U.S., France: Banning Planes For Trains; Think Twice

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 14, 2021

Word has come the French – known for great cuisine, even better pastries, very good wine, the Eiffel Tower and gifting the Statue of Liberty to the United States – have begun a process of figuring out if they want to ban domestic airline routes in favor of passenger trains if the journey can be completed in two and a half hours or less. The French National Assembly voted to ban flights in favor of train travel. This is only a starting point; the measure has not been formally approved.

The report of April 12, 2021 by Jonathan M. Gitlin in ARS Technica notes France has a well-developed train network and the ban only affects five routes. You can read the story by clicking here.

What many Americans may not know is the French government is a minority shareholder in Air France-KLM, the French flag carrier. French railroad SNCF is fully owned by the French government.

If final approval is reached this would be one partial-government entity handing off business to another government entity in an experiment hailed as a battle against carbon dioxide and climate change.

On social media some Americans have excitedly hailed this as a template for the United States to follow. Others, with a more prudent, less emotional view, have wondered if this is an appropriate step.

All airlines in the Untied States are private companies. While they are still regulated to a certain extent, especially in areas like safety, the days of regulated routes disappeared when the Carter administration thankfully dispatched the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) on a non-stop flight to the dustbin of history.

Would anyone welcome those days of legacy carriers back, including higher fares, less service and ongoing government edicts?

As far as an impact on Amtrak or any other private carrier which may come into being, we have seen this movie before.

Amtrak already serves BWI Marshall Airport in Baltimore and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Both of these airports are served by multiple Northeast Corridor regional and Acela trains.

The three private projects which may affect air travel are the Texas Central Partners high-speed rail proposed route between Houston and Dallas and Brightline’s two railroads, Miami to Orlando (and further to Tampa later) and Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Here is the most important question: Would a government regulation banning air travel between Houston and Dallas really be beneficial? Enough travel between the two giant Texas cities exists for substantial money being invested in Texas Central Partners. Will it not be better for natural free market forces to come into play in Texas rather than the imposition of government regulations forcing private companies to give up routes? What of the traveling public? If travelers choose the relative ease of taking a high-speed train in Texas versus the well-known trials and tribulations of the many hassles of air travel before you ever get to the boarding gate at the airport, isn’t there enough of a belief in human self-preservation that Texas Central Partners will have a successful railroad?

Think in terms of a private company versus Amtrak. Texas Central Partners will go to great lengths to properly market its service unlike Amtrak’s policy of being America’s Best Kept Secret.

It is notable Amtrak has not offered any type of service between Houston and Dallas for decades. One can only ask, why?

Next is Brightline’s announced plans for Las Vegas – Southern California/Los Angeles service. Land has already been bought for the Las Vegas terminal and extensive plans have been drawn and approved. Financing was halted due to the pandemic, but the company has recently announced it expects to begin actual construction.

Las Vegas-Los Angeles is an air corridor which practically has hourly service at times, not unlike the Washington-New York City air shuttles. Driving from Los Angeles can take from a few to over a dozen hours depending on traffic. Neither the air option or the driving option is pleasant. Brightline’s proposed high-speed service will reduce travel time to just three hours in the comfort of well-designed passenger train equipment rich with amenities.

Brightline proved when it launched its initial Florida service it knows how to market a new service. Brightline will take its lessons from Florida and apply them to Nevada and Southern California.

The big question to answer will be whether or not the new high-speed rail service will take business away from either the airlines or take a noticeable amount of cars off of the interstate highway.

The correct answer is Brightline will not take a huge piece of business away from either current travel choice. Most likely Brightline trains will have high load factors, but many of the travelers will be new travelers who previously chose to avoid the complications/fears of air travel and the inherent dangers of over-crowded highways. Some will abandon their previous travel choices for Brightline, but most likely Las Vegas will see a new group of visitors it had not seen before.

It’s notable Amtrak declared in its $80 billion wish list that Los Angeles-Las Vegas is on its radar for expansion. Considering the usual “speed” Amtrak moves to institute any new service, most likely Brightline will be fully constructed and operating by the time Amtrak would develop a new train.

Now, let’s speculate. You are a passenger boarding a Las Vegas-bound train at Los Angeles Union Station. On the track to your left is a brand new Brightline train which will whisk you to Las Vegas in three hours, complete with extensive amenities.

On the track to your right is an Amtrak train bound for Las Vegas, too. The conventional travel time will be about double of the Brightline travel time, most likely in the five to six hour range. If Amtrak follows its normal pattern food service will be an Amcafe car and the consist will be a combination of coach and business class seats. The business class amenities will include free soft drinks (with some exceptions) in the café car, but not much else.

The pricing will probably be within 20% of each other. Which train will you choose?

Here are key points from the Brightline website:

• Expected travel time is approximately 3 hours

• Our route is 2x faster than driving

• Zero-emission, electric train sets

• Expected top speed is 200 mph

• 400,000 tons of CO2 removed annually by reducing 3 million vehicles

• Connections to Metrolink and planned future connection to California High-Speed Rail in Palmdale

• Convenient station location off the Vegas strip (I-15)

Brightline research shows 50 million one-way trips a year make up the Southern California to Las Vegas trek. Eighty-five percent of the trips are by car or bus with the other by air. Brightline says it expects – at full operations – to attract approximately 22% of the market or 11 million one-way trips each year.

In Florida, Brightline has completed construction of upgraded tracks along the Florida East Coast Railway from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach. Construction further north and into Orlando International Airport is now 50% complete. Trains should be operating the full length of the route sometime in 2022.

Prior to the pandemic Brightline operated a commuter-style intercity service between its MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach. Before shutting down for the pandemic, Brightline carried two million passengers on hourly service in each direction.

The Florida service with higher-speed rail is expected to provide a travel time of approximately three hours from downtown Miami to Orlando International Airport and on to the Disney Springs retail area at Walt Disney World. Trains will depart each terminal hourly for 16 roundtrips daily.

In the 1980s the late, great Pan Am World Airways provided what it marketed as an “air bridge” between Miami International Airport and Orlando International Airport. Considering the time it takes today to arrive at an airport early enough for passenger check-in then the navigation through security requirements, the travel time of Brightline will be about the same as Pan Am’s air bridge required.

In less than 20 months we will have real-world experience of modern passenger train travel versus airline travel outside of the NEC. Amtrak already claims it carries more passengers than the airlines do on the NEC, and Amtrak has the extra advantage of intermediate station stops.

When Brightline debuts in a major tourist and leisure travel corridor versus the heavy business travel of the NEC there will be a vivid demonstration of why the free market and not government mandates work best, allowing intelligent travelers to make their own decisions as to how they choose to move about and feel most comfortable traveling.

The French may believe they are “making progress” in choices for domestic travel when, in reality, all they are doing to is limiting travel choices instead of expanding them. It will not be surprising on the domestic routes under consideration in France if domestic travel contracts instead of expands.

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