes sense intuitively, too. A twisty road that is comfortable to drive at 35 mph is edgy at 45 and dangerous at 55 – where the forces are 2.5x greater! Walking through a crowded mall presents no challenge but sprinting is asking for trouble. Speed + bumps = trouble.

To a good approximation, HSR lines have to be dead straight. In Kansas or California’s central valley, this is fine, up to a constant in Eminent Domain, which is the politically fraught process of the government taking your land by force. But both LA and SF are ringed by a series of extremely geologically active, steep, and tall mountain ranges. The Interstate 5 out of LA goes through the Grapevine, passing through a point where 5 (5!!) different active fault lines intersect in one place. Maintaining a useful speed through these mountains, not to mention densely populated areas nearby, requires nearly 100 miles (!) of tunnels. Current tunneling costs are orders of magnitude too high, but even then tunnels are typically only built in places with known and acceptable geology, and much of the geology under the San Gabriel mountains is simply not known.

This is not the place to go into depth, but those mountains have seen things, geologically speaking, which should not be possible. What is known is that the entire mountain range is a gigantic pile of broken, crushed rocks that have been rotated, turned upside down, drowned, volcanically erupted, eroded, subducted, and then sheared. Just one of the dozens of tunnels required could easily cost more than $113b, the current estimated cost for the project.

From a 2015 article: “No way,” said Leon Silver, a Caltech geologist and a leading expert on the San Gabriel Mountains. “The range is far more complex than anything those people know.”

The mountains surrounding the Bay are not quite as tall but, straddling the San Andreas fault, no less challenging. Remember, at 320 km/h, anything taller than a viaduct standoff counts as a mountain that needs a cut or a tunnel – perhaps 20 meters of wiggle room if we’re being extremely generous.

The recent NYT article lists a bunch of political reasons that the project is in deep trouble but even if various CA governors and US presidents had written a Chinese-style blank check and there were no land acquisition disputes, the mountains are still there.

The second way to understand the bumpy earth limitation is the von Karman-Gabrielli diagram. This diagram plots the speed and specific power of every mode of transport on a single chart. I love this kind of data presentation.

The zeroth order truth of the vK-G diagram is that there is a limit line of vehicular performance, which is essentially determined by momentum transfer limitations for vehicles that have to displace water or air to move along. It does not apply to spacecraft!

The first order truth is that, above 100 mph, the most efficient transport mechanism shifts from ground-based to air-based. For smaller creatures than humans, the transition speed is a lot lower – most insects fly instead of walk. For insects, this is because at their scale, the world is ridiculously bumpy and hard to navigate.

The galaxy-brain detail is that, between 100 mph and 300 mph, there is a gap in the frontier, where no technology gets close to the G-K limit. Many innovators have tried to slot hovercrafts or ground effect vehicles (such as the ekranoplan) into this gap, but all have failed. Hovercrafts have not caught on for the same reason as HSR – above 100 mph, the Earth is too rough to travel close to its surface.

This is also intuitively obvious to pilots, who understand that making a habit of flying planes within 20 m (or even 200 m) of the surface, particularly in mountains, is a career-limiting move. Indeed, even at slower approach speeds, commercial airliners take half the city to turn around to line up with the runway. Translate the motion of a 737 on downwind, for example, to the surface and even a fighter pilot would not be able to track the ground within the range that HSR must be built.

As a result, HSR grades cannot be built between nearly any city pair on Earth without moving a LOT of dirt and rock and pouring a LOT of (CO2-emitting) concrete, most of which only has an actual train on it for a few seconds per hour, and thus drives incredibly high cost of construction.

Of course roads also operate with public subsidies and require expensive grading, but road traffic is slower, more diverse, and more versatile, while road materials are far cheaper and car operating costs are borne by the user. The result is that the per mile and per passenger mile costs of roads are much lower than HSR. For example, the I-70 cost an average of about $2m/mile, despite routing through remote and mountainous parts of Utah. CA HSR is currently budgeted at more than $350m/mile.

Rail wear, or steel wheels in the real world

Finally, we come to the third major challenge of HSR and another major contributor to its cost. Steel wheels and rails are hard – they’re made of steel, but they wear over time. Wheels must be remachined and rails must be reground.

A typical Japanese maintenance schedule has each segment of rail reground, to exacting tolerances, every 6 months while total replacement is required every 5 years. These grinding and replacement operations, which must be carried out continuously, degrade system up time and require, on average, a fully salaried track worker per km of track. These numbers apply only to perfectly straight track – switches, curves, and steep grades wear out substantially faster.

How does wear occur? A typical HSR wheel bears a static load of 6 T across a contact patch the size of a postage stamp, with both rail and wheel deforming about 20 microns to enable contact. The center of this patch endures a pressure high enough to plastically deform the rail’s steel! The passage of the wheel places symmetric forces (first forward, then back) but the effect is to temper the surface, which accumulates stresses and can flake off. Additionally, torque on the wheel tends to lock the wheel statically to the track as the patch is loaded, but during the unload portion as the wheel passes the accumulated stresses are released, resulting in shear and friction, particularly on parts of the track where the train is accelerating, slowing down, climbing, or descending.

Despite this terrifying pressure, one wheel passing might deform the surface by only a single Angstrom – the width of a single atom. The Tokaido Shinkansen sees 150 services a day, each with a 16 car train and 4 wheels per track per car, so the track endures 1.5 million wheels between 6-monthly regrindings. Linear damage would imply 0.15 mm of wear, but damage isn’t linear.

Instead, once the rails deform more than a few nanometers, the “bumpiness of the world” comes back with a vengeance. Bumps induce acoustic oscillations in the wheels and track, which ring like a gong or very angry violin. Wheels being made of hard steel, these oscillations are poorly damped and cause local variations in the position and force of the contact surface. Some of these variations cancel out the bumps and smooth out the tracks, but some of them don’t, and over time the randomness of these acoustic perturbations roughen the tracks by much more than a single layer of atoms per wheel.

Rail wheels are much lighter than the cars they support, so their suspension system drives them into the track with a force of about 700 gs. At 320 km/h, the critical r, or bump height, is just 50 microns. Less than the width of a hair, and not that different to the 20 micron (mostly) elastic deformation of the contact patch. Once acoustically grown bumps get to 5 microns or so, they begin to induce oscillations in the suspension system. This is damped better than the wheel’s acoustic modes, but damping always lags the input and the effect is to begin to drive “washboard” shapes into the rail, rapidly increasing track deformations. Once deformations exceed 50 microns, the wheel actually breaks contact with the track, hammering it on its return with almost unimaginable force and rapidly grinding out holes.

