What Influences the Demand for High-Speed Rail?
The United States has only one high-speed rail (HSR) line--Amtrak's Acela Express in the Northeast Corridor--but eight projects are under way, and Amtrak's Chicago-Kalamazoo route recently added the first 110-miles-per-hour service outside the Northeast Corridor. Such lines can significantly reduce journey times, and proponents argue that they increase rail capacity in overcrowded corridors, promote economic growth, and could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The current administration has argued that HSR would jump-start a smart transportation system that meets the needs of the 21st century. But providing HSR is very expensive, so establishing the case for it requires understanding the demand for these services.
A new RAND report provides empirical evidence about the factors that influence demand for HSR in the UK using a series of stated preference choice experiments with more than 3,000 long-distance travelers to examine their propensity to switch to HSR.
The study came to the following conclusions:
About half the predicted demand for HSR services comes from people already making journeys by train. In this way, HSR will free up capacity on existing rail lines but is unlikely to reduce GHG emissions.
Additionally generated trips, made because of the improvement in accessibility from HSR, account for around one-third of total HSR demand. Such trips improve the economic case for HSR but will increase GHG emissions, because the trips would not be made in the absence of HSR. Estimates of the total impact of such trips must also account for travel to rail stations, the demand for more rail services, and other needs resulting from increased ridership.
The volume of passengers who can switch from air travel to rail travel is relatively small in the British context.
The volume of travelers switching from car travel is also relatively small. Thus, HSR will have a negligible impact on road congestion and emissions, particularly when compared with the use of more efficient motor vehicles in the future.
High Speed Rail: What Have We Learned and How Does It Apply to the U.S. Case?
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Charlene Rohr directs RAND Europe's research in choice modeling and valuation. Her main area areas of interest are estimating discrete choice models using revealed preference (RP) and stated preference (SP) data sources. She has been involved in developing transport demand forecasting models in Scandinavia, Europe, Australia, and the UK and has contributed to designing and analyzing SP surveys in the transport, health, and communication sectors. She has an M.S. in transportation from the University of Alberta. Read more about Charlene Rohr »
What are some of the key lessons you've learned from your work on HSR in Britain?
One of the key things we learned is how important it is to actually build models that predict the travel choices of long-distance travelers. There are many different stakeholders out there and different "cases" for HSR. If we don't understand the real demand and what impact HSR would have on that demand, we cannot truly understand what will happen when HSR is implemented and what kinds of trade-offs there may be between the different cases.
Well, our modeling shows that HSR may induce new trips, with one-third of the demand coming from trips that weren't being made previously. This is broadly consistent with evidence from France and Spain. While generating new trips may be good for the economic case for HSR because they contribute revenue, they are less good for the environmental case.
Did you find any other kinds of trade-offs?
Yes. Our models also predict little switching from car travel to HSR. Most of the predicted demand for HSR services in Britain comes from people who are already using existing (and slower) rail services. HSR services will free up capacity on existing rail lines, which is very welcome in crowded rail corridors but unlikely to lead to reductions in GHG emissions, particularly when considering the use of more efficient motor vehicles in the future.
What lessons can be transferred to thinking about HSR in the United States?
Determining whether HSR is a good investment in the United States will require objectively analyzing the evidence for the HSR case in specific corridors. The case--whether economic, environmental, or enhanced mobility-based--depends on the specific geography of the corridor, the travel market, future income growth, and the level of competition (and service levels) for other modes of travel. A key consideration for both the economic and environmental case is how many air passengers can be enticed to switch to HSR services.
How might that apply in California, for example?
Unlike in the UK, there is a strong air market within California, specifically between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. To examine and quantify the HSR case in California, that travel market must be independently and objectively analyzed in a way that measures the impacts of mode switching and trip generation and examines the impact of income. Unfortunately, the last significant and reliable database of long-distance travel in the United States was compiled in 1995, which means that the necessary evidence base for HSR is not available.
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