Driverless cars vs high speed rail

aadb Driverless cars are in the news recently (I won't even bother linking to the various posts, there are so many) and Brian worries they might turn High Speed Rail into a dinosaur. Which indeed seems entirely likely.

My own view is that I love railways; going on holidays via sleeper and waking up as you're going through an alpine pass is wonderful. Commuting in the things isn't great, though it beats sitting in traffic queues. But where does the obsession with HSR come from? As CIP points out in Brian's comments, they aren't energy efficient - you might as well fly. They make great macho infrastructure projects for pols to posture with, and I'm sure there are wonderful discrete kick-backs in all that concrete pouring. And they're great for making promises of regeneration of distant areas that can't be falsified until too late. Aside: I was always disappointed that the channel tunnel went down the obsession-with-speed thing, when what I wanted them to do was run sleeper services to the continent so I didn't have to change in Paris. Ah well.

As for driverless cars: if they do come, they're bound to look very different from a car that drives itself. I'm going to want one with a bed in the back so I can wake up in that alpine pass again.


* Offsetting Climate Change by Engineering Air Pollution to Brighten Clouds.
* An Examination of the Interaction between Two Prospective Transport Technologies: Questioning the Importance of High Speed Rail in a Driverless Vehicle Society - Ryan J. Westrom; Candidate, Master of Science in Transportation 2014; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (that link, to my website, is just me hosting a copy of his poster).
* Timmy in 2014.


More like this

Agreed wrt the misrepresentation of HSR and likely reasons for it.

You don't ask, but the answer is Iain M. Banks.

Stuart Staniford's points are worth mentioning:

[Yes, I saw that. It would have been one of the posts Id mention, if I had. I thought those were unusually short-sighted for him. I suspect the real answer, once we really get driverless cars, will be quite unlike what we're thinking of -W]

I picture a car with elevator type buttons in it that read Phoenix, Aspen, Baltimore, etc. So you wake up ready to ski and discover you had accidentally hit "Phoenix" instead of Aspen the night before. Or worse yet, while you slept, your kid got up and hit all the buttons.

[Indeed. But also, self-drive cars could revolutionise the (m)hotel business. Why pay to stay somewhere strange when you can stay in your own comfimobile and wake up exactly where you want to be? -W]

By Gary Kreie (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

The one thing that trains can do easily that neither cars with drivers nor airplanes can do easily (or at all) is deliver passengers to city centers. Airports require substantial amounts of real estate, so they are frequently located in outlying areas; e.g., the city of Cincinnati is in Ohio, but its airport is in Kentucky. It's technically possible to drive your car into a city center, but then you have to find a place to park it. With a train you can reach places like Manhattan, or Zone 1 in London, without worrying about parking your car.

Where driverless cars might be a potential game changer is that, as a fleet of taxis, they don't have the parking problem. Thus what you do with the idle cars is less of an issue. It doesn't completely go away, because there are still peak commuting times in most places, but the issue is reduced.

I remain skeptical about driverless cars in the short term, however. As a resident of snow country, I sometimes see the effects of snow and ice on cars with drivers, and I suspect it will take a lot of programming and testing to train a driverless car how to deal with that situation. In addition, snowplows in my area only approximately follow lane markings (driverless plows may help that, but only after they have worked out the snow/ice problem), so a system which relies on keeping you in a particular lane is likely to run into difficulties during snowfalls. There are also problems of wildlife (deer and moose hereabouts, other species elsewhere) on roadways.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

Driverless cars are nice and all but won't compete with the train on ease of use, speed, capacity safety.

When driverless cars can do this (link below) then we can discuss.

BTW that's cruising by at 217mph with the capacity to carry over 1,000 people.

[For point-to-point connections between large cities that makes a lot of sense.

But for me... it takes me half an hour to get to my nearest rail station (Cambridge) which isn't HS, but lets pretend. I need to factor in 5-10 mins to park and a bit more to get to the platform and so on: that's 3/4 an hour, all of it faff time. There will be similar at the far end, unless I happen to be visiting a city: 1.5 hours total, ish. That's a fair head start, for a car, in the UK, even ignoring conveniences like luggage.

If you're in a different country: the USA, China perhaps, with huge distances to cover, then its different.