Cumulatively, these effects are at first linear over time, then quadratic, and eventually exponential. The forces are proportional to the square of velocity, so faster HSR trains damage rails faster. The Tokaido line averages around 140 mph (somewhat less than its peak of ~185 mph), but increase that speed by just 40% and rail lifetime will (at least) halve, while track maintenance costs (at least) double. Maintenance costs that were already on the order of $200,000/km/year, in 2003 dollars. That’s $400m/year just for rail maintenance for the LA-SF route, once we correct for inflation and a higher design speed.

There’s got to be an easier way

As of 2022, the CA HSR project is supposed to cost $113b. The vast majority of this is unfunded, and yet the final project will almost certainly cost at least 10x this if it ever completed, and will still be unable to compete on the LA-SF route with aircraft.

Similar stories abound the world over. There are a handful of locations where land is flat enough and property ownership protections weak enough that HSR can be built with minimal fuss, and sometimes even between cities with strong latent transport demand that can be unlocked, but even then it is a niche solution that takes decades to develop and can’t pay for itself. If this weren’t the case, we’d see HSR developed everywhere, instead of something governments talk about for decades and, usually, never actually build.

By CA HSR’s own numbers, the completed system may carry 35 million passengers per year by 2040, or 100,000 per day. This capacity could also be served by a fleet of just 40 737s (less than current LAX-SFO traffic), of which Boeing makes more than 500 per year. Bought new, this fleet would cost $3.6b, and with a lead time of, at most, a few months. Upgrades to Modesto and Bakersfield airport terminals could service the 737 for mere $10s of millions. The fleet would cost about $2.9b to operate each year, which under current airline business models can be served by fares of about $60 each way. If we operate this airline for free (no tickets!) for 40 years, the total operating costs climb to $120b, which is equivalent to CA HSR’s currently wildly unrealistic estimated construction costs.

That is, a passenger jet that first flew in 1967 can continue to profitably serve the LA-SF transportation market for less money, over multiple decades, than the rather slow HSR could be constructed much less operated, in our wildest dreams.

Where HSR has to bore tunnels through >100 miles of incredibly unforgiving hard and flakey rock for decades just to get somewhere, planes fly serenely through the unobstructed atmosphere. Where trains must slow down and speed up to serve political expediency in smaller intermediate stations, planes route freely through the three dimensional sky direct to their destination, and at 3x the speed, and at lower overall energy usage per passenger-km.

Planes emit CO2 as they fly, but CO2 emissions on routes that could be served by HSR are a tiny fraction of aviation’s total, which itself is a small fraction of the totality of humanity’s output. It can be directly offset through carbon capture and sequestration for a modest increase in the ticket price, as plane ticket prices are mostly not fuel. Alternatively, synthetic aviation fuel is under development to make aircraft carbon neutral. Indeed, at Terraform Industries we think synthetic fuel will ultimately be even cheaper than current options, expanding access to the convenience, speed, and safety of air travel.

Trains are wonderful and I love the Shinkansen, but let’s stop flogging this dead horse. HSR is not a compelling option for generic high speed intercity transport.

87 thoughts on “Why high speed rail hasn’t caught on

  1. If you drop the speed down a bit then a lot of those problems go away
    AND the drop in speed still makes rail faster than cars or airlines when you take all of the delays and faffing about into consideration
    An aircraft is faster when its flying – but you will spend more time getting to the airport and through the loading ect than you will save
    The final point is that travelling by rail is just so much more comfortable than being jammed into an airline seat

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Why do you think TSA delays will not apply to trains? Why do you think you won’t have to wait in a terminal for a late train, or the next train if yours was early? Try actually riding Amtrak and let me know. Perhaps never has Amtrak been within 30 minutes of schedule, and I really try to use it.


      1. In Europe trains are relatively on schedule, and there are close to no delays in boarding a train. You just walk straight to it and hop on board. In some countries you may need to show a ticket and a passport before boarding, it takes about 20 seconds per person.

        Comparing that to the flight, where you need to be 3 hours in advance for between countries flight, or in the best case 2 hours in advance for intra-EU flight. Then you need to wait 30-60 minutes to get your luggage unloaded.

        And finally you need to get to and from airport. Which takes 30-60 minutes and faster means taxi, which costs >50$ for both trips. Slower is probably some suburban train, also not free. Compare that to taking a 1-2$ tram or bus to the rail terminal usually in city center, and it takes half a time, compared to airport.

        PS: and delays in aviation often mean 1-2+ hours (because it’s usually a plane change behind the scenes), compared to the delays of train which are in tens of minutes most of the time, or none at all.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. > Why do you think TSA delays will not apply to trains?

        Because they already don’t? No need to speculate here, we can look at how trains work today, and there is no TSA checkpoints even on America’s one HSR line (the Acela).

        > Try actually riding Amtrak and let me know. Perhaps never has Amtrak been within 30 minutes of schedule, and I really try to use it.

        This is largely because Amtrak has to share lines with freight traffic, which is run very poorly. In theory there is a legal mandate that freight traffic (which does not run on a schedule in the US) has to get out of the way for passenger trains. In practice modern freight trains tend to be too long for the “passing sidings”, while passenger trains fit. So you end up with passenger trains always having to wait for freight traffic.

        There are a few fixes for this, the simplest is mandating that no railroad can run a train longer than the shortest passing siding on the route. That would allow passenger traffic to get priority, making them far more reliable. This is what happens on European non-HSR lines, which is why they’re more reliable.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. There isn’t a need to have TSA at a train station. Also, the reason Amtrak experiences such awful and consistent delays and poor OTP is that the rails Amtrak uses are owned by various rail corporations who will make Amtrak wait for their freight wagons at every junction.

        The way the federal govt set up Amtrak obviously gave them no recourse to hold the corporations who own the rail accountable for the atrocious OTP that ruins Amtrak service which is why we’re still in this situation today.


