Airlines' Shortsighted Opposition to Fast Trains

By , Robert Roberts, a freelance writer from McLean, Va., has written extensively for transportation journals.

THE United States government has made repeated attempts in recent years to eliminate all subsidies for Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad. Officials say nobody wants trains, in spite of regular annual increases in Amtrak's ridership. The government has continued to place the traveling public's eggs in the airline basket by proposing greater spending for air navigation and increased airport capacity. The attention and money given to one mode of commercial travel is recognized by energy experts and environmentally concerned people as shortsighted policy. Government officials concerned with air and highway congestion at the state level would also like to see greater emphasis on alternative travel systems such as rail.

The US government has given lip service to the development of high-speed rail projects while withholding the needed money. The government legitimately wants to address the issue of a crumbling infrastructure since it has paid for the federal highways and air-navigation system. But to simply pour more money into an overtaxed and energy-inefficient system may be self-defeating. It could result in greater dependence on oil and put still greater strain on the infrastructure. As federal railroad administrato r Gilbert Carmichael points out, unless the nation begins to develop alternatives to highway transportation, we'll be traveling on gravel roads again by the year 2000.

Such enthusiastic groups as the High Speed Rail Association (HSRA) publish frequent updates of proposed high-speed rail systems in all parts of the US. For years, the HSRA have predicted the takeoff of new railroad systems that have then languished on the drawing board. Now, however, the concept of high-speed rail has risen to new heights of attractiveness. Airlines have begun to take seriously the competitive threat high-speed trains represent.

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The HSRA recently announced its opposition to efforts by Southwest Airlines to stop a new high-speed rail system in Texas in its tracks, indeed before its tracks can be laid. Southwest sought an injunction to prevent hearings by the Texas High Speed Rail Authority to consider proposals by two international consortiums to build high-speed rail systems using advanced technologies. The proposed route is the so-called Texas Triangle, linking Ft. Worth/Dallas, Austin/San Antonio, and Houston. While Southwest 's request for an injunction was turned down, HSRA reports that the airline continues to use ``costly legal and public relations talent to fiercely oppose'' high-speed trains in Texas.

There is ample evidence that high-speed rail is indeed competitive with air travel. The association points out that in the first five years of service by France's high-speed train (TGV) between Paris and Lyon, airline ridership between the two cities declined by 50 percent. With train speeds above 150 m.p.h., coupled with a fatality-free safety record, the TGV has become not only a viable option, but a preferred option to flying in that corridor. Furthermore, it has operated profitably, something conven tional train service worldwide has failed to do.

Ironically, the airline industry opposes new technology much like the buggy whip industry opposed motor cars at the turn of the century. According to the HSRA, airline opposition to high-speed rail service to and between airports is suicidal. Ground transportation, whether by car, taxi, or bus is not only time-consuming, but costly.

To correct capacity limitations in major metro areas, proposals include locating airports farther outside the city where more space is available. Invariably, airport planners are calling for improved ground transportation to help make their proposals more palatable to the traveling public.

ACCORDING to the HSRA, legislators in Oregon, Washington, and Louisiana have introduced legislation aimed at boosting high-speed rail links between cities and new, remote super-airports. The idea has been endorsed by key officials in Georgia, California, and Arizona. The HSRA's executive director, Robert J. Casey, says, ``Opposition is mounting to urban airport expansion, and every proposal to build super-airports at remote locations includes a high-speed rail link. It's increasingly desirable as air ri dership regains its upward momentum now that the Persian Gulf war has ended and the economy has begun to improve.

The Federal Aviation Administration has found that 21 primary airports each suffer more than 20,000 hours of annual flight delays at a yearly cost to the airlines and businesses of at least $5 billion. And within seven years, at least 33 airports will have worse delays. Support will spread for high-speed trains as air travelers become more discouraged with ground traffic congestion that delays the trip to and from the airport.

Despite tight federal purse strings, high-speed rail development is becoming more certain. Funding will begin to materialize as states become more committed to rail, but the successful development and operation of a new rail line must be the first step. As most other developed nations have already shown, rail makes sense in an environment and economy no longer able to tolerate wasted energy and pollution. Unlike conventional rail passenger service, the new systems would run on electricity to help reduce pollution generated by the internal combustion engine. The US would be closer to its goal of reversing a global warming trend.

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