But maybe this is all very narrow-minded thinking. I'll get in my driverless car, intending to go to... the Lake District, let us say. And perhaps if the roads look clear the car will just drive me there. But perhaps it will instead drive me to the nearest mainline station and tell me to get on the train -W]

Trains have the distinct advantage of being capable of electrification. Going far in an all-electric automobile will require battery charging stops.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

The freedom and flexibility of cars *already* trumps trains for most people in the US.. it'll only continue as cars improve.

By Windchasers (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

All they need to do is make the reclining seats go ALL the way back and problem solved. Sleeper cars.

I can't wait for them to become commercially available. They do have to work on making them look a little better without bits sticking out though.

At least in the US there are trains you can load your car on and go

Eli dimly remembers a similar thing from Germany to Italy lo those many years ago.

[We have it here, or we had it. Trouble was, the endpoints. My family did this for a trip to Scotland when I was in my teens. But we had to go to London in order to load up. And it was expensive - only marginally cheaper than just hiring a car at the far end. It still exists on the continent: tells me that "There are no motorail trains within the UK, these ceased in 1995" -W]

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

"If you're in a different country: the USA, China perhaps, with huge distances to cover, then its different."

Then you fly.

HSR's sweet spot are trips that take no more than a few hours. I've taken the Madrid-Sevilla train a couple of times. It takes about 1/2 as long as driving. While it takes longer than flying, it's much less stressful and more convenient. From where I was staying in Madrid, the local commuter train to Atocha took a bit less time than taking the train+subway to the airport, but the big win was the relatively relaxed boarding process, even with the enhanced security put in place because of the bombing of an AVE (spanish acronym for spanish high-speed [rail], also one word for "bird"), and the general relaxed atmosphere on board. I fly a lot, and flying doesn't bother me, but I'd never call the experience "relaxing". The AVE (and the ICE in germany) are downright relaxing. A bar/snack car doesn't hurt in the least (I'm old enough to also remember bars in the back end of 747s flying to Europe from the US, which meant plenty of room to roam around, talk to people, etc, but we all know those creature comforts aren't coming back to coach class).

But Madrid-Sevilla is a 2.5 hr rail trip (at a first generation 250 kmh, the latest - they share tech with germany - run at 350 kmh) vs a half-hour or so trip by air.

I've also taken the ICE from Berlin to Amsterdam, but before the Dutch railroad was improved to ICE standards, so it took about 6 hrs. I think it's down to about 5 now. Leaving Berlin I had no reservation, so they let me sit on top of my duffel bag in the back of a car. It's all so user-friendly. But a lot of people will opt to fly for such a distance, though personally I'd take the train all the time.

The other odd thing about the train is the number of professional pilots I've run across who just love the experience of HSR. I guess they find sitting in the back of a commercial airliner as annoying as us normal people do ...

"As CIP points out in Brian’s comments, they aren’t energy efficient – you might as well fly."

Not sure I agree with that. Short haul flying is quite energy intensive because the take off and climb phase is a much bigger chunk of the total flight stage.

From memory HSR has about half the primary energy consumption of short haul flights (I'll try and dig out refs). Add to that the non-CO2 effects of flying plus the fact that electrically powered HSR will gradually reduce its GHG emissions as the grid decarbonises means that HSR wins on the environmental front even taking account of the (huge) embodied carbon of the infrastructure.

But that's only the case if you manage to shift people out of aircraft and in the UK HS2 simply won't do that because it'll shift people from slower (less carbon intensive) trains and likely induce some travel that wouldn't have happened in the first place.

Eli probably remembers the Swiss (unless he went via Austria). They are especially fond of loading lorries onto trucks to run down to Italy, rather than having them drive though. Can't carry them all, of course(but new tunnels are going to help), but you don't have to sit long at Bellinzona station to see one or several come through. It's part of what comes from being a hilly country in the middle of Europe.

On a personal note, I *much* prefer travelling in trains to cars or coaches, and can't stand air travel (would quite like flying, but that's something different). I'm sure these sorts of personal peferences colour people's opinions as to which way transport should be developed.