  2. Random example: I remember flying from Boston to San Diego once in 5 hours.
    At its top speed with no stops, Hayabusa would take 15 hours to make the same trip.
    Breakfast to lunch versus (nearly) Monday to Tuesday. There just is no comparison.
    Rail is lovely and romantic but very niche over distances greater than a metropolitan area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. …”or 100,000 per day. This capacity could also be served by a fleet of just 40 737s”

      I’m guessing you’re assuming 10 flights per day per aircraft each direction which would then make Modesto and Bakersfield among the top 30 airports in the US and would require a pretty massive infrastructure upgrade at both airports (terminal expansion, parking garages, concessions expansions, possibly additional runways) and before you know it you’re dealing with costs starting with billions not “mere $10s of millions”.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. You demonstrate the real problem. Every one being in such a hurry to go everywhere. With the consequence that people increasingly fail to appreciate where they are. It’s a consumption thing, suckers told and sold that they should visit here, there and everywhere. Even at the price of ultimately killing it. It’s the modern attitude that means humanity is dead we’re just too dumb to notice yet.


      1. Sorry man, you can’t just easily place 800 daily flights onto the existing airports in the region. That’s not how the aviation system not supply -demand in aviation works. Judging by other comments below you do seem to get awfully “hand wavey” with how you think airports can handle this.
        They can’t handle this and many of them will choose not to. LAX itself is slot-constrained meaning you’re going to be fighting legit cross-country flights for space. Other airports in the LAX region will fight it tooth and nail to not become an elaborate, never-ending short-range “bus depot” essentially.
        Additionally, the subsidies here would be astronomically insane and they just don’t exist like this in the commercial US aviation world. There’s the EAS and SCASD federal programs to help smaller and rural communities but this plan would dwarf both of those failing programs by a factor of 10.
        Lastly, no mention of having to contend with pilot shortages in your piece. Fact of the matter is the pilots are in high demand because the system for training them is broken, hence we’re now left with aging pilots getting to ask for whatever pay raises they want. We’re talking double digit percentage increases every could years now. Pretty quickly this simple LA-SF subsidized route becomes much more expensive than previously forecast, especially as airlines themselves would have to quantify the opportunity costs on themselves is placing pilots/aircraft on this route versus something that could be far more lucrative…ie this route would have to be among the most lucrative routes in terms of yield for airlines to consider, which means you’re not going to be seeing $60 fares on this LA-SF route ever.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. SFO to LAX already has about 60 flights a day. CA HSR will capture zero of them.

        Pilots are not the expensive part of the plane. The shortage is due to shit working conditions and COVID.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, as usual. I think it only effects the rail maintenance portion not the boring holes in mountains part or the inability of trains to pass each other part, but what about the old maglevs? Clearly they were designed to avoid this rail maintenance, with some other costs instead. How do they stack up or change the numbers?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t have the numbers, but multiple videos about urban planning claimed that maglevs are insanely costlier than HSR, their maintenance and failure modes are costlier, and lane switches… Well, we don’t talk about lane switches for maglevs, monorails and hyperloops 🙂 .

      Current practice confirms this – single Shanghai maglev line is an overpriced dead end, and the only other project I know is Japan 100 billion dollar line, which honestly feels like a dumb idea, but they are building it anyway, so I may be wrong with such assessment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So, I used to think this, and then I researched a lot for my blog. I’ve changed my mind on this, and now my general takeaway is that Maglev is a very, very specialized form of HSR that probably makes sense in some applications.

        The line in Japan is expensive, but not all of that cost is the Maglev. 90% of the line is run through tunnels, including the deepest tunnel in Japanese history, which is not a cheap thing to do for any railroad. That’s not enough to bring the cost down to regular Shinkansen levels, but it closes the gap. This tunnel is also being paid for by JR Central with some loans from the Japanese govt. This represents a financialized subsidy (same as US airports, imho), but it’s not like the taxpayer is footing the $100B bill.

        Second, maglev has some advantages that make it desirable in some places. Not all of them, but some. People focus on the speed aspect, but forget that for a highly demanded rail *speed is money*. Generally speaking faster trains make more money, as they maximize both demand and passenger miles per unit of infrastructure. 92% of JR Central’s income from their rail segment comes from their Shinkansen line, despite it being only 29% of their ridership and 82% of their passenger kilometers. This remains generally true across a pretty wide range of rail systems, with generally high speed rails subsidizing low speed rails in mixed systems. They also accelerate faster, so headways can be decreased and shorter segments spend more time at operating speed. None of this matters if you don’t have a high demand line, mind you, but in some cases its wise.

        Third, the right of way for maglev is easier. HSR has some pretty strict requirements for grade and turning radius. The TGV generally has the worst grade (JR groups prefer to tunnel rather than go up a hill), at 3-3.5% for short bursts over their lines. Generally you get that energy back with regenerative braking, but traction and momentum become an issue. Turning radii also tend to be 4km for 350kph track and 7km for 400km track (planned, not in operation). You can eek a bit more out of that with tilting trains, but that’s not been done for anything above 250kph yet.

        Maglev meanwhile can handle up to 10% grade, and can handle a 5.7km radius at 505kph. This not only lets you go faster, it also lets gives you a lot more wiggle room in your design parameters. A 10% grade is extremely steep for rail, and being able to do that at speed is a big deal.

        Maintenance costs might be lower, but it’s too early to say.

        I think the tldr for maglev is that the Shanghai maglev is an expensive vanity project, and that the maglev Shinkansen is a moonshot that might totally be worth it or an expensive boondoggle. It is quite literally too early to say.

        (And the Tokaido Shinkansen was considered the latter until the day it opened, and now it is clearly worth it).

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Regarding the CO2 emissions of aviation they will be soon much lower than HSR for short distances.

    Electric battery planes (eg Eviation) are soon to be on the market. Due to battery limitations they can only run short routes, which is exactly the same market as HSR.

    HSR is poised to remain an expensive solution, albeit practical for dense walkable cities with good subways (eg Paris-London, Tokyo-Kansai(Kyoto conurbation, Beijing-Shanghai etc…)

    Neither Bay Area nor LA are walkable cities: if you have to take your car to get to the train station you’d better go to the airport instead.

    More expensive, more CO2 and (usually) less convenient, HSR make no sense for most cities.

    (Disclaimer: I leave in Paris and it’s really cool to have fast trains to many cities around)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. In some places they do. So you have trains stopping for 30 seconds on phantom stations. Eventually they close these useless stops. This is often the price to have local politicians on board.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Why not stop along the way? The train is for all people, not just for C-level executives doing commute to sign some papers from one megapolis to another in one work day (a common pitch for maglevs and the like). And people will use it if is an option.

