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    France Finds Another Way to Make Us Dream About High-Speed Rail

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    A few weeks ago, a theoretical map of an American high speed rail network went viral. The map, an amalgamation of ideas from different advocacy groups, blogs, and Amtrak itself (and compiled by Alfred Twu), wasn't that mind-blowingly different than ones drawn up by the Obama administration back when it seemed into big ideas. Perhaps without that distinctive taint of hopelessness that comes with a U.S. government brand these days, that most recent map had more imaginative power: Hey here's a real plan, not a political toy to be backed with brief, limp advocacy.

    Most conversations I've ever been a party to regarding HSR devolve to the refrain, " ... not that I could afford it anyway." To someone like me, HSR is cool mainly for the prospect of lots of tunnel booming, much less so for actual riding. Sadly, we have no real reason to think that rail in America is going to get cheaper in the future as it gets better, and I can barely afford the slow-speed version of America's one marginally high-speed line, the Acela Express. A ticket on that bad boy, in my years of surfing travel options between Baltimore and New York, seemed to average about double the cost of a plane ticket.

    So, it's hard to imagine the theorized HSR of America's future competing with things like buses and private cars rather than airplanes. If we somehow wound up with a way cool rail network (despite right-wing opposition to not just high speed rail, but also the couch change subsidy we currently give Amtrak) it's nigh impossible to a imagine a situation in which that brand new super-expensive rail network would have its operation subsidized a dime more than absolutely necessary.

    I guess we could make the assumption that if the network were actually built, the right wingers would have already emigrated to their libertarian trash island and we could just charge bus tokens for a quick hop from Chicago to New York, but planning fantasies are more fun with some selective limitations.

    Fortunately for those fantasies, we always have Europe to look to. In particular, we have a new French service called OuiGo. OuiGo is part of the country's TGV service, which is already relatively cheap for high-speed rail. But OuiGo is really cheap: a ticket from Paris to the Mediterranean runs as low as €10 (about $13) for the approximately 500 mile trip. That's about two and a half cents per mile, compared with about $.70 a mile for a ride on America's Acela (based on $130 one-way ticket). The Transport Politic explains:

    Like Ryanair, Europe’s foremost low-cost airline, OuiGo will not serve the more convenient passenger terminals where most TGVs board and alight. Rather, the Paris region stop will be located 20 km east of the city in Marne La Vallée (the location of Disneyland Paris); Lyon’s, instead of being in the center of the city, will be out at the St. Exupéry airport. One major reason for this service pattern is that the public agency that owns the tracks (RFF) charges SNCF (also a public agency) more for the use of tracks in suburban areas than those in the center city. Labor represents for only about 20% of TGV operations costs, while track fees, which are becoming increasingly onerous (they will be augmented by €200 million in 2013 alone) and which pay for maintenance and upgrades, account for a large potion of expenditures.

    It’s an innovative approach to providing train service at lower costs, one that sacrifices convenience to the city center for easy access for suburban automobile users, who, despite France’s rather well-developed transit networks, nonetheless constitute a large portion of the population. For them, an easy-to-access train station in the suburbs — combined with cheaper-than-normal tickets — may be enough to induce them to switch to the train.

    Meanwhile, we're just a few days from the infamous sequester, that across-the-board budget slashing scheduled to hit every federal department, from the National Science Foundation to the military to, yep, Amtrak. The quasi-governmental passenger rail agency is set to lose $131 million if the sequestration isn't averted in the next couple of days (don't count on it). Needless to say, a hit that big isn't exactly a downward pressure on prices.

    Third- world rail system, first class jetliner prices. All aboard.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.