"As CIP points out in Brian’s comments, they aren’t energy efficient – you might as well fly. "

Well, it is pointed out, but no source is given for that claim. I would highly doubt that.
It is a bit difficult to get accurate data - it is a pity that in this area, rarely a study is done that's peer reviewed and you rarely find any study that's not payed by a transport operator. And the amount for variation is hughe, as it leaves the questions how to incorporate infrastructure like stations, airports properly. But there seems to be a general consensus that you have roundabout a 5:1 to 10:1 ratio in energy efficiency. The highspeed train only looses in the unlikely case that you have an almost empty train compared with a full airplane.

Here's one example:
Even if you account that this is likely biased towards trains, as the source is Eurostar, the difference is hughe.

[I'm dubious about your link. Other stuff, e.g. or…, produces much closer numbers. Notice how Eurostar are quoting kg CO2 - if they're claiming to get all the lectric from French nukes, that would explain it -W]

A CE Delft study from 2003 ( ) seems to be the most widely cited comparison but it's a bit old. It suggests > 2 times consumption for short haul (500km) air travel compared with HSR in 2000. There will have been some improvements in aircraft consumption since then.

Network Rail has typical energy consumption per available seat km along with HSR load factor estimates here:…

If you're in a different country: the USA, China perhaps, with huge distances to cover, then its different.

HSR's sweet spot is journeys of a few hundred kilometers. For New York to Washington or Boston (or on your side of the pond, London to Manchester or Paris), trains are competitive with both air travel and driving, minus the hassles of airport security and traffic/parking (for routes like London-Paris, the bottleneck of crossing the Channel gives trains an additional advantage compared to driving). With a true HSR network, Boston to Washington (a distance of about 800 km) trains might be competitive with air travel. Anything beyond that, you would fly. Boston to San Francisco is about 4300 km by air, about seven hours gate-to-gate if you're westbound (six eastbound, given typical flight-level winds). Even with an ICE/AVE/Shinkansen equivalent covering the distance, you would be looking at about 24 hours (with stops) to get there by rail (the distance would be closer to 5000 km), and two days in your driverless car (if you don't stop for meals and restroom breaks).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Jan 2013 #permalink

WC - the figures in… for Amtrak are based on our old, slow, diesel-powered trains that include a full complement of sleeping cars, dining car, lounge car, etc. They are rarely close to full. They frequently sit on sidings waiting for freight trains, which have right-of-way priority on almost all of Amtrak's routes (while sitting, the diesel locomotive continues to idle, of course). They tend to be milk runs by HSR standards, and again, th diesel locomotive sits and idles at every stop. So that chart pretty much is a worst-case chart for rail effiency, and bears little relationship to a modern HSR..

Modern HSR trainsets like those from siemens in germany don't carry the dead weight of sleeping or dining cars (they'll have a single snack/bar/lounge car), don't have separate locomotives, and most importantly, are usually full or close to it.

Obviously, energy consumption per mile is very dependent on how close to capacity you're operating.

Modern airplanes are suprisingly efficient on long-haul runs, when full, a 787 pencils out to something like 60 mpg on a per-passenger basis.

But as has been pointed out above, fossil fuels are the only practical source for powering airplanes at present and in the foreseeable future. No matter how one wants to quibble about the source of electrical power used to power trains, obviously they fit in well with plans to move electricity consumption to renewable or less CO2-emmisive sources.

I'll throw in a few things that make make rail -- high speed or otherwise -- competitive with cars or flying.

People have already pointed out that cars need a place to park and such. One other thing: if you have 1,000 people in cars -- driverless or not -- you have to find space for those 1,000 cars to drive on. That's why you get a point of diminishing returns when you expand roadways. Even if all the cars were driverless, can you imagine trying to cram every driver on to some roads? It's bad enough in paces like New York with the larger (relatively) use of public transit. LA is simply ridiculous; the I-5 is basically a parking lot for huge chunks of the day.

One area rail can compete is on medium-haul trips. For instance, the Boston-Washington corridor is ripe for it, but also even as far south as Wilmington NC and the stretch between there and Florida. I should point out that it takes longer now to get a train from Wilmington to NYC than it did in 1950. If the infrastructure was upgraded -- the right of ways are mostly still there -- you could have some kind of HSR line running all the way between Boston and Miami.

And let's not forget the time spent at either end of a flight. Basically you need to allow n hour --at least -- to get through airport security. Amtrak, which has to be one of the least efficiently-run railways in the developed world, get me in and out of the train at Penn station in 10 minutes. So my trip on the slow train between NYC and Boston is 4-4.5 hours and I get to the city center.