        I once rode a HSR in Spain from Barcelona. Train did two stops in 1 hour ride, and it was full. Sure, average speed wasn’t 250-300 km/h, it was “only” 150 km/h (average, meaning it probably went faster at straits). But it was twice as faster than regular train, 50% faster than a car, and I certainly wouldn’t take a plane to fly 150 km to a small regional town. I doubt it even has an airport, with a population less than a 50k. But HSR line included it and people benefited.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Right, this actually proves my point if you start looking at the promised specs. This aircraft is a competitor to twin piston general aviation planes, not a 737. It seats a mere passengers, and cruises 100knts slower than its actual competitor, the Beechcraft King Air. Oh and the King Air seats 13 passengers, and goes about 9x further. You’ll can’t even run a regional route with this; the math of storing and crewing that many small planes is overwhelming.

        And that of course is assuming that this startup delivers on the promised specs and cost. It’s not like a new ambitious startup could ever over promise and under deliver, right?

        The issue with electric aviation is that the energy density math is overwhelming. The best energy density batteries available have an energy density of about 200Wh per kg (Tesla 3 seems to be about 246), which works out to 0.88MJ/kg. This number is slowly creeping up, but it’s a long way away from the 46.2MJ/kg for kerosene. So batteries have about 1/50th the energy density of kerosene. This is an issue for all types of battery electric transport, but is particularly fatal for aviation where all this weight must be lifted into the air.

        Also the size of the cells is an issue. A 737 has fuel stuffed everywhere to get the promised range. Batteries are higher per unit of energy as well.

        Yes, electric motors have some benefits. They’re far more efficient than turbofan engines, but not by enough to move the math. Turbofan efficiency crossed the 50% thermal efficiency over a decade ago, and they’ve only gotten better. Even if we’re being pessimistic and using old numbers that leaves batteries at 1/25th the effective density of kerosene. Which is why the plane you linked is a poor competitor to small turboprop airplanes, let alone larger planes like a 737.

        You also have duty cycle issues. In an electric car you have the overwhelming advantage of lower lifetime maintenance compared to their gasoline competitors. In theory simpler motors should lower maintenance costs for electric aviation, as turbofan and turboprop engines have expensive overhaul cycles. Unfortunately battery lifespan is an issue here. Unlike in cars, aviation components run at very high levels of thrust for the entire flight duration, and this is super hard on components. Realistically the battery in a new electric car might last the lifespan of the vehicle, while Eviation says that the entire battery must be replaced every 3,000 hours, at the cost of $250,000. This basically destroys all the advantages in maintenance cost from the electric drive train.

        So no, you’re not going to be booking electric airplanes from Paris to London anytime soon. Maybe some executives will have a nice toy, but it’s going to be a long, long time before a battery electric plane can replace a 737. Meanwhile HSR actually exists…

        Liked by 2 people

  5. > the I-70 cost an average of about $2m/mile, despite routing through remote and mountainous parts of Utah
    This is off by orders of magnitude and/or using distant past construction costs. Merely re-building the Denver section of I-70 will be $1.2B for 10 miles. And at Interstate standards (two lanes each direction) you’d be lucky to have one tenths of the passenger throughput as two train tracks.
    Airlines are not really profitable. They are subsidized in a several critical ways:
    1. Direct payment to fly rural routes (e.g. Essential Air Service)
    2. Periodic federal bailouts (e.g. 2001, 2008, 2020) whenever it’s hard to fill planes
    3. Insufficient fuel taxes to cover externalities from carbon emissions
    4. Protectionism to prevent competition from more efficient foreign operators
    5. The ability to run a legal Ponzi scheme in the form of frequent flyer programs, which, even ignoring the other subsidies, is actually their only source of book profit

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Plus tons and tons of money for the construction and upkeep of airports and airport related transit. LAX got a cool $700m just last year. And that didn’t even build anything, it just helped dig it out of a financial hole. Oh, and they’re gonna spend another $14bn to renovate it before the Olympics.

      Again, it’s just amazing how much these analyses just pretend that airports are naturally existing and are free.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, and? It’s still not free, and if you’re going to make an argument about the efficacy and cost of HSR, you also need to factor in the cost of airports. Anything else is intellectually dishonest.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. There’s a reason why I pegged this as intellectual dishonesty. You’re not using the same methodology to compare the costs of both systems.

        Yes, airplanes don’t need train tracks. But they need airports, and airports are not cheap. If you don’t factor that in to the costs of both systems then you’re doing a hack job and not analysis that should be treated as serious.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. “I admit that my methodology was wrong and excluded a whole lot of numbers, but I’m still right. Trust me”

        Even if we take the previous assertions on face value, you’re also implying that the cost issues in question are essential to HSR and not symptomatic of say California or the United States. Given that the French managed to create the 133 mile, 220mph LGV Bretagne-Pays de la Loire for a mere 3.3 billion euros (including 25 years of maintenance!), I think the issue is less to do with HSR and more to do with the political climate around infrastructure in the US.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. Of which various French government agencies paid more than 2/3, which was faster than the Paris-Le Mans line (planes are easier to upgrade in terms of speed), and which was constructed on the relatively flat western French plain, requiring zero tunnels.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. > Of which various French government agencies paid more than 2/3

        I mean, of course the French government paid for it, it’s a state owned company. This is a really weird counter argument to an argument I didn’t make. Perhaps you have an issue with the state paying for this kind of infrastructure, I don’t, but the point was that it was two orders of magnitude cheaper than California rail *including a quarter of a century worth of maintenance*. My entire point is that the high cost of HSR in California is an outlier, not the norm.

        Also, if you have an issue with France paying for HSR out of state funds, wouldn’t that equally apply to airports as well?

        > planes are easier to upgrade in terms of speed

        This genuinely made me laugh. You do realize that most commercial routes are actually slower now than they were in the 1960s, right? Airlines have lost about 40kts in average airspeed since the 1960s, largely because the high bypass engines we use nowadays have more drag and therefore peak in efficiency at a slower speed.

        As a matter of practical economics commercial air travel is not going to get any faster in the forseeable future. A huge chunk of airline customers are too price sensitive to pay for the extra fuel required for a faster trip, and price insensitive customers tend to be more interest in paying for more comfortable arrangements rather than faster planes. TLDR; Concorde is dead for a reason.

        > which was constructed on the relatively flat western French plain, requiring zero tunnels.

        Now we’re getting somewhere! It’s obviously true that HSR costs vary with terrain, so let’s think about that a bit.

