Saturday, December 06, 2008

French TGV vs Amtrak's Acela Express

A comparison:

TGV from Paris to Lyon 245mi, 2 hours, ~345 seats, $64

Acela from Boston to NYC 229mi, 3 hours, ~303 seats, $100

Sure, this is not the whole picture. The TGV has coach seats, and the Acela only has business and first class; the Acela shares track with freight trains and the TGV got its own dedicated tracks. Still, is this the best that Amtrak can do? Of course, I don't know much about trains, but it seems like a high speed train should be able to make the trip from Boston to NYC in 90 minutes. It should also be cheaper than an airplane ticket. Right now, Acela costs about as much as airfare!

Here's a thought. A big benefit of trains is the scaling. Why not add a coach car to the Acela train that can fit 80 people (5 in each row). The costs to run the train should be almost the same. Charge $50 per seat, that's $4000 extra revenue per trip, just between Boston and NYC (add more for the DC leg). Assuming they make 40 one-way trips per week, that's more than $36 million in extra revenue per year. How much could an extra car possibly cost? I'm only talking about 20 extra cars in total, and no additional engines. An entire trainset including maintenance and engines only cost $40 million in 1996. Revenue in 2007 was about $400 million from Acela. An extra $36 million per year would be a big increase in revenue (I should actually double that number since the new cars could be used between NYC and DC as well). The new cars would quickly pay for themselves in ticket sales, leading the way for more rail investments like track upgrades to make Acela run at its full 150mph which make the Acela faster and even more attractive to travelers.

This kind of investment works whether or not the government does it or the private sector does it. What's worrisome is that our politicians keep talking about rebuilding the US "infrastructure", but they always say "roads and bridges". The reason to investment money is to get a return on investment. I have a hard time seeing what the return on investment is for rebuilding roads and bridges except that we won't have to repair them later on; it's still the same inefficient, car/truck based infrastructure that we have today, just less bumpy. Perhaps the problem with road maintenance is that there are too many roads; they're too big and too expensive to maintain. I would like to see smarter investment in efficient transportation like rail.

By investing in a passenger rail transportation network that is fast, practical, and affordable, the US can reduce the traffic on the roads, reduce the time people waste driving, reduce the costs to maintain roads, reduce road accidents, and more.


Laura said...

But how do you know people would be willing to pay $50/seat on the train? Even if it only takes 1.5 hours? Chinatown bus and even Greyhound can be as low as $15/seat. For people who are booking way in advance on some of the newer bus lines, even $1/seat! Yes, it takes 4.5 hours on the bus, but a difference of 3 hours may not be worth $35 to the people. Certainly not 80 people, several times a day.

Alex said...

A difference of 3 hours is a TON. That's faster than an airplane for less money and less hassle. Currently there is no way to get between the two cities in 90 minutes if you factor in traveling to the airport and going through airport security.

If the difference between the bus and the train is only $35 then that's less than $12 per hour. Not a bad deal at all.

Even if we assume the train stays at the current speed, the train is more comfortable than a bus. You can get up and go to the food car, and plug in your computer into the wall. Not to mention that today the Acela already sells out its seats very often.

Laura said...

Hmm, I guess people who fly might take the train instead. People who fly are crazy. It takes so long to get from the airport to Manhattan. I guess maybe they could take cabs. For them, it would be worth it to take the train, even now.

Maybe the reason they don't add cars is because the train is already the length of the platform.