[But airport security is currently a silly joke. Its not going to be like that forever, so we shouldn't build it into our long-term plans -W]

On the plane the flight on that same route is 30 minutes. But I have to get to Laguardia or JFK or Newark. That's an hour. Then there is getting into Boston from Logan. Another hour. So my plane trip is now 2.5 hours and we haven't gotten into fighting my way through security yet.

On some longer-haul routes you get something similar. If I take a plane from Boston to Washington it's an hour or so for the flight. But tack on the time I spent in the airport and we are now up to two hours at least. All of a sudden a 7 hour trip to Washington is looking competitive, since I need not arrive in South Station in Boston 2 hours before my train.

Then there's energy. As pointed out, planes need oil. Trains do not, necessarily. And you don't need to build a $1 billion airport for every city trains run to. Yes there is sunk cost in building a station, but it is a lot less in building and maintenance than any airport, no matter how you slice it. Many cities, even in the US, have a lot of the basic stuff for train stations there already.

You could do a NYC to Chicago, by the way, in about 15 hours with HSR. In 1960 it was ~20 and it's more now.

Another good post W. I would have been far to polite to accuse politicians of taking kickbacks but am not so polite as to disagree.

Here in Britain our government is promising to have built such a railway for $52bn completed about 4 Parliaments from now.

I have always found it non-credible that we can do automated cars but not automated single carriage rail units everywhere. I assume it is because rail is an inherently centralised system and thus discouragesd innovation, rather than it being particularly difficult to programme the limited options a train has (basically stop and go).

You maybe interested to know that the initial design of Google's driverless cars came from DARPA who put up a $3 million X-Prize and said they couldn't have got more from $100m in cnventional funding. Confirms my opinion that such prizes would allow for a step change in the rate of innovation - if it were wanted.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 29 Jan 2013 #permalink

But airport security is currently a silly joke. Its not going to be like that forever, so we shouldn't build it into our long-term plans -W

It's not just ridiculous airport security. There will generally be lines for checking bags. Even with hand baggage only and sensible security procedures, you will still need to plan on a wait to get through the checkpoint, at least if you are flying from a large airport around peak departure times. Then you have to walk from the security checkpoint to your gate--this can be as much as 20 minutes at some airports (e.g., Minneapolis). The airlines want you on board at least 10 minutes prior to departure (earlier if you are on an international flight).

In giving air travel times, Jesse neglects taxi times at congested airports. Thirty minutes is about right for wheels up to wheels down on a NYC-Boston flight, but push back to wheels up is routinely 45 minutes at Newark at certain times of day, even in good weather, and I hear it can be longer at JFK (pro tip: avoid JFK unless you are actually going to New York City or Long Island). Add in the potential for weather delays, and short haul air travel doesn't look so good.

Also, ponder this conundrum: LaGuardia, the airport most people choose when flying to New York from most points in the eastern and central US, has no subway connection. You can take the bus and sit in traffic, or you can take a taxi and sit in traffic.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Jan 2013 #permalink

Also I don't see how driverless cars could replace high speed rail. They satisfy very different needs. I don't think anyone's talking about 200mph driverless cars and I suspect the energy consumption of lots of personal vehicles with one or two people in them zipping around even at lower speeds would surely be greater than high speed rail with a respectable load factor.

Flown a lot in my time and have zero fond memories of it. Hassle, hassle, hassle. The overnight sleeper between Moscow and Leningrad was a riot and I still chuckle about it over twenty years later (that poor KGB guy we kept up all night). I don't drive, but I imagine a driverless car could be really useful for those odd occasions when it would have been useful, and driverless vans could be even more useful. Anyone know if you'll need a license? Overall, though, by train's the civilised way to go far, IMHO. A good book and you're sorted. Crossing borders is far more civilised, too, with a knock on the door, a few questions, a check of the passport, and a bid goodnight without having to get out of bed. Use a driverless car at the destination.

Even in the days before modern airport security, but after the Chunnel was completed, it was 20 minutes faster between University of Paris--Place Jussieu and Cambridge Station via the subway and trains as opposed to flying to Heathrow and then the bus.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 29 Jan 2013 #permalink

@David B. Benson - I haven't looked, but would expect flying to Stansted, City or Luton might tip time in flight's favour.

