By Noel T. Braymer
Recently, first term Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) has been talking about what she calls the Green New Deal. As part of this she envisions reductions in road and air travel and expansions of rail passenger service. Naturally this brings up the typical opposition by critics with a vested interest in the status quo. The United States since at least 1980 has been increasingly neglecting its infrastructure. Also there are increasing challenges retaining our current infrastructure from increasingly more extreme weather conditions just in the last 5 to 10 years world wide. When it comes to air travel, the sky is the limit of the number of planes in the sky. The problem is on the ground. There are a limited number of airports and runways in major urban areas in this country. This impacts the number of flights the airlines can run. Trying to expand airports with more runways or to build new airports in major metro areas is almost impossible today in many places because of opposition by local residents.
What is happening in the airline industry is the increased use of smaller planes for more direct flights. This is true of international flights with more direct service between major cities which reduces the need for transfers between flights or the need for jumbo jets. These newer, smaller planes are more economical to fly per passenger than the older bigger planes. But what about domestic air travel in this country? There are plenty of smaller jet passenger planes being built around the world. There are also many small airports in this country which could handle more flights bypassing major airports for more direct flights. So what could go wrong? Well increasingly the airlines are complaining about a pilot shortage. Part of the problem is the military is training fewer pilots world wide. The military is where most commercial pilots learn how to fly jet airplanes worldwide. One factor reducing the availability of pilots is the need for 1,500 hours of flight time before flying commercially. It is very expensive to fly jet airplanes if you are not being paid to do so.
If you don’t think this is happening, consider the short life of California Pacific Airlines. After years of effort, this small airline finally began service in November 2018 from Palomar-McClellan Airport in northern San Diego County. California Pacific Airlines offered service from Carlsbad to Reno, Las Vegas, San Jose and Phoenix. In December the airline had to cut service due to maintenance problems with some of its leased planes. Then by December 21st this new airline lost pilots who found other jobs. Since December 21st, all flights have been cancelled until further notice. Increasingly air travel is being concentrated between a handful of established domestic airlines in this country.
Much has been made of the “high cost” of building high speed rail. The biggest problem of building high speed rail is finding a right of way to put it on. The faster the trains travel the straighter the rail alignment has to be and more expensive to build. Also since high speed railroads generally have to be fully grade-separated for speeds over 125 miles per hour in this country, this also increases its construction costs. The latest development in passenger rail service has been the creation of Virgin Trains USA which is based on the Brightline privately owned for profit rail passenger service in southern Florida. Reorganized as Virgin Trains USA, Brightline service is being expanded to Florida’s other major cities. Virgin Trains USA is already planning on service from Las Vegas to Victorville with connections to other parts of California by 2021. Virgin Trains USA business plan is also proposing start up service in most of the major transportation corridors in this country.
Virgin Trains USA is building most of its rail services using existing rights of way which is saving them a great deal of money. So is lower speeds and not electrifying their rail passenger services. The Virgin Trains USA trains are using diesel locomotive with a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This allows much faster travel than driving between major cities. Most of the city pairs planned for future Virgin Trains USA service are well under 500 miles apart. With limited stops between cities these trains travel more quickly than most passenger trains or by car in this country. But this is just one segment of the travel market in this country.
The States of Oregon, Washington and the Province of British Columbia are planning a much faster rail passenger service between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver than what Virgin Trains USA would run. Microsoft, headquartered in Seattle is a major backer of this High Speed Rail project. Recently the Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation Roger Millar admitted that the cost of building this High Speed Rail project would cost in the range of up to $40 Billion dollars. But Mr Millar made the point that to build one extra lane on I-5 between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in both directions would cost as much if not more than a High Speed Rail line. The main point Mr. Millar made was expanding the freeway wouldn’t reduce travel times. He was likely alluding to the fact that when major roads are enlarged, traffic congestion is never reduced. New lanes encourages people to drive more which causes roads to stay or become even more congested. Also you can’t go 160 miles per hour on a freeway in stop and go traffic. Something not pointed out by Mr Millar is that faster train service means carrying more people per hour than in private vehicles or in slower trains.
The main need for future transportation in this country is not one solution. What is needed is an integrated system of transportation services to as many places as possible. It won’t be possible to carry many more people or trucks on our current road network. Much of what is needed is already available in many countries in Europe and in parts of Asia. This starts with good public transportation which people of all classes feel comfortable riding and goes to most places people want to go. Many major cities have greater density than most cities in this country. This allows more people to walk or bike ride to more places while traveling less than when driving in places with lower population density.
An example of this is planned by Metrolink, the regional intercity rail passenger service for most of Southern California. Metrolink’s plan is called SCORE for Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion program. SCORE in incremental steps will turn Metrolink from a mostly rush hour work week commuter service now into a passenger rail service running 7 days a week 2 to 4 times an hour on most routes with many more connections to more places in Southern California than it has now. Central to this will be run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station which for now all stop at a dead end there. Combined with improved rail transit by LA Metro at Los Angeles Union Station will create the busiest transportation hub in Southern California. SCORE will include easy connection by bus and rail for Metrolink riders to most places in the region. This will open up more affordable housing in the inland areas for commuters or people travelling for leisure to places closer to the Coast with more jobs and places to go to in Southern California. This will also help divert many cars off the freeway with time competitive travel on Metrolink, which will help reduce freeway congestion.
Good public transportation also encourages land development. Just in the last 20 years or so in California we are seeing more housing and commercial development built near intercity and transit rail stations. That doesn’t mean that people who have a 4 bedroom, 3 car garage house on a cul de sac will be forced to move to make way for more housing and train stations. What will work is to use land now used for parking to build more housing near good public transportation. There are plenty of shopping centers on busy roads with frequent bus transit with empty stores and empty parking lots. The owners of these properties can make more money if allowed to use such underused land for new housing too. This could also mean more business for the stores from people who will be walking distance in their new homes to the remaining stores and services.
As for trains, upgrading existing railroad rights a way can mean faster rail passenger service and more rail freight service. Many railroads have room for both passenger and freight tracks. Such new rail service will divert car and truck traffic off of freeways and roads. Will this mean the freeways will be free flowing? At least they won’t get any worse and more people will be able to get around quickly without needing a car. We will still have airports and airplanes for many years to come. We will need to make air service cleaner and more efficient. Faster trains for travel corridors under a thousand miles will make sense. For most trips over thousand miles people will likely fly in the future with fewer emissions than what airplanes create now.