High Speed Rail May Hurt Airports, But How Much?

The headline in the San Jose Mercury News says it all . . . "Study: High-speed rail would drain passengers from Bay Area airports." My first reaction was, yeah, that's the point. Then my second reaction was, wait, this doesn't sound right. Let's unpeel this onion and see what's going on.

The study, conducted by aviation consulting firm SH&E, shows that about 6 million people would choose to take a high speed train between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, leaving Bay Area airports hurting. San Jose would lose 12 percent of its passengers, Oakland 9 percent, and San Francisco 4 percent. Most of these would, of course, be travelers heading to or from the LA Basin or San Diego, since that's where the train will go. Sounds like a disaster for airports, right? I'm sure that's the plan. Let the PR campaign begin.

If you're not familiar with SH&E, they are "the leading aviation consulting firm dedicated to air transportation," as they say on their website. Hardly an unbiased party, methinks. This sounds like shades of previous efforts by the aviation industry to kill high speed rail. Back in the early 1990s, Texas hoped to connect its big cities with high speed rail. Southwest Airlines, with a huge amount of air traffic flying on those routes, did everything it could to fight the plan. That plan died in 1994. I imagine this is just the planting of stakes to bring the airlines' fight to California.

So let's put that 6 million number to the test. All the numbers I'm looking at are government numbers for the 12 months ending November 2009. From San Francisco to LAX, there were just about 1.5 million passengers. San Diego saw about half that number. San Jose had 378,000 passengers going to LAX, 333,000 to San Diego, 281,000 to Orange County, and 222,000 to Burbank. From Oakland, there were 401,000 to Burbank, 362,000 to San Diego, 359,000 to LAX, 270,000 to Orange County, and 262,000 to Ontario.

A couple things to consider before jumping on these numbers:

  • These numbers are all people that flew on each segment. So someone going from Burbank to San Francisco and on to Tokyo would be counted here.
  • This adds up to 5 million people, but it's only looking at top markets. There are other smaller city pairs in there that I've left off. Let's round up to 6 million passengers.
  • This is traffic coming from the Bay, so we can double it to get a rough estimate of traffic going both ways. That gives us 12 million people a year flying on airplanes between the Bay Area and Southern California
The study claims that two-thirds of all San Francisco and San Jose passengers would switch to high speed rail and half of all Oakland passengers. So if we take out all the connecting traffic (which isn't going to switch to high speed rail anytime soon) then these numbers seem to jive. But do we actually believe that two-thirds of the local passengers from San Francisco will take the train? This isn't Europe. I don't buy it.

Yes, high speed rail will take a lot of people out of the sky. I mean, that's the point, right? If done right, it shouldn't suffer many delays, it'll be cheaper, and it'll just be a nicer experience all around. Who wouldn't want to do that? Well, a lot of people, actually.

I'm sure that the good people of San Francisco and San Jose will be happy to jump on high speed rail right in their backyard, but, um, it's not exactly going to serve a lot of LA's population centers very well. Take a look at this map of California's proposed high speed rail line. Yes, the train will whiz right by Burbank and it will go downtown, but it won't get anywhere near West LA. LAX is far more convenient for people in places like Santa Monica, Westwood, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Century City, Culver City, El Segundo, Redondo Beach . . . I could go on. And Long Beach and Orange County airports will still be much more convenient for those people along the heavily populated coast.

Oh, and the train will pick people up in Palmdale, but that's worth about 5 people a year. Why is it stopping there? It's part of that sinister plan to make Palmdale the big international airport for LA. Now that's a fight that I'd be happy to side with the airlines on, because it's an awful idea.

So while Palmdale gets a stop, the train will miss most of the coastal region where millions and millions of people live and work. Couldn't someone just take the train and then hop on public transit? Theoretically, but LA isn't exactly known for its public transit coverage. Like I said, this isn't Europe.

The reality here is that yes, the train will and absolutely should take a lot of traffic away from the airports. But there will still be plenty of demand for people heading to coastal Southern California and for the millions of connecting passengers that fly through the airports. There's no doubt in my mind that this is just the beginning of the spin that we'll hear regarding high speed rail. Let's just hope that the politicians don't give in to it.

[Photo via California High-Speed Rail Authority]