City airport used to do a 20min check-in, and queues were never longer than two or three minutes. I imagine that's no longer the case, though.

It seems to me that the driverless car is a complement to HSR rather than competition for it.

I imagine that I am much more likely to be picking up a driverless taxi at St Pancras to cover the last 5 km of a future Munich-London trip than I am hopping in to a driverless car to do the full 1000 clicks in a personal pod (even if the pod has a Mercedes badge on the front, nice leather recliners and averages 150 km/hour in a fuel-efficient computerised 'road-train').

Maybe that's a failure of imagination on my part and part of a syndrome where we are bolting the equivalent of those funky horse heads some early automobiles had onto our picture of what a driverless car means, but 250+ km/h on a hub-to-hub mode for the heavy lifting combined with a 100 km/h mesh mode for getting you to/from the main routing hubs at each end looks like a no brainer from here.

The other use-case for driverless cars is going out to the pub of course. Will roadhouse hostelries stage a comeback?

By Luke Silburn (not verified) on 30 Jan 2013 #permalink

"The other use-case for driverless cars is going out to the pub of course."

Cue waking up five hours later 500km away because someone once in the group once had a good kebab in Edinburgh.

I am not 100 % sure what the source of energy for that car will be. But maybe tripple-dipped and always in drougth and flooded UK knows better ;-)


By Alexander Ač (not verified) on 30 Jan 2013 #permalink

@ Alexander Ač:

A lot would depend on who's Chancer of the Exchequer at the time. Our current part-time Chancer (swoons at the mention of Nigel Lawson, with a gas lobbyist father-in-law energy minister) would probably insist on fracked origins.

City airport used to do a 20min check-in, and queues were never longer than two or three minutes. I imagine that’s no longer the case, though.

During the 1990s I occasionally flew from airports of this kind in the US. The reason they cut off check-in at 20 minutes was because often the person at the ticket counter/check in desk had to help with the baggage handling when the plane came in. But these airports were hard to get to: number of daily departures in the single digits, going to only one or two nearby hub airports, and using turboprop aircraft--the 37-seat Dash-8 was a big aircraft for these airports.

I've never used London City airport myself, because it's only a little more convenient to fly into than these airports. There are a handful of flights, mainly on smaller aircraft, to a handful of major European airports. Better to use Heathrow if I'm actually going to London, or Amsterdam/Frankfurt/CDG for connecting flights.

IIRC Stansted is on the rail line and motorway between London and Cambridge, and it has more flights available than City, so it would be a better choice for going to Cambridge. But again, since I live in the US I would have to backtrack from AMS or CDG.

[As a near-Cambridge resident, Stanstead is our airport-of-choice. It takes not-much-longer to drive to it than it takes to drive to Cambridge station (though you then have to allow some time to get from the long stay parking in) -W]

One problem with rail that's particular to London and a few other cities is that for historical reasons, rail lines are split among several different stations. If I'm going from, say, Cambridge to Bath via London, I arrive at (IIRC) Fenchurch and have to take the Circle Line over to Paddington. Boston also has this problem, which is why I'm unlikely to see direct rail service to New York anytime soon: I would have to get from North Station to either South Station (which involves changing lines on the T) or Back Bay Station (which at least is a straight shot on the Orange Line).

[Same for Paris; and its a pain -W]

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Jan 2013 #permalink

We do seem to be inordinately fond of locomotion. Travel might be starting to stabilise In terms of miles/capita in the richest nations but in general the potential for expansion is considerable. It has historically become more affordable with the occassional price shock and I cannot see that trend ending at the global scale.

On the other hand the transmission of information has been revolutionised in the passed fifty years, it has become cheaper in terms of bit-miles by orders of magnitude. Also the concept of pricing by distance is disappearing. Much of our considerable uptake has been to enable new modes of communication and comparatively little as a replacement for old modes. Naturally we thought it would be more the other way around. We could see the potential to replace what we already enjoyed more easily than the innovations.

