Air taxis are coming, bringing bad news for high-speed rail

Air taxis will soon become a reality. They will radically change the nature of travel, taking the well-heeled off the road. For short, inter-city and intra-city trips, in the range of modern drones capable of carrying passengers, these taxis will replace cars. For longer distances requiring air travel, air taxis will shuttle affluent individuals and business travelers from the city center to the airport and from the airport to the city center. The biggest impact, however, would be on the economics of high-speed rail projects.

High-speed rail competes with air travel over relatively short distances that don’t justify taking a flight. To travel by plane, you have to undertake the whole business of traveling from the city to the airport somewhere on the outskirts of the city through congested roads, checking in at least 45 minutes before departure and then, after disembarking at the destination airport, queue again behind slow moving people to exit the airport and grab another vehicle to thrash through traffic to finally reach your destination.

Suppose it takes 45 minutes for an airline passenger to get to the airport from her office in town, 45 minutes for check-in, security, waiting and boarding at the airport, 15 minutes for disembarking and exit destination airport, another 45 minutes to reach destination city. This means that air travel involves 150 minutes of non-travel time, plus time spent in the air. Stations are usually close to the city center and the time taken for the whole journey apart from the actual train journey time is much shorter.

So, to cover a distance that takes about two and a half hours to cover by train, a traveler might actually prefer the train to the plane. The longer the distance and the longer the time required to cover the distance, the greater the incentive to fly.

What Air Taxi does is dramatically reduce non-flight time for air travel. Instead of spending an hour and a half, a traveler may only spend 20 minutes on the journey to and from the airport (some air taxis are looking at top speeds of over 300 km per hour – California-based Joby plans to d have a maximum speed of 320 km/h and a range of 241 km).

Thus, the advantage of 150 minutes of taxi before the sky available to trains would be reduced, after the air taxi, to 80 minutes. The distance over which trains offer a clear advantage over flying is dramatically reduced.

But isn’t there a cost dimension to take into account? If the government did not subsidize high-speed rail, the cost would be comparable to air travel. And there really is no reason to subsidize high-speed rail travel. By high-speed rail transport, we do not mean traveling up to around 160 km/h, which is quite possible with the existing rolling stock, provided the track is prepared for it. For very high-speed trains traveling at 300 km/h or thereabouts, the track must be different and not just the rolling stock.

Expenses to upgrade existing tracks, to remove too many bends and curves, to ensure that the running tracks are not those of the platforms (so that a train in the station does not prevent other trains from continuing their journey ) and to improve the quality of the track to allow the existing rolling stock to run at its technically optimum speed, would be fully justified. After all, there are huge positive externalities to a good rail network that gets people around the country. But that doesn’t apply to high-speed rail. It must be justified on its own merits. Air taxis make this a bit more difficult.

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