The Power of Speed

[I will start with a brief apology for the long silence since the last post. Suffice it to say I am uncertain about blogging and have let it lapse.]

Last night, I read a post by Yonah Freemark about French plans to introduce low-cost TGV service between Paris and Marseille. Ignoring for a moment that the French conception of regular cost varies fundamentally from the fares to which we are accustomed in America, the article included some interesting facts.

[The new service] will offer 300 km/h TGV speed at very low prices, starting at €10 for journeys between the Paris region and the Mediterranean coast (Montpellier and Marseille, via Lyon), a trip of about 500 miles. … Double-decker trains will seat 1,268 passengers … Trains themselves will be scheduled to run more often than typical TGVs, traveling about 80,000 kilometers per month, double the normal rate.

Since I am used to Acela trainsets carrying 304 people, my first reaction was to be surprised at how many people a double-decker TGV consist can carry, but when one reads about a normally configured TGV Duplex, it carries more than 500. Remove the dining and first-class accommodations, lash two together, and the capacity makes perfect sense. I also learned that Alstom has delivered more than 140 Duplex consists, which again dazzles my NEC-centric mind.

Moving past the seat numbers, the 80,000 kilometers per month figure caught my eye. I assume this figure is a press release value, lacking significant digits, but for the sake of consistency, I will convert it into miles exactly: 49,710. Since that value is twice the normal usage, the regular monthly usage is 24,855 miles. If one spelunks through Amtrak press materials and annual reports, it is not hard to derive a figure of about 14,000 miles per month per consist for Amtrak’s 20-trainset Acela fleet. When one compares the TGV Duplex train-miles to Amtrak’s monthly train-miles, it appears the French are working their trains about 78% harder. Since I am familiar with just how hard Amtrak works to obtain the usage it does from the Acela fleet, my first thought is that the French values must be impossible – there just aren’t enough hours in the day for Amtrak to run the Acelas 78% more than they do, and even if they did, there’s no market, as the trains would be traveling through the night.

Moving from the other direction, I measured the distance from Paris to Marseille, via Lyon, in Google Maps. By road, Google informs me that it is a 781 km journey. For the purposes of the back of the envelope, I will accept that value for the route distance, although I am sure it varies a bit. 80,000 kilometers a month, in 781 km increments, is 102 trips, or about 3.4 trips per day. Moving over to the RailEurope web site, I gather that the fastest non-stop Paris-Marseilles no connection trip is 3:05. If one converts the 781 kilometers to miles, one finds the average speed of this train is 158 miles per hour. Again, for the NEC centric crowd, the maximum speed the Acela operates at presently is 150 mph, and its average speed between New York and Washington is between 83 and 86 mph. For context, please take a gander at the old NYT Acela speed graphic you can find here.

If each trainset makes 3.4 trips per day, then it is in service for 10.4 hours each day, leaving plenty of time for the turns between each run, as well as for its daily maintenance. Looking then at these various numbers, all of which seem reasonable, the conclusion is inescapable – by creating a rail network capable of supporting such high speed operation, the French have enabled their assets to generate service figures inconceivable within American standards. At American speeds, the Paris-Marseille journey would take about 5:40. Four Acela trainsets, carrying 1,216 people would make one trip is just a bit less time than one TGV Duplex pair could carry 1,286 people from Paris to Marseilles and back.

None of what I have covered here is news, by itself, but it is still worth comparing what the rail network in France can do for the French. Think about moving 1,300 people 485 miles for between $13 and $110, and overlaying that on the United States. Imagine getting from Manhattan to Cleveland, to Raleigh, to Toronto, or to Quebec for $13? Or from Atlanta to Tampa, New Orleans, Little Rock, Cincinnati, or Richmond? Or from Chicago to Nashville, Kansas City, Toronto, or Pittsburgh? I know the trains and the rails do not come cheap, I know they reflect decades of public policy surrounding infrastructure and taxes and energy and transit, and I know that American geography makes my 1:1 overlays overly simplistic. Still, imagine for a moment the economic vitality that could come with this sort of safe, reliable, and affordable transportation? The employment opportunities that would open, the educational resources people could pursue, and the housing advantages of living in a world with such fluid mobility? Not to mention the safety and environmental benefits of converting so much personal transportation from automobiles to trains?

The United States needs to think seriously about the costs it has imposed on itself from decades of automobile-centric policies, and genuinely consider alternatives that would enable its people and its economy to take better advantage of the array of talents and opportunities that exist here now. We are mad if we turn a blind eye to the advantages offered by rail. While decades of substantial public investments in highways and an auto-centered lifestyle have delivered indisputable benefits, they have long passed a point of diminishing returns. How best to change course from one pattern to another is no easy feat, especially in an era when politicians vary between being unwilling and unable to govern, but people, businesses, and states should make it clear that they expect a more responsive national transportation policy that will deliver the sort of mobility the nation needs to compete and produce effectively.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Speed

  1. Who says you never use algebra after high school?

    I’m so happy you’re writing. I want to get on a train from Boston to NY for $13, or continue all the way to Barton-land for less than we’d spend at the McDonald’s drive thru.

    1. Thank you, Britt. How cool would it be if we could meet for a day in NY so easily? I think it would be revolutionary, but I am not going to hold my breath.

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