The question as to why we might get on an aeroplane travel for hours or a day to attend a meeting and return seemed ameniable to a telecommunications solution. We could do multiway telephone calls and later video conferencing but not so much as a replacement as an addition and sometimes it seemed to produce even more travel opportunities. Go back twenty or so years and I can recall when some of the most travelled were the corporations' telecommunication specialists.

I also recall the shudder of fear that went through the PTTs (Post, Telegraph and Telephone) when it became apparent that lucrative business and huge capital investment could be side-stepped by emerging IP based technologies, but for the most part we did not so much replace as add much much more.

Will we ever give up the urge to relocate ourselves from home to office and from office to office. We cannot all work from home but some can and do, many have a home office yet leave it during what were the "working hours" to go to work and return to carry on during what were "leisure hours". Again not so much a replacement but more more more. We have used telecomms not so much to project our presence without our moving but to keep in contact whilst we move.

I got one thing right quite early on, back during the space race culminating with the Apollo project it was not the men in space or on the moon that surprised, for exploration is hardly a novelty, it was watching it happen whilst it happened.

After that, I got many things wrong, I really believed that we would soon, at least by now, bring an end to remoteness. Somehow it was easier to foresee immersive cyber experiences than something important like Twitter.

So we travel and give the tele-impression of staying stil. I thought precisely the opposite was favourite. I got that part wrong and perhaps I won't see it flip if it indeed does.

If it does flip, what will we make of all the infrastructure projects, what would we think we had been thinking. It could happen and happen quite quickly; we do not want for the money saving technology.

So if you see business travellers and their only luggage is their personal telecomms and computing equipment one might smile at the way that we have gamed the technology.


By Alexander Harvey (not verified) on 30 Jan 2013 #permalink

"During the 1990s I occasionally flew from airports of this kind in the US. The reason they cut off check-in at 20 minutes was because often the person at the ticket counter/check in desk had to help with the baggage handling when the plane came in. But these airports were hard to get to: number of daily departures in the single digits, going to only one or two nearby hub airports, and using turboprop aircraft–the 37-seat Dash-8 was a big aircraft for these airports."

That's not the same as City. The check-in was delayed, as far as I'm aware, purely due to security. It was also pretty easy to get to - generally easier than Heathrow or Gatwick, arguably even after the HE. The airport has a lot of flights and was quite well staffed. Haven't used it for nearly ten years now, though. It was the most enjoyable set of flights I ever did though, flying from City to Zurich for a work project. Even though that's a fairly low bar, it was almost as good as travelling by train.

"I’ve never used London City airport myself, because it’s only a little more convenient to fly into than these airports. There are a handful of flights, mainly on smaller aircraft, to a handful of major European airports. Better to use Heathrow if I’m actually going to London, or Amsterdam/Frankfurt/CDG for connecting flights."

If you're flying in from the US there's no real point, no.

"[As a near-Cambridge resident, Stanstead is our airport-of-choice. It takes not-much-longer to drive to it than it takes to drive to Cambridge station (though you then have to allow some time to get from the long stay parking in) -W]"

I don't drive, so when I lived in Cambridge it was train or bus. Or taxi maybe.

"One problem with rail that’s particular to London and a few other cities is that for historical reasons, rail lines are split among several different stations. If I’m going from, say, Cambridge to Bath via London, I arrive at (IIRC) Fenchurch and have to take the Circle Line over to Paddington. "

Cambridge mainline trains run into Kings Cross (and Liverpool St. the other way , if they still do), but yes that is an issue. That's why the rejection of (re-)opening lines that skip London is so frustrating. There was a proposed Cambridge to Oxford line which would have helped thousands of rail passengers avoid travelling through London which never got off the ground. A similar one for Birmingham was also rejected IIRC. Both are considerable bottlenecks.

We could do multiway telephone calls and later video conferencing but not so much as a replacement as an addition and sometimes it seemed to produce even more travel opportunities.

I may be something of an exception here, but this really isn't my experience. I have regular teleconferences with people spread all over Europe, but I only travel to meetings maybe once a year. The logistics are simply absurd - we're all too busy actually trying to get stuff done to waste time travelling.

[Teleconns were very very slow to take off. They're now routine for us in CSR and I suspect other biz - the equipement is there, it works, and people know how to use it -W]

@Eric Lund -- quite right about the taxis. I can get from where I live in Manhattan to Penn station in 15 minutes. I can get there 10 minutes before the train leaves (they don't tell you what track it is on until then anyway). Then 4.5 hours to Boston and 4-ish to Washington on the regular, non-high-speed train.