        First, tons of the US is flat! California isn’t, obviously, but places like Ohio, Kansas, and Texas exist, and there are tons of cities in this area that could be well served by HSR. Ohio has remained my go to example in this area, because it is roughly the size and population of France, and it’s pretty flat for a lot of it. If mountains terrain is a blocker for HSR, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t consider it for the flat parts of our country.

        Second is that Japan exists, has a ton of mountains, and constructed a bunch of HSR for a lot less money than California is. The latest line, Hokkaido Shinkansen opened in 2016 and cost a cool $4.67B for 92.5 miles of track, including a 33mi tunnel right in the middle of it. Not just a tunnel in fact, a tunnel under a straight to boot. So clearly HSR can be made in mountains and with tunnels for a lot cheaper than what California’s HSR will cost.

        Yes, the government of Japan paid for it, but that’s orthogonal to the point I’m making. It is extremely clear that the high cost of HSR construction in the US is a product of the US political system, and not something that is inherent to HSR.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. 1. That’s a niche segment of the market, not a key part of their business.

      2. True enough, although Amtrak gets its share of federal subsidy as well. But it is a good point – one famous data point about the airline industry is that on net, it has lost money over the past forty years.

      The devil is in the details. Low-cost budget airlines are quite profitable (think Southwest, or the European budget airlines), while bigger legacy carriers have lower margins – to say nothing of the state-owned airlines.

      3. Same thing applies to its rival modes of transportation.

      4. Same as #3.

      5. Financialization of your consumer data isn’t a “ponzi scheme”.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. > This is off by orders of magnitude and/or using distant past construction cost

      I did the math on this. Four named projects along I-70 cost $3B inflation adjusted in 2020 dollars. Two tunnels, and two canyon sections. That leaves enough money left over for each other mile to cost $450,000, which is obviously not correct.

      New four lane interstates cost about $6M per rural mile and $13 per urban mile *in Florida*, a state which lacks mountains. Even if we take the lower bound for Florida as gospel, the roads alone would cost $12.9B for just the roads, plus another $3B for the big projects I mentioned. That does not include interchanges any urban areas, or any other bridges and tunnels.

      So yeah, definitely off by an order of magnitude at the minimum. Maybe two. People drastically underestimate how expensive roads are.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. how do trains compare when plotted on the G-K limit line graph? the graph you show doesn’t have them, nobody is using autotrains, and surely there has been some progress since 1950?

    Liked by 3 people

      1. The vK-G diagram was used as a tool to intuitively explain why high speed surface transport incurs an exponential cost penalty due to grading. Some modern forms of transport are more efficient than their 1950s forebears, but a) they still incur costs due to displacing the medium and b) there is still a gap for generic usage between 100 mph and 300 mph due to, essentially, grading difficulty.

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      2. This is an extremely weird response to someone pointing out that you deliberately used a study that is nearly 70 years old rather the one that was updated this century. You would’ve exercised more academic rigor if you’d just gone to Wikipedia.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. I literally wrote this blog, as I write nearly all my blogs, in about an hour between putting the kids to bed and collapsing from exhaustion. If you don’t like reading it for free, go find something else to do. I don’t owe you anything.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Trains seem to be unusually vulnerable to political sabotage that cuts into their profitability. You don’t see bus lines or airlines getting slapped with unprofitable route requirements anymore after deregulation, but not true for passenger rail travel even in an era where intercity bus and car travel is available.

    I wouldn’t say it’s “obsolete”, at least when it comes to freight rail. It’s still about 28% of freight shipped in the US, and rail transportation really is cheap and energy-efficient compared to trucks. There’s probably always going to be a large niche for non-time-sensitive bulk cargo.

    There’s also particular routes that are profitable on ticket revenue, like certain Shinkansen routes or the Northeast Corridor or Pacific Surfliner routes in the US. It’s just that as mentioned above, they’re cursed with politically driven money-loser routes in a way you don’t see with airlines or trucks anymore (they really should have just privatized Amtrak back in the early 1980s while they were at it).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > they really should have just privatized Amtrak back in the early 1980s while they were at it

      That was never going to happen because of the way our rail network is laid out. In fact, the opposite was necessary due to how our rail network works. Once mail traffic shifted over to truck, basically no passenger rail route was profitable, and the private rail operators threatened to cancel the routes if congress didn’t take it over. Privatized rail transit was a thing before Amtrak, and it was very close to total collapse.

      The big issue is that Amtrak has to share with private freight shipping, and frankly american freight rail is run extremely poorly. Freight trains in the US do not generally have a schedule, and they are now typically far too large to fit into the existing passing sidings. The result is that it is literally impossible on most routes for Amtrak to be consistent and predictable, because you never know when you’ll be stuck on a siding sized for 75 cars waiting for a 300 car freight train to pass. Or when you’ll be stuck behind a derailed train, which has become far more common.

      In most of our peer nations freight rail is run as a public good, which allows them to run smaller, more frequent trains at a higher cost with the explicit goal of making the network more effective overall. Assuming we won’t do that, there are a few solutions.

      1) Ban trains longer than the passing siding on the route. The railways will hate this, but it would be good for both passengers and shippers, since it would allow for more predictable and timely schedules. This would probably result in more freight traffic, as the reduction in delays would make the railway more workable for time sensitive goods again.

      2) Build bigger sidings with public money. This is what the rails want because they’re allergic to spending money to improve their own systems. It won’t solve the derailment issue.

      3) Build separated track for Amtrak, ideally HSR which is cheaper to operate. Most expensive by far, but good for consumers. This is basically the NEC/Acela, which is why it actually works and moves a shit ton of people every day compared to most other Amtrak routes.

      Personally I think we’re well on the route to nationalizing they rail eventually, largely due to railroad incompetence.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You seem to be getting a bit worked up over this. Why not organize your thoughts and write a blog arguing the opposite case. If it meets my obviously low standards, I’ll cross post it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “and frankly american freight rail is run extremely poorly”

        The US is the most successful *freight* rail system in the world, simulataneously offering the lowest prices, highest profit margins and largest percentage of cargo ton-miles covered. A lot of the things that make it US so awful for passenger rail make it extremely good for freight rail. 300 car trains are a horrible idea for passengers but a huge cost savings for freight.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Nearly 2/3rds of jet travel’s contribution to global warming is from the insulating effects of contrails and energy absorption of atmospheric black carbon.

    Synthetic fuels are at best a 1/3 solution to the climate problems of jets.


