The Time Press

Air taxis are coming, bearing bad news for high-speed rail

Air taxis will soon become a reality. They will change the nature of travel dramatically, taking the well-heeled off the road. For short, intercity and intra-city travel, within the range of modern drones capable of carrying passengers, these taxis will replace cars. For longer distances that call for travel by plane, air taxis will shuttle the well-off and the corporate travellers from the city centre to the airport and from the airport to the city centre. The biggest impact, however, would be on the economics of high-speed rail projects.

High-speed rail competes with air travel for relatively short distances that do not warrant catching a flight. To travel by plane, you have to undertake the whole business of travelling from the city to the airport somewhere on the city’s periphery through congested roads, checking in at least 45 minutes before departure and then, after disembarking at the destination airport, again queuing up behind slow-moving people to exit the airport and catching another vehicle to struggle through traffic to finally reach your destination.

Let us assume it takes an air passenger 45 minutes to reach the airport from her office in the city, 45 minutes of check-in, security, waiting and boarding at the airport, 15 minutes to disembark and exit the destination airport, another 45 minutes to reach the destination city. That means air travel entails 150 minutes of non-travel time, plus the time spent flying. Train stations are typically close to the city centre and the time taken for the entire trip outside the actual travel time by train is much shorter.

So, to travel a distance that takes somewhere around two and a half hours to cover by train, a traveller might actually prefer rail travel to flight. The longer the distance and the longer the time taken to cover the distance, the greater the incentive to fly.

What the air taxi does is to reduce the non-flying time for travel by flight significantly. Instead of spending one and a half hours, a traveller might spend just 20 minutes on the commute to and from the airport (some air taxis are looking at top speeds of over 300 km per hour — California-based Joby plans to have a top speed of 320 kmph and a range of 241 km).

So, the pre-sky taxi advantage of 150 minutes that trains have would shrink, post-sky taxi, to 80 minutes. The distance over which trains offer a distinct advantage over flight comes down drastically.

But isn’t there a cost dimension to be factored in? If the government does not subsidize high-speed rail, the cost would be comparable to that for air travel. And there is really no reason to subsidize high-speed rail travel. By high-speed rail travel, we do not mean travel of up to about 160 kmph, which is eminently possible with existing rolling stock, provided the track is readied for it. For really high-speed trains that travel at 300 kmph or thereabouts, the track has to be different and not just the rolling stock.

Expenditure on upgrading existing track, to remove too many bends and curves, to make sure running lines are not the ones at railway platforms (so that a train standing at the station would not prevent other trains from continuing their journey) and improving the quality of the track to allow the existing rolling stock to run at their technically optimal speed, would be fully justified. After all, there are huge positive externalities to a good rail network that allows people to move across the land. But that does not go for high-speed rail. It must justify itself on its own merits. Air taxis make that a little bit harder.

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