[Agreed; major rail, including HSR, works well for people starting near major stations. You'd need to find out what fraction of the populace that covers, though. Those of us in the sticks, or those in the suburbs, are in a different position -W]

If I go to LaGuardia (which generally does the domestic traffic to Boston) it's an hour to get there, and I have to take a taxi. An hour to fly it b/c the plane doesn't just take off, as you note. And am assuming there was no such thing as airport security. SO we are up to 3 hours already once you figure in getting to my destination to Boston at the other end.

JFK is even worse, The AirTrain connection is ok, but you have to allow quite a bit of time to get out there. Newark is a mite better (the train connection is 25 minutes to Penn).

And I should add: yes, airport security is a kabuki theater performance. But can you come up with an example anywhere in the world where requirements were relaxed in the face of reality? I can't. The only reason the Israelis can do what they do is that El Al is a very small airline as these things go and only flies to three destinations from a rather limited number of other places.

Really, though, a lot of this is all about infrastructure and what one chooses to spend money on. The problems of political interference and kickbacks isn't any worse or better with airports than it is with rail. (Just ask any veteran of New York area politics about getting JFK, Newark and LaGuardia built and upgraded).

"The problems of political interference and kickbacks isn’t any worse or better with airports than it is with rail."

Or roads.

I've been dreaming about autonomous cars for years. I don't presently own a car, I bike mostly, but a couple of times a week, especially in winter when the roads around here become essentially unbikable [unless you have a death wish you want to fulfill] getting to where you need to go can be a real problem three: narrow, twisty, rutted, potholed, no-shoulder, no-sidewalk miles to the nearest bus stop - in town. Thing is I have learned to hate owning a car, it is such a gigantic pain in the patootie. Who need the aggravation? Who needs the Motor Vehicle Department, insurance companies, repair shops, all of that? But, I do enjoy driving.

What I want is for five minute before I need to depart, an autonomous car, of exactly the specifications I need for the expedition, arrives and parks itself outside my domicile, calls me to remind me its there [or honks its horn], then I get in and drive it away. If its a short trip it waits for me till I'm done with my business, if its a longer it drives itself off and services someone else. It might even take me to the high speed rail [if there was one] or the airport. When? Oh, please!


By w.w.wygart (not verified) on 31 Jan 2013 #permalink

major rail, including HSR, works well for people starting near major stations

I completely agree with this.

I happen to live about 20 minutes walk from a station on the Amtrak Downeaster line (Boston to Portland and Brunswick, Maine). The train works quite well if I'm going to parts of Boston that are well served by subway lines (downtown, Back Bay, MIT, or Harvard). But I would not take the train to reach suburban areas around Boston (other than those parts of Brookline/Cambridge/Somerville/Newton that are close to T stations), because getting from downtown Boston to these areas by public transit, when it's possible at all, can take about as much time as it does for me to drive there from my house or take the train to North Station. In addition, parking, which is a major hassle in central areas of town, is much more readily available in the suburbs. Congested traffic is still very much an issue--Route 128 may not be as bad as the M25 in London, but it's not good for anybody's health.

Likewise Washington. For my last trip there, my destination was just over the Maryland line, a few blocks from a Metro station. Since I could easily get flights to DCA (officially called Reagan National Airport, but not by experienced travelers), which is on a Metro line, it was easy for me to use Metro. But for other trips, my destination has not been near a Metro station, and Metro does not serve the other local airports, Dulles and BWI (the former is in long range plans, and the latter has commuter rail and Amtrak service).

It all comes down to the "last mile" problem. Cars can usually solve that problem, as can bicycles and walking. Air and rail travel won't work for everybody.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Jan 2013 #permalink

The BiModal Glideway combines both technologies! Take a look at our video at or on Youtube! Leave a comment!

By BiModal Glideway (not verified) on 31 Jan 2013 #permalink

Driverless cars would be cool, but in the beginning it would be nerve wrecking to sit in a car without a driver and it automagically drives itself. In big cities the train is more convenient than a driverless car, but in rural and suburban areas a driverless car is the clear winner. I've thought about the driverless car scenario for years and what will prevent it from every coming into fruition on a grand scale is the fact that local municipalities will lose money in traffic offenses, insurance companies will lose money in accident claims, etc. It's not economically profitable.

