High gas and jet-fuel prices have fueled a lot of interest lately in high-speed rail. The usual counter-argument to “why can’t America have the same train service that Europe has?” focuses on population density, which happens to be something I know too much about. Surprisingly, it isn’t just the Northeast Corridor which has city pairs close enough to rival the TGV. I’ve also provided aggregate populations of the central cities (not metro areas*) connected; the TGV’s success is not because French cities are all that large.
Chicago-Milwaukee: 86 miles; 3,421,405
Paris-Brussels: 193 miles; 2,257,784
Chicago-Indianapolis: 196 miles; 3,626,636
Atlanta-Charlotte: 258 miles; 1,190,733
Paris-Lyon: 267 miles; 2,557,100
Chicago-Detroit: 281 miles; 3,729,189
Chicago-St. Louis: 284 miles; 3,196,355**
Chicago-Cincinnati: 319 miles; 3,173,828
Paris-Bordeaux: 354 miles; 2,329,600
San Francisco-Los Angeles: 390 miles (via I-5)
Chicago-St. Paul: 417 miles; 3,490,479***
Paris-Marseille: 490 miles; 2,928,100
Chicago-Kansas City: 567 miles; 3,287,483
Paris-Lyon, the first TGV line, has consistently run an operational profit. Within three years of its introduction, it had increased rail’s mode split by nearly 60%, from 47% to 74%. Paris-Bordeaux takes three hours (vs. 8:15 to St. Paul), and the TGV has a 60% mode split (vs. 40% by air). Such mode splits are even possible in the Midwest: for Chicago-Milwaukee, rail ridership in 2007 was 617,799 vs. 282,000 by air (already accounting for onward connections).
The TGV has proven so successful that Air France (with a putative air travel monopoly at home, and sometimes called “the world’s most profitable airline”) has decided “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” The IHT reports that it and Veolia have begun the process of launching a passenger rail operation; the article quotes several analysts who laud the decision.
* I’m usually not a fan of using municipal boundaries to define things — e.g., Indianapolis-Marion County [capital of Indiana] has 784,118 residents vs. la Ville de Bruxelles [capital of Europe] with a mere 144,784 — but one could argue that greater suburbanization in the U.S. would impact rail ridership, since origins and destinations are likely to be scattered throughout large metro areas. For reference: population of Chicago is 2,842,518; Paris, 2,113,000. Estimates for U.S. 2005, France 2002, and Belgium 2006.
** 2006 St. Louis special census
*** includes Minneapolis; the train station sits near the border