    1. Yes and no.

      What you’re describing is called “induced demand”. Improving (or creating, technically) infrastructure causes people to use that infrastructure more. Adding lanes to highways and lines to train lines causes people to take trips they’d otherwise not take.

      In a way, induced demand is good. We want people to use infrastructure. The entire point of a highway is to move people around generating economic activity and doing normal stuff. If we get everyone to “stay at home” so the new highway lane remains empty, then we’ve just wasted an insane amount of money. Unused infrastructure is bad. Giving people the freedom to move around is good politics as well.

      The issue is that not every single piece of infrastructure handles changes in demand the same. Some infrastructure handles the changes trivially, some absolutely does not.

      Bikes are the easiest. Even heavily used bike infrastructure has tons of spare room because fundamentally bikes are pretty small compared to roads. Chances are you could double or quadruple bike usage without problems in most cities. Even if you need more bike trails, they tend to be incredibly cheap because bikes are small and light. No biggie.

      (Oh, and bike riders spend more per shopping trip than drivers do, although less than transit riders. So from an economic perspective they’re the clear winner, since they’re incredibly cheap to install and maintain comparatively, and they generate more economic activity which can offset the installation cost).

      Public transit is a bit more complicated, but there are generally things you can do cheaply up to a point. Generally one can fiddle with schedules in order to increase throughout without too much expense. Trains can be made longer, run more often, or do things like add express routes. This isn’t free, train engineer salaries are a big component of operating costs, but cost will scale a bit below ridership growth up to a point. The issue comes when you can’t run more trains and the stations are still full, at which point you need to start paying a lot for bigger stations and more lines. But this is generally a long, long way away, since most train systems in the world have a lot of spare slack to add tighter schedules if need be.

      Airplanes are a bit tricky, because they’re point to point. Airlines can move planes around easily, but only at the cost of other routes. Generally though this is an easy fix until you exceed the capacity of your airport, which is when things get *catastrophically* expensive. Adding new terminals and runways is not cheap, but it can be done.

      Worse still, a lot of major urban areas also have airports that are now effectively locked in place due to surrounding development, meaning they cannot add new runways if needed. If you’re Chicago and you realize that midway airport is now too small and surrounded by houses, your options are:

      1) Eminent domain a lot of houses and pay a political price, plus a lot of legal battles.

      2) Make a new airport somewhere else.

      Both options suck.

      The real issue is cars. Car transit scales extremely poorly, because cars take up an absurd amount of space per person, and tend to back up elsewhere. Adding a new lane to a highway tends to make things worse almost instantly because of two major factors.

      1) New highway space isn’t quite linear, because switching lanes is inefficient. If you go from a 1 to a 2 lane road, you don’t quite double your capacity, since some spots are open due to merging. Right around 8 lanes or so you start to get no benefit at all from each new lane.

      2) Adding new roads requires a lot do space, and is quite expensive per passenger mile for the smaller municipalities expected to bear this cost. The cost of maintaining the road network tends to be a large component of what causes towns to die, surprisingly.

      3) Adding a lane to a highway does not increase the capacity of the roads that feed that highway. The extra trips generated puts a lot of strain on surface streets that feed in and out of the highway, which can often back up into the highway itself as people try and get on and off. This tends to spill over and make things less pleasant for those in the area, which is why road expansion tends to be quite unpopular for people close to the project. This tends to not be an issue for trains, because the input to your typical subway station is either another subway or just plain old pedestrians, which scales better than the train itself.

      In short the issue is less that induced demand is fatal for transit infrastructure, and more that there is a serious issue with america insisting on using cars as the first and only means of transit in every built environment. This approach works fine in rural and light suburban areas, but is catastrophic in larger urban areas. It’s probably fine that people in California’s Central Valley drive, at least from a transit perspective, but it is absolute insanity to allow that may cars in places like LA and Dallas. These places have absolutely hit the wall on what you can make car only transit do, but current political leadership largely remains unwilling to admit that and prioritize a lot more of the money towards projects that fit the built environnement better. Personally I think if you want an expensive and dumb California project, I’d point you towards the time LA spent a billion dollars expanding the 405, only for it to get worse. That state being what it is, I fully expect them to try again.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Your “let the planes do it” counter example makes sense in a fairytale world where the TSA doesn’t exist. I will entirely grant you that if we could flit about between any of the 15,000 airports seemlessly as you describe, planes would be amazing. In the real world, LAX and SFO are genuine nightmares. Once you factor in travel time to/from airport + security time, the LAX-SFO route could be attractive at even lower speeds than the proposed HSR will run.

    I’m no true-believer in HSR (especially once costs are factored in), but I find your argument uncompelling when you get to waive away political inconveniences in a self-serving way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The original post mentions that TSA will be a thing for rail as well. I’d add travel-time to the terminal, also.
      One might argue that TSA is less of an issue for trains on account the bad guys can avoid boarding the cars, instead mining the tracks. That of course works better as an argument against laying a single yard of track that isn’t for freight.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, TSA isn’t an issue for trains today. Why are we assuming that we’ll have them on HSR? That seems like an unforced error politically. Worrying about terrorists mining rail road frankly feels like the 2002 discussions about Al Qaeda “dirty bombs”, completely divorced from reality.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Have you ever taken Amtrak? You just get on the train. “TSA doesn’t exist” is not a fairy tale for train travel today.

      It is really fascinating how TSA is treated like it’s an inevitability. It was literally created in the months after 9/11 to prevent another from happening, and they’ve basically proven themselves to be useless security theater since then. Meanwhile trains cannot be hijacked, and do not have TSA checkpoints today. We could easily just not have them for train travel.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. > SFO to LAX already has about 60 flights a day.

    Which you’ll note is distinct from the parent’s claims about airports not being able to handle increased traffic.

    > CA HSR will capture zero of them.

    Got even the slightest hint of a source for that? In other countries we see a strong consumer preference for HSR for trips less than 500 miles or so, largely flying is kind of unpleasant. In fact, the new HSR route in Italy is believed to have killed at least one airline due to taking over domestic routes, including the 400 mile Rome to Milan route.


    LAX to SFO is well within the range that we see consumers prefering HSR in other countries.

    > Pilots are not the expensive part of the plane.

    I would highly recommend you google this kind of stuff quickly before making these claims. In 2019 labor costs were the largest single part of airline operating costs, and it was not close at all. 32.3%. The next closest cost center was fuel (17%). Actually leasing the airplanes was a measly 7.1% of the overall costs.

