Nov. 26, 2022, © Leeham News: Some European countries declared war on the airline industry. Authorities in The Netherlands want to put permanent caps on operations at the Amsterdam airport. The French government wants to ban most airline flights of two hours or less within the country.
These two countries prefer requiring travelers to use trains vs planes. In the US, there are some on the East Coast who similarly advocate mass transit, more conventional rail and the creation of high-speed rail over short-haul flights operated by small regional jets.
Here in the greater Seattle area, forecasts conclude that there will be airport passenger demand for 97 million people by 2050. The region’s main airport, SeaTac International, has growth plans to accommodate 50 million passengers by then. Physical constraints prevent the airport from expanding. Just adding a third runway took 20 years and required a massive landfill to match the plateau topography on which the airport sits.
A task force recommends three sites south and southeast of SeaTac. Each is a greenfield site that is mostly farmland. Aside from the opposition from landowners over their properties being targeted, anti-aviation people are already suggesting creating more conventional and brand new high-speed rail alternatives.
But, like so many advocating battery-powered airplanes and eVTOLs, or hybrids, or hydrogen-powered aircraft, those advocating substituting rail for airports ignore all the costs—both financial and otherwise—that go into a rail system.
Let’s take a look.
The arguments for shifting travelers to trains are easier to make in Europe than in the US. There is a robust rail system in Europe. The passenger rail system in the US is an embarrassment. Rail service, whether light rail or “heavy” rail, is concentrated on commuters. Long-distance rail service, provided by Amtrak, a quasi-government company, is scattered across the country, infrequent, and has erratic service.
Amtrak must play second fiddle to the freight lines, from which Amtrak rents tracks. The freight trains get priority. The tracks in Europe enable rail speeds of 90 mph or more. The ride is generally smooth. You often can’t even feel the mating of each rail, the construction is so good.
In the US, sometimes you’re lucky you can walk in a straight line from one car to another because the cars rock back and forth on uneven tracks. Speed limits slow fast trains going 60 mph or more to 30 mph because of poor track conditions or sharp curves.
The US had an expansive national rail network up until the creation of the national freeway system (like Germany’s Autobahn). In the 1950s, President Eisenhower proposed to Congress the interstate highway system be created. As the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, he saw Germany’s Autobahn and the need for something similar in the US. Good idea, but it was the start of the death knell for the national passenger railroad system.
Railroads serving big metropolitan areas for commuters would survive. But long-distance railroads collapsed one after another.
Eventually, Congress created Amtrak. Its bread-and-butter service is the US Northeast Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington). Routes extend to Florida, and Chicago, and limited lines to Seattle, Portland, and California. An effort to restart Amtrak service between Florida and Mobile (AL) has been stalled for years.
But Amtrak relies on leasing rails from freight railroads. Its schedules must work around freight trains. When there is a conflict, freight wins. Many of the freight lines require slow speed—well under 60 or 70 mph. Tracks sometimes are in disrepair. In rural areas, vehicle crossings are not equipped with gates. In many areas, one set of rails is all that’s available.
High-speed rail has been talked about for decades. One was proposed between Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, the four largest cities in Texas. Herb Kelleher, then CEO of Southwest Airlines, objected. (This tells you how long ago HSR was proposed. Herb retired from Southwest years ago and has since died.) These are bread-and-butter routes for Southwest to this day. If the state subsidized HSR, then it should subsidize Southwest, he complained. (Of course, he ignored all the state and federal dollars going into airports Southwest used, but details didn’t matter.)
California pondered HSR between San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Washington State proposed HSR between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. Each was a no-go due to costs and environmental concerns.
And there’s the rub of those proposing massive conventional or HSR service today.
Expanding conventional rail and creating HSR is nice in theory. But I can tell you, having served on the Sammamish (WA) planning boards for eight years dealing with land use issues, establishing a network of conventional rail and high-speed rail presents massive environmental challenges (wetlands, hazardous slopes, mountains, wildlife displacement, threats to endangered species and forests [for those in the US, remember Oregon’s Spotted Owl habitat fight?]); obtaining rights of way at billions of dollars in costs; legal fees; and on and on and on. It took 20 years just to get to the third runway at SEA.
The Washington (DC) Metro rail system opened in 1976. Light rail to Washington Dulles Airport began service just this past Nov. 15—46 years after Metro began operations. Sound Transit, the light rail/bus system for the greater Seattle area, was created in 1993. Voters approved funding in 1996. The first heavy rail service, using freight lines between Seattle and Tacoma, began in 2000. The first light rail service in Seattle began in 2009. This required the demolition of businesses and housing—as does every light rail link since then.
In 2016, voters barely approved $26bn in new taxes for Sound Transit 3, which will be building light rail until a target date of 2041. (It almost certainly will be late and over budget, as has been every project.)
What of the land use required with all the above factors to consider for rail yards? See the New York City rail system with Grand Central and Penn stations; look at Chicago’s Union Station and Ogilvie Center. Go see Victoria Station in London. The railroad system into and out of these required lots and lots of land. (Although the following is for freight, check out the rail yard just south of O’Hare Airport from I-294—holy crap!)
To use a favorite Boeing expression, what are the “trades” for rail vs everything else? Just how environmentally friendly is rail?
If it’s conventional rail, how is it powered? If by fossil fuels, what’s the impact of an ideally created national network? What about the escapage of diesel fuel and oil when the engines are idle?
