Bullet Train Losing Business Folks

Charles Crumpley
Editor and Publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal

Do you know what really was deflating when California’s High-Speed Rail Authority issued its latest report a few weeks ago?

It wasn’t the revelation that the cost of building the bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco is going up by billions of dollars. (Again.) And it wasn’t that construction will be delayed. (Again.) Everybody knows those setbacks will happen with any big project, particularly a government one.

No, what was truly disheartening was the disclosure that the high-speed train will have to slow down on another stretch of track. That now makes three places along the proposed route where the train will be forced to throttle back to half speed. And you know, you just know – much like the expanding costs and the lengthening construction timetable – there’ll be more disclosures in future years about how the train will “need” to slow down on this stretch of track or that one to save money (the latest slow stretch will save $1.7 billion) or to make a stop in some politically connected town. Our high-speed train is devolving into a commuter express.

Here’s why that’s so disappointing: It pretty much kills the argument that the train will be attractive for business travelers.

Why? Because business folks, as you know, care less about price and much more about speed. And increasingly – or should we say “decreasingly” – the velocity of the so-called high-speed train is being compromised. The rail authority was supposed to build a system to get a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. But a good article in the Los Angeles Times last month pointed out that outside experts said it is improbable that such a time could ever be met, and even the rail authority says the fastest trip would be 3 ½ hours but a train with more stops could take 4 hours and 5 minutes. Truth be told, 4 hours is probably optimistic.

So, let’s say you’re a busy business person and you need to make a quick trip to San Francisco. Assume you leave home 1 ½ hours ahead of your departure and you take your trip by rail. Let’s give the rail authority the benefit of the doubt and say it’ll take 3 ½ hours. That gets you to a train station in San Francisco in 5 hours.

Now look at the train’s competition: airplanes. Let’s say you leave home 2 ½ hours ahead of your flight to allow extra time for the airport congestion, security screening, etc. Add the 1 ½ hour flight, and you’re in the airport in San Francisco in four hours.

The airplane wins by an hour each way; two hours round trip. That extra two hours will make for a longer day; it might be enough to force you to make a two-day trip instead of a one-day one.

Making the train less appealing to business travelers is important because the high-speed rail was already shaping up as unattractive to tourists. As you know, casual travelers are more sensitive to price, and high-speed rail will likely be no bargain.

Although train fares are not set, one published report suggested a round-trip ticket may cost $115. If true, that would be $460 for a family of four. Throw in transportation to the train station along with the cost of renting a car or taking multiple Uber trips in San Francisco, and you’re easily in the $600 range.

Compare that to the cost of taking your car, which is the train’s main competition for the tourist dollar. If you wanted to drive your brood, you’re looking at about $100 in gasoline for a round trip. Throw in parking costs of $150 or so, and you’re up to about $250.

The car wins by $350.

In short, the high-speed train probably would never be big with tourists, and the latest news makes it less attractive to busy business folks. It’s hard to see how the high-speed rail, if built, would be much more than a novelty that a few people will find convenient, but most will use only occasionally.

The high-speed rail has slowly lost its many enthusiastic supporters over the years, mainly because of the rising costs. But now, as the speed of the train keeps slowing, it seems destined to lose the business traveler, too.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.