High speed rails could ask planes and trains to work together

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (2nd L) speaks to reporters with Satoshi Seino (2nd R), president of East Japan Railway Co., one of the country's major train operators, while standing near a bullet train at the Shinkansen Vehicle Center of East Japan Railway Co. May 12, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan.


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Last month, the U.S. government pledged another $2.5 billion for high speed rail. That money will go toward building train lines between LA and San Francisco, and Chicago and Detroit. The kind of short trip a business traveler right now takes to the skies for.

Today we wrap up our series on the future of transportation, and we ask what will happen to airlines when trains will get us to a place almost as fast? From WNYC in New York, Alex Goldmark reports.

ALEX GOLDMARK: Let's go to Japan and the busiest high speed rail service in the world, Tokyo to Osaka. It's called Shinksansen and it carries over 160 million passengers each year.

YUKI TANAKA: The share of air, in this route, is only 20 percent and Skinkansen almost completely took over.

Yuki Tanaka is with the Institute for Transport Policy Studies in Tokyo. She helped build and now researches Shinkansen.

TANAKA: And there are other areas where air routes completely disappeared like between Nagoya and Tokyo.

That trip is on the same rail line as Osaka, just closer, about the same distance from Tokyo as New York to Boston. So, can we expect commuter flights between those U.S. cities to disappear? Factor in the ride to the airport and security lines you can see why the proposed Amtrak service clocking in at just 84 minutes would be stiff competition for, an airline like JetBlue. Rob Maruster is JetBlue's COO. And he's thinking hard about the future of trips out of New York.

ROB MARUSTER: I'm not trying to shoot ourselves in the foot. But I think flying an airplane 300 miles to Boston, as the crow would fly 150 miles, doesn't make much sense, it seems like there might be another mode that would work a little better for us in that regard.

He says rail could be a potential partner. If trains got people to the airport faster it would improve air travel too. But Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, has no plans to cut short haul service.

GARY KELLY: We're going to continue to compete hard. We will continue to have what we believe is a superior product.

When Southwest Airlines started, it considered cars to be the target competition and Kelly is ready for round two.

KELLY: We welcome competition. Competition has made us better. But the competition needs to be fair. You know, we can't compete against the Federal government.

He says, even the planned $10 billion or so dedicated by the Obama Administration doesn't currently pose a threat. He points out that airlines -- and previous Presidents -- have invested hundreds of billions on air infrastructure. Plus it will still be a few decades before the first true high speed rail lines in the U.S. start hitting their 220 mile an hour top speeds.

In New York, I'm Alex Goldmark, for Marketplace.

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I look forward to having more transportation options. I think there will be enough business in the future for cars, rail, and short haul flights. Roads and airports will only become more clogged, so having a rail option is good for everyone.

On a related note, going from city-center to city-center via high speed rail sounds much nicer than flying and having to rent a car.

It'll be a wonderful day when ground transportation rivals air travel. The recent price wars waged by JetBlue and Southwest has turned air travel into a "lowest common denominator" game where the traveler has no other option than to be packed into a cigarette case. Unfortunately, the Government needs to provide the infrastructure in order for independent carriers of high speed rail to start moving passengers. Once this happens, then we might start seeing the return of nonprice and value-added competition that might make travel a plesant experience once again.

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