    Even if we limit this purely to pilots, the FAA estimates that pilots are 52% of the labor cost per flight hour, so pilots are still roughly on par with fuel. Of course that’s not reasonable to do, because there is also a shortage of other types of labor for airlines.

    Labor costs are always a huge chunk of any transit budget. This is why HSR is actually *cheaper* to operate than regular rail, because it allows you to squeeze more passenger miles per crew and train depreciation hour. Airlines can’t really do that without increasing their fuel spend, unluckily for them. Realistically airlines have slowed down their flight speeds since the 1960s, and they are probably already at the ideal balance points between fuel and crew costs, meaning they cannot go faster.

    Trains can also be made longer if need be, which is not a trick airplanes can pull off. SNCFs new TGV M units cost 30€ million per train, carry a maximum of 740 people, and can very the length between 7 and 9 carriages per train set. Oh, and the interiors are modular and can be reconfigured between first, second, coach, and bike space as need be. This lets SNCF start routes out with small train sets and adjust the size and capacity to match demand without adjust their crew cost. Also that’s 30 million per *train*, not per car.

    Meanwhile the A320 neo seats a maximum of 180, costs $110mil, and must have a whole new flight crew. And that flight crew is bigger than a typical TGV train (6 vs. 4)

    > The shortage is due to shit working conditions and COVID.

    That does not change the fact that there are not enough new pilots to drastically expand our airline traffic. COVID certainly did not help, but this has been a long standing issue precisely because labor costs are so high for airlines. Making life better for pilots will involve hiring more of them and giving them better, less demanding schedules. Airlines are not enthused about this for obvious reasons.

    Oh, and airlines only pay for labor while the plane is in the air, not including delays and loading/unloading. This is probably unsustainable, and I’d expect labor action over this in the future, so there’s a whole doom of damocles over the airlines for labor costs, which is fun.

    Airlines will also always need to pay more than trains for labor because

    1. Flying a plane is harder than driving a train.

    2. A lot of airline jobs suck. Being a steward/stewardess is hard on your health, and makes having a normal life difficult.

    3. Planes really don’t move that many people per crew hour. An Airbus A320neo has a crew of 6, can seat 174, and cruises at 542 mph (high speed cruise, efficiency speed is 515). This leaves us with 15,718 passenger miles per crew hour, assuming that we spend all our time at cruising speed and altitude. Meanwhile a TGV M has a crew of 4, travels at 220mph, and seats up to 740 people. This gives us 40,700 passenger miles per crew hour. Even in a less space efficient configuration like the “Océane” configuration a TGV M moves 558 people, which gives us 30,690 passenger miles per crew hour. A

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Pilots are not the expensive parts of a plane. Airline labor costs include ground crew, maintenance, cabin crew, etc, not just the person in the pointy end. In fact, the cost of a missing pilot is so high that all airlines have two flight crews available for any flight, which means that at any given time, about half of all professional pilots are sitting in a lounge somewhere waiting to be called up. Yes they’re earning standby pay but it’s not that exciting sitting around, which is one of the reasons the job kinda sucks.

      During COVID, a lot of senior pilots retired. Still, there are millions of licensed pilots in the US. Most are not legally qualified to fly a commercial jet but that’s mostly a function of the 1500 hours rule, which was kind of a guild requirement that could easily be lifted.

      Flying a plane is harder than flying a train? I don’t know about that. In Australia, union train driving training takes two years to complete, and I got my private pilot license in about 45 hours of flight time. Planes are actually very easy to fly. The hard part is handling rare emergencies, dealing with limited resources, boredom, bureaucracy, etc. There are numerous flight schools in the US that train pilots the world over. It’s not unusual to find places that’ll get a pilot up to multi-engine commercial rating in 6-8 weeks.

      HSR headway requirements mean they move not that many people either. 740 people per train is great, but how many trains move per hour? Even Japan I think does maybe 70 trains per day on the busiest routes, or <3/hour.

      In general, Ashton, you seem to disagree with my conclusions but haven't taken the time to understand the reasoning behind it. I didn't write a textbook on the topic for a blog post, but I did work on transport economics for years at Hyperloop, including very thorough critiques of various consultancy products and building a predictive demand model. I didn't write this post to gratify train fans – even though I am one myself!


      1. > Pilots are not the expensive parts of a plane. Airline labor costs include ground crew, maintenance, cabin crew, etc, not just the person in the pointy end.

        1. Again, pilot salaries are 52% of the per flight hour labor costs of flying according to the FAA. This puts them roughly on par with fuel, and double the cost of leasing the plane itself.

        2. All the other labor costs scale with flight hours too, so the point is moot. If you need to double the flights in the country, you have to double the number of stewards, and there is a shortage of those too.

        > I got my private pilot license in about 45 hours of flight time.

        For a Cessna, I assume. You’re not going to fly a 737 for Southwest after 45 hours of flight time. The norm in the US is 1,500 hours of flight time, taking about 2 years.

        I will concede that we can probably lower the cost of training pilots in the US. But if you’re going to claim that there are schools turning out commercial pilots in weeks, please name them so we can discuss specifics.

        Unfortunately I was not able to find training data on the TGV or Shinkansen. What I was able to find was salary information though. The median Shinkansen salary is JPY 7,580,000, or $61,656. The median japan airlines pilot meanwhile makes JPY 15,357,553, or $104,661. Similarly in the US you have Amtrak averaging $77k while the average airline pilot made $198k. French train engineers average a bit under €36,000, while the median French airline pilots in France make €80k. German train drivers started out at €27600, while Lufthansa pilots average €180,000. Everywhere I looked airline pilots made over double the rate of train engineers, sometimes more.

        If you have counter examples, I’m all ears. But the data seems to point towards train drivers being *significantly* cheaper than pilots.

        One more thing: trains can be automated, while planes cannot yet. This is not a hypothetical either, automated train systems are fairly common the world over, and the Shinkansen started last year. Maybe one day planes will get there too, but we’re not there yet.

        > HSR headway requirements mean they move not that many people either. 740 people per train is great, but how many trains move per hour? Even Japan I think does maybe 70 trains per day on the busiest routes, or In general, Ashton, you seem to disagree with my conclusions but haven’t taken the time to understand the reasoning behind it.

        Or perhaps I did spend the time understanding, and I think you’re wrong.

        > I did work on transport economics for years at Hyperloop, including very thorough critiques of various consultancy products and building a predictive demand models.

        1. There is no particular reason to believe that this would give you any meaningful insight into the construction and operation of HSR.