If electric rail, where does the power come from and is the power source environmentally friendly? Is the power generated by windmills, hydro plants, coal, or nuclear stations?
Where’s the material come from to make the rails and railroad ties? What are these impacts? What’s eventually recyclable when equipment wears out? This is called the Total Life Cycle analysis. And just as with all the alternative energy ideas for aircraft and eVTOLs, the rail proponents don’t take into account realities vs nice ideas.
It’s what’s happening with all the stuff revolving around eVTOL, hybrid-electric airplanes, hydrogen, and hydrogen-hybrid airplanes. The promoters claim batteries are clean (as they do for cars), without owning up to the total life cycle challenges. To get the lithium needed for these aviation batteries (and for cars), strip mining is the preferred way. This is hardly eco-friendly. Recycling lithium batteries is a challenge for which there is not a good, complete answer today.
It’s like when Boeing launched the 787 program, touting its economy and better impact on the environment via lower fuel consumption. Unaddressed was the industrial waste from the carbon fiber which had hexavalent chromium as a key ingredient. (See Erin Brockovich.)
Right now, Amtrak advertises 45+ hours between Seattle and Chicago. An airplane gets you there in 4 hours. Which has the lesser impact on the environment? Today Amtrak’s quickest trip from Seattle to Spokane, a distance of 311 miles, is advertised at 7 hr 40 min. Flight time (not block time) is a little more than 30 minutes, and you can drive in 5 ½ hours. Today’s train is obviously not HSR—but as noted above, the challenges (enviro and cost) will be huge—just getting through the Cascades mountains.
None of this considers the displacement of homes and businesses and costs. A national system is a task that will take generations upon generations.
Establishing a network of rail services will take generations. Today isn’t Abe Lincoln’s era, where, as president and a former RR lawyer, he gave away vast swaths of open land to the railroads to expand to the West Coast. This isn’t China, where the government doesn’t give a flip about the environment or the people.
So, what are the trades between establishing massive HSR networks and even improving conventional rail vs air service? AvGeek or not, as a land use planner, I still come out on the side of airports—provided that in our case, you use and improve what you have–ie, Paine Field or even McChord Air Force Base.
Paine Field is the airport where Boeing assembles its widebody aircraft. There is a maintenance facility there serving airlines. There is a two-gate airline terminal with 24 flights a day (12 in and 12 out). Paine was a World War II air force base and was given over to civil aviation after the war. Suburbs surround the field today. It has two runways (though the short one is a parking lot for Boeing airplanes). It has hangars, including the giant Boeing building, that can be used for airlines. (This presupposes that Boeing will eventually vacate the assembly line building—something I think is in the cards in the coming decades.)
The active runway is 9,010 feet long. The airport covers 1,315 acres. It’s more than twice as big as Chicago Midway Airport, which served 20.8m passengers in pre-pandemic 2019. The terminal has 43 gates. It has four primary runways, though only two are routinely used by airlines.
San Diego’s one-runway airport is only slightly larger than Midway. It is the second busiest one-runway airport in the world. The runway is 9,400 feet long. There are 51 gates. The airport served 25 million passengers in 2019.
Paine Field is ideally located to serve all the suburbs north and northeast of Seattle—and all the way to the Canadian border. Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle is a bottleneck that is perpetually congested from 7 AM into the evening. Diverting airport traffic to Paine Field will reduce vehicle traffic (and carbon emissions) downtown.
Paine Field is already where the people and businesses are.
Another alternative site is south of Tacoma is McChord Air Force Base. Proponents of the greenfield sites point out the Air Force says it won’t give up McChord or allow joint use. All well and good, but tell me what is the strategic value of McChord today? All its use could be transferred to Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, which is only another 45 minutes of flight time away. Fairchild is getting the USAF refueling tankers, not McChord. Cargo and troops don’t really care where they depart from for combat.
McChord should be BRAC-ed (declared surplus), freeing it up for civilian use. It has a single, 10,108 ft runway, hangars, etc., that could be converted for a lot less cost than any greenfield site.
A downside to McChord: there is less population and fewer businesses nearby compared with Paine. And with apologies to Tacoma, its draw as a destination is not comparable to Seattle’s draw, including the northern suburbs.
Other factors to consider: Paine and McChord already have highway infrastructure nearby. Paine is on Sound Transit’s list of destinations for light rail. This line is already under construction from Seattle to the suburb of Lynnwood, a short distance from the Paine extension. Paine and McChord have airport infrastructures already in place, including fuel pipelines.
The greenfield sites will need highways, local roadways, pipelines, etc., etc., etc. Endangered species and other wildlife will be displaced or threatened or killed. Wetlands will disappear. Emissions will be created, affecting nearby Mt. Rainier.
The recommendations by the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission are just plain nuts. The costs will be greater, the impacts worse, and residential and industrial growth will sprawl to these sites, just as they did when Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport was built in cornfields between these two cities. Now, suburbs, business, industry, and nuisance noise lawsuits are right to DFW’s edges.
Paine and McChord are the obvious answers. Developed properly, each can serve between 20 million to 25 million passengers annually. Along with SeaTac’s plan to grow to 50 million passengers takes the region to the 97 million passengers projected by 2050. Maybe by then, Tacoma’s sprawl will envelop McChord, too, making this a viable third airport for the region.