Politics & Media
Aug 10, 2010, 05:54AM

Clear the Air

The Utopian rail solution no one is talking about.

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The phone started ringing, and an unknown 800 number appeared on the screen. I let it go. Two minutes later, the same number appeared again, and I picked up. My mind went blank for a moment, only a couple conspicuous words sticking—“flight,” “canceled,” “rescheduled for tomorrow.” It was exactly 1:20 p.m., a mere 90 minutes before I had to leave for a 5 p.m. flight from Baltimore to visit my girlfriend outside Detroit. Delta informed me that I had a ticket to Detroit the next day at noon without giving an explanation for canceling. Immediately, I called Delta, and they were able to get me on the 4:55 flight out of Dulles, about an hour and a half drive away. Whew. Everything was going to be okay.

Until, that is, they canceled that flight on me, too. After getting a ride through an hour and 40 minutes of traffic, I watched my flight get delayed, then canceled within 20 minutes of my arrival at the gate, an hour before scheduled takeoff. I just wanted to see my girlfriend. I scrambled to find a flight, but there were none to be had. I was even willing to pay an exorbitant $540 for a one-way ticket, only to watch that ticket go up to a prohibitive $915 during the course of my phone conversation with United. I was stuck at the airport waiting for a ride until 8:45. I could have made it to Michigan in my car by then, if I’d left when they canceled my first flight. Adding insult to injury, the next day’s flight got me in two hours late and was nearly canceled.  
This is the reality of air travel today as airplane crowding has surged in the last decade. Planes are a sturdy 10 percent fuller than in 2000 due to increasing demand and a total seat capacity that declined 6.4 percent over that time. It is increasingly difficult to place passengers from a full canceled flight onto later flights, also likely to be full. The decreasing leeway leaves little room for error in an error-prone system.

Unfortunately for the passenger, canceling flights is actually beneficial for the system. As noted in the above post from The Atlantic’s James Fallows, a delayed flight adds to runway gridlock, while a canceled flight keeps things on track. When airlines were operating with less crowding, it was easier to cancel a flight and place those passengers on an available flight in the near future. New restrictions on tarmac waiting periods have also allegedly added to cancellations, compounding the problem. Antiquated radar systems and inevitable weather-based disruptions are a built-in limitation on airline travel, and we are nearing our max capacity.

We need high speed rail. We need to lay new track that allows for China-level speeds of 200+ miles per hour. I’m a railroad apologist and cheerleader for public transportation, but I’m not delusional. My love for railroads certainly isn’t shared by all and, unfortunately, high-speed rail is expensive. Pipe dreams of an America connected entirely by teleporting trains are unreasonable. If addressed intelligently, though, we may be able to put a major dent in—rather than totally alleviate—our transport issues.

If you look at the potential high-speed rail plans provided by the stimulus, they focus on connecting metropolitan areas within regions (L.A. to San Francisco or Chicago to Detroit). That’s fine, but I think it’s a bit unrealistic. When you’re using rail to connect a region, you’re putting it in direct competition with cars. If you’re a consumer, it doesn’t make sense to pay a hundred extra dollars (or hundreds if you’re traveling with more than one person) each way to save two hours of travel time. It especially doesn’t make sense if you’re going to a city like L.A. or Detroit that is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. So you’re paying a ton of extra money to get to a city and, once you get there, you’re going to lose all that saved time and spend even more money to rent a car.

Such investment might work in the northeast corridor, where dense cities and super expensive parking make driving an unattractive option, but trains are often competing with dirt cheap buses. Instead, we need to figure out the densest-traveled routes of intercity air travel and provide a rail alternative. For example, we could start with new high speed track going from Chicago to New York, D.C. and Atlanta.

This would connect four of the top 10 largest metropolitan areas and three of the big no-car-necessary cities (D.C., Chicago, and New York), servicing tens of millions of people. Think about it: instead of schlepping all the way to Dulles, O’Hare, or JFK, going through the hell of airline security, and worrying about your flight being canceled, you can go city center to city center in just about three hours. Plus, you can get up and walk around, use electronic devices the entire trip, eat/drink at a real table, actually see something out the window, and have infinitely more leg room. You also remove major competition from buses and cars because a 12-hour bus trip is in a completely different bracket than a three-hour train.

If it were to catch on, this could reduce regional air traffic at nine of the top 30 busiest airports, including the top two busiest (Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson). These metropolitan regions also happen to be quite prone to thunderstorms, a major delay factor for airlines (and one of the reasons to begin in this region, before moving to the thunderstorm-barren west coast and possibly connecting Seattle to San Francisco/L.A.).

Of course, we still have to pay for this ludicrously expensive endeavor. This may not, however, be as impossible as it seems on the surface. The Economist recently lauded America’s freight rail system as the best in the world. Increasing road traffic, unpredictable oil prices, and a host of other factors have led forecasters to predict a 90 percent increase in demand for rail capacity. By placing Chicago at the center of a new system, we put the current hub of rail transport within high speed striking distance of the Northeast Megalopolis and the industrial output of the New South. On top of greater business efficiency, we can also open up the high speed rails to freight, which will help free up a potentially looming logjam in commerce and help taxpayers shoulder the costs. There is also always the chance that these high-speed passenger trains become commercially viable as the airlines are, meaning we could recoup some of the expenses and possibly move on to connecting other metro areas.

No matter what, this would be expensive, but we’re assuming costs in a bubble. The reality is that the necessary updates to our air traffic control equipment, according to the above NPR article, would be a $40 billion, largely government-funded overhaul (more than enough to jumpstart a rail system). We’re losing productivity waiting on lines and waiting out canceled flights. Forget the possible environmental boon of replacing air miles with rail miles, forget the decreased dependency on foreign oil—we need a system that isn’t so frail that everything can come crashing down because of a 10-minute thunderstorm in Virginia.

  • David - I agree with your idea, and the recent news of flight attendent Steven Slater is just a testament to how OOC and stressful airline travel is these days. I would like to see NY-->Chicago happen first, that would seem like the most realistic/logical connection based on your points.

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