        2. Burnishing credentials here would be much more effective if you hadn’t just made multiple basic factual errors about the systems you are critiquing, and providing citations that are half a century out of date.

        3. Perhaps you should consider whether or not your participation in hyperloop is biasing your analysis, rather than providing relevant expertise.

        Liked by 3 people

  11. Thanks for the great post. It was an interesting opinion.
    Please hear this as the opinion of someone who lives in an urban area of Japan where HSR is very well developed (please take my poor English with a grain of salt). As you say, there are many HSR plans between Los Angeles and California that are somewhat unreasonable.
    However, it is too early to make the generalization that passenger aviation will always outperform HSR. Much of Asia is very densely populated, and operating HSR between such cities is sometimes more reasonable than air.

    There are several reasons for this, the most important being that HSR is very efficient in transportation. According to JR Tokai, in 2021, the Tokaido Shinkansen will carry 84 million passengers between Tokyo and Osaka, and the same number of passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Tokaido Shinkansen carried 84 million passengers between Tokyo and Osaka in 2021, and 2.2 million passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles by air, according to JR Tokai. This is very large considering that the combined population ratio of the two metropolitan areas is about 2.5 times (Tokyo and Osaka: 56.6 million, San Francisco and Los Angeles: 22.6 million). The high transportation efficiency means smaller CO2 emissions per capita, which increases the rationale for regular maintenance.

    Another reason is safety and accuracy: HSR is virtually independent of weather conditions and can have fewer delays (if a proper operating system is in place). Also, since they can only move on rails, terrorists cannot use their mass and speed to cause catastrophic destruction, and there is no advantage to being hijacked.

    When the Shinkansen was a national railroad, fraud and negligence were rampant in the organization, and despite its superior transportation characteristics, it calculated a significant deficit. However, since becoming a private company called JR, it has turned profitable through steady sales efforts and is about to build the Linear Central Shinkansen at a total cost of 47 million without any government subsidies, while repaying more than 200 million in debts incurred during the national railroad era. We hope you can see that the HSR system can support society while generating great profits.
    Thank you for reading this long comment.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. “Comfort and convenience are other important factors, but there aircraft are also quite competitive. ”

    This is a head scratcher to me. On planes you are packed in like sardines. On trains there is ample room, I can easily bring a laptop and make it my office away from office.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I really enjoyed and appreciated this blog. There is a lot of information I didn’t know. Particularly the maintenance requirements for HSR. Or perhaps any rail adjusting for speed/ weight etc. The v-kG diagram is fascinating although I didn’t understand some of the velocities applied to some modes of transport ( ie submarines) however that doesn’t appear to change the underlying message!

    Bruce Handmer, sent from my iPhone



  14. I didn’t quite make it through all of the comments, but another factor I didn’t see discussed is population density. This is a big country, and a lot of it was built out in the age of automobiles. Things are pretty spread out in a lot of places. I live in the Houston area and have a niece in the Dallas area. There is a group trying to get HSR built between these two cities, although they are already well served by the airlines. But I would never take a train to visit my niece, for the same reason I would never fly. I live 25 miles from the train station downtown (and 30 miles from the airport). My niece lives 40 miles from downtown Dallas. So when we go to see her we drive. The car also gives us mobility while we are there.

    As a life-long resident of this area, I don’t consider this a problem to be solved. It works just fine for me, and just about everybody else around here. If I am going to Austin, San Antonio or New Orleans I also drive. Further than that I will fly.


      1. I suppose so, but without an existing transit system, and the density to support one, that seems like a showstopper to me. What does it do to your cost estimates if you have to build out a feeder network on each end of the HSR line? The fact is, if HSR ever comes to a city like Houston a few inner city residents will be able to take local transit to the train station and most everybody else will be expecting to drive there and park.


      2. Right. The point is that in a low density area travel by car is preferable for distances that would otherwise be the sweet spot for HSR. Any further and air is the most practical choice.


    1. > HSR headway requirements mean they move not that many people either. 740 people per train is great, but how many trains move per hour? Even Japan I think does maybe 70 trains per day on the busiest routes… <
      The Tōkaidō Shinkansen has more than 340 services on average each day.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Realistically, for Texas I’d focus on inner city rail transport first. The benefits of HSR are basically entirely mitigated if you have to drive to the train station. Inner city rail would be a necessary first step, and it would do a lot to relieve congestion.

      Places like Dallas are basically hitting the limit of what you can do via car at the moment, so they’ll have to do something about that one way or another.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Your articles are amazing. Your analysis always goes into such unexpected depth. I also love seeing such a passionate global following from fans like Ashton. Kudos Casey!!


  16. >The oft-stated goal time of 2 hours and 40 minutes is both unachievably rapid with finite money and current technology, and also too slow to compete with aircraft

    These claims seem obviously false, not theoretically, but because of the actually existing evidence from rail systems in (at minimum) France, Italy, and Japan. They all run HSR routes at higher average speeds than that, which have successfully competed with airlines.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. If we ever do move on Hyperloop in a big way, my objection is mainly aesthetic: We’d have these big pipelines banging around all over the place. And likely not even transparent ones. I assume the economic equation is constantly changing as materials science advances, but (coming from a non-engineering background) would we build Hyperloop tube-tracks in a factory, then haul them into place, or would it be cheaper to print them on site? Also, most new HSR proposals do indeed feel like vanity projects. Here in Florida, for example, there was a pretty neat idea to connect the Tampa Bay area with Orlando by high-speed rail. The idea was scotched by Gov. Rick Scott, who publicly viewed it as sponging money from state highways. But sometimes it does make sense: The 50,000 workers centered at Walt Disney World (I know!) would’ve had a clear alternative to driving west to the coast on I-4 or even an alternative to living in the middle of the state, for example. Maybe the line would’ve shifted the economic balance of the hospitality industry, as hotels at the far ends of the line had to compete.


  18. Really, really great insights and analysis, Casey. Thank you for taking the time to share the insights.

    One question: I didn’t see MagLev on the G-K graphic. Without wheel friction, is this a viable technology?


  19. On an efficiency basis, it would be better for California to put in a system of canals. Although obviously much slower than HSR, a large canal network could carry more passengers between LA and San Francisco, and do so in luxury so people didn’t mind the increased travel time. It would also be a much cheaper option for moving freight between the two cities, and its construction should provide the same economic benefits as HSR rail construction.

    And there are bound to be plenty of other benefits to building a water link between those two cities.


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