Reuters

A new study shows just how much high-speed rail dominates the Paris-to-London trip and concludes it would compete with air travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco

The discussion of high-speed rail in the United States often veers off track, if you will, by the presence of strong auto interests. While roads and rails certainly compete for federal funding, it's planes and trains that compete most for travelers in mid-range, city-to-city corridors. American high-speed rail may not win many contests with the highway lobby, but a new study of intermodal competition in Europe shows that fast trains can more than handle their own against air travel when given the chance.

In a study in press at the Journal of Urban Economics, Dutch researchers Christiaan Behrens and Eric Pels analyze the passenger market between London and Paris from 2003 through 2009. The primary competitors in this corridor are conventional air carriers like Air France and British Airways, low-cost carriers like easyJet, and the Eurostar high-speed rail service. Over the course of the study — which looked at roughly 9,500 business and 18,000 leisure trips — the Eurostar has been far and away the dominant travel choice:

Air France and British Airways reduced their service from Heathrow Airport dramatically during the study window. Two major air travel choices — British Airways from London Gatwick and British Midland from Heathrow — left the market entirely. Only the low-cost easyJet has been able to compete, primarily with leisure travelers. Meanwhile the Eurostar has increased its service to match its popularity, which only grew after the train moved from the Waterloo International station to the more convenient St. Pancras International in central London in late 2007.

Behrens and Pels found that frequency, travel time, and distance to the point of departure were major determinants of travel behavior in the corridor, in addition of course to fares. The total travel time on Eurostar (which includes getting to the station) is relatively long compared to flights: roughly 3 hours 20 minutes in 2003, dropping to 2 hours 50 minutes after the move to St. Pancras, against 1.5 or 2 hours for airlines. But the train's on-time arrival was 95 percent, much higher than that of its competitors, and by 2009 its frequency had grown to twice that of major airlines, with 119 weekly trips. First-class fare is also cheaper on the Eurostar, and since 2007 its coach fare has been cheaper than fares on the three main air alternatives, according to the report.

The researchers used their models of the Paris-London corridor to consider the potential success of high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Behrens and Pels made several notable assumptions — similar passenger behavior in the United States as in Europe, for instance, and a rail fare that costs only 80 percent of air travel — still their findings will come as some encouragement to American high-speed rail supporters. At a travel time of roughly 3 hours, which is about what California's high-speed rail authority expects, the train would capture about 30 percent of business travelers and 40 percent of the leisure market, according to Behrens and Pels. In the unlikely chance the fast train can achieve a travel time of 2 hours 25 minutes, it could win about half the market share of leisure travelers:

The figures suggest California high-speed rail won't be as "dominant" against air travel as it is in the London-Paris corridor, but they certainly make the train a "viable alternative," Behrens and Pels conclude:

Our findings suggest that in markets with even larger differences in average travel times, due to for example a lower average speed or a larger distance between the city pairs, HSR may also be a viable alternative compared with aviation. Applying our results of the London‐Paris market we show this to be the case for the projected HSR in the San Francisco – Los Angeles market. The presence of multiple aviation alternatives in the specific market, as is the case in the London Paris market, is not a feasible entry barrier for HSR.

Thanks to Christiaan Behrens for providing a copy of the report. Quotes and figures courtesy of Christiaan Behrens and Eric Pels, "Intermodal competition in the London-Paris passenger market: High-speed rail and air transport," Journal of Urban Economics, online 29 December 2011, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jue.2011.12.005.

Top image credit: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

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