Rail projects are sign of a quiet revolution in short-haul trips

This article appeared in the New York Times on June 4, 2002.

By Joe Sharkey

Delta Airlines, for one, is plenty worried about business travelers who are so fed up with airport problems that they're switching to the train on East Coast routes.

In an attempt to portray the train as an inferior option to flying, Delta's ads do everything but imply that train passengers have to watch out for Jesse James and his gang shooting up the lounge car.

The clear recent success of Amtrak's Northeast corridor rail system, and especially of the high-speed Acela trains that share it, is usually treated as an incidental consequence of the catastrophe of Sept. 11.

Hot-air hurricanes rage in Washington and in airline corporate suites about the future of an air transport system based on huge, speculative passenger-growth projections that some critics contend are unrealistic. But a quiet revolution is gathering force, led by business travelers who, in numbers now big enough to truly frighten the airlines, have either found other ways to get there, or alternatives to going in the first place.

All over the country, ambitious new intercity rail projects are being envisioned, often by states in partnership with private industry. In California, speedy rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles is going to be extended up to San Francisco. In the Midwest, work has already begun
on a big high-speed rail project that will link Chicago and other cities in nine states. In Florida, plans are advancing for a high-speed link between Orlando and Miami. In Texas, there's talk of a high-speed link between Houston and Dallas.

At the heart of this new activity is a growing awareness among transportation planners that business travel demand in the United States is, at least, somewhat similar to Continental Europe, where a vast network of national high-speed train systems has nearly eliminated air trips
between cities less than 400 miles apart.

"About 60 percent of airline flights in North America are less than 400 miles in length," Louis A. Turpen, the chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, told international airport and transport officials meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., yesterday at the Airport Summit, a
gathering sponsored by Marcus Evans, a business information company.

High-speed rail networks "bleed the short-haul capacity out of the system," freeing airports to do what they do best: handle long-distance trips, Mr. Turpen said. Meanwhile, he added, "we must establish airports as intermodal
transportation points, and not just places to take off and land airplanes."

That means airports as modern transportation and business hubs, where high-speed and commuter rail links converge to feed into national and international air-transport networks.

That's the kind of airport that Juergen E. Bartels, the chief executive of Meridien Hotels and Resorts was showing off the other day as he thumbed through illustrations showing what the Frankfurt Airport's new AirRail Center will look like once Meridien opens a 680-room luxury high-technology
hotel that is under construction there. The soaring edifice is being built on a platform over the high-speed train terminal at the airport.

A passionate advocate of high-speed rail as a vital component of a nation's transportation system, Mr. Bartels noted that planning in European nations for the current systems began decades ago, after Japan led the way in the
mid-1960's with its bullet trains. "It's almost as if it is revelation to America that this works," Mr. Bartels said with some astonishment.

In Europe, where even track gauges didn't match between some countries after World War II, planning has become so coordinated that "they're now integrating all of Europe into one train model, encompassing even the regional and commuter trains from the inner cities," Mr. Bartels said.

His native Germany moved aggressively into high-speed rail planning only in the early 1980's. "Germany had lost what they call the train culture," he said. "The German trains were dirty, they were not on time and the employees were surly." Inspired by energetic high-speed rail initiatives in
France, much of the rest of Europe, Germany included, soon developed its own networks. In Germany, "they're spending gazillions on new tracks" for expanded high-speed service, he said.

"They are succeeding at establishing a culture that gets the business traveler out of the plane and into the train" for flights within Germany and to nearby foreign cities, "thus freeing the air space for long-distance flights, which is what it should be used for," he added.

Putting a five-star hotel at the new kind of air-rail transportation hub represented by airports like the one in Frankfurt is a logical, necessary refinement in that plan, he said. Typically, airport hotels are drab and "utilitarian," Mr. Bartels said, adding: "I want to have the best airport hotel in the world. That title is currently vacant, by the way."

Facilities for business conferences and small meetings are a major part of the planning for the new Meridien hotel at the Frankfurt AirRail Center. This reflects the reality of modern business travel in which more business is being conducted right at the airport itself, Mr. Bartels said.

"I would be interested to build this type of hotel at major U.S. airports," he said, pointing out that many airports are deeply into terminal expansion projects costing billions of dollars. At some airports in the United States, airport managers and local and regional government and business
planners are already designing accommodations for various kinds of rail links.

Like many outside of governmental transportation planning in the United States, Mr. Bartels is baffled as to why so little has been done to develop rail alternatives to short-distance flying.

Mr. Turpen, the Toronto airport executive who was previously the chief executive of San Francisco International Airport, suggested yesterday at the Airport Summit that the time had come to begin more intense work on building high-speed rail links tied to the air system. "We've got to start
to reverse this trend that there is an inalienable right to fly" under all circumstances, he said.

In the United States, where Congress is quibbling about renewing an annual budget for Amtrak that would barely pay for a short stretch of Interstate highway or a single airport runway, serious advocates of intercity rail
transport have to share both budget and podium with dewy-eyed romantics who want to funnel rail money into maintaining long-distance trains that some in the industry say merely subsidize "land cruises" for leisure travelers.

Lose those 20th Century Limited infatuations, Mr. Bartels suggested. "It has nothing to do with romance," he said. "It's about business and the vaunted American productivity. In the United States, you can simply no longer justify the economic costs and lost productivity of traveling short
distances by air."


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