By Michael David (not verified) on 02 Feb 2013 #permalink

Before I lament my past errors I have a question:

"I would be interested to know if many here make video calls regularly, say on more days than not?"

Hi Dunc & W

William is correct and it is much of what I was discussing. I should have been more clear about dates. I think that period was from the about 1980 to mid-late 90s.

From about that early multinations were starting to connect offices by using digital private branch exchanges with dedicated telecoms inter-links.

A common justification for installing private networks, (well before public internet access) was that it was going to save expenditure on travel.

The transition from asking the switch-board to connect you to New York or Rome (~pre 1980) to quick-dial over a dedicate international link (~1990) was in progress. We were charting an end to remoteness without travel. This period also saw a transition from message switching (computer mediated telex and teletype) to bespoke email.

What happened was that the ability to network (person to person) across continents, previously a preserve primarily of senior management descended through the corporate structure. There was a massive increase in communications and with that a whole new population that were getting to know each other, and pretty soon they were needing to visit each other. Early adopters, soon to become frequent flyers, were telecoms and computer services specialists, just the sort of people who could so easily work remotely.

Travel technology, itself aided by telecoms was becoming easier to interface with, and in many cases cheaper. A whole new travel culture developed both internationally and nationally. If you weren't high mileage you weren't being noticed.

I don't doubt that this was not a universal phenomenon. It struck us particularly because we sort of thought we were trying to bring about a less travelled work force.

If you say it is different now from the end of the last century perhaps we succeeded in some measure.

I do not know a lot about HS2, I believe that phase II completion is about 20 years out from now. If asked in the mid 80s about the prospects for infrastructure investment for business travel post 2030 I would have thought the question was nuts. Almost 30 years on, it doesn't seem quite so crazy.

I had not foreseen the full significance of a key development in the telepresence model. That it would be used extensively to enable physical travel whilst our telepresence stayed still. Prehaps I was dumb but Racal was surprised to find that by the latter 1980s, its mobile subsidary Racal Telecom (Vodafone) was worth more than than the entire company, I mean that literally. People, particularly their people looked shell-shocked.

A lot of forces were in play, go back to the 1970s/80s and just getting a new telecoms protocol adopted, after many years of technical developemnt, meant waiting for a plenary session (a hence a leap year) of Le Comitè Consultatif Internationale de Tèlègraphie et Tèlèphonie (CCITT). The internet had the benfit of using the less formal, more flexible and timely RFC (Request for Comment) system which in turn was by then mediated online. The potential pace for development became almost an order of magnitude quicker and it showed. The PTTs were privatised and the market opened up, yet much of this happened after or even in response to the sort of thinking that was going to end remoteness by some mix of global telecoms and cybernetics.

I believe we have had the essential technology for decades even from before the IBM PC. Perhaps we just find it all a bit too scary.

Trying to get teleworking adopted met with a lot of resistance, management hated it, I suspect that many workers were suspicious of the intrusion, but the technos loved it.

It happen but it also morphed from homeworking to hot-desking across multiple office locations, and homeworking was becoming synomynous with compulsory unpaid overtime. If you weren't available online you were being noticed negatively.

I do have some concerns about large geograpically fixed infrastructure projects. I never was a candidate for using HS2 and if I were, I expect that on the first occassion that it let me down I would extend my telepresence to participate at my intended destination and return home deeply puzzled by the need for speed. Modern fibre optics is quicker, more reliable, and has been international for 20+ years.

Currently my major mode of communication by duration has got to be Skype by an order of magnitude, with a mix of video and calls to and from landline and mobile, I do not move but my telphone lines and numbers pop up where I need them.

Some Skype figures (pre-buyout) are that it had ~650 million registered users, which sounds impressive, making ~200 billion minutes of calls per annum, which is less than peanuts compared to domestic telephone usage but perhaps within reach of international call usage.

My vision has been an awfully long time coming. Perhaps I should revisit E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909). An envisaged telepresent cybernetic existence that didn't turn out so well.


By Alexander Harvey (not verified) on 02 Feb 2013 #permalink