I’ve come to conclude that airplane travel makes a lot more sense than high-speed trains. Consider the marginal energy cost of a 90kg (200 lb) person getting on a 737-800, the most commonly flown commercial jet in US service. For this plane, the ratio of lift/drag at cruise speed is 19, suggesting an average value of 15 or so for a 1 hr trip when you include take-off and landing. The energy cost of his trip is related to the cost of jet fuel, about $3.20/gallon, or about $1/kg. The heat energy content of jet fuel is 44 MJ/kg. Assuming an average engine efficiency of 21%, we calculate a motive-energy cost of 1.1 x 10-7 $/J. The amount of energy per mile is just force times distance. Force is the person’s weight in (in Newtons) divided by 15, the lift/drag ratio. The energy use 1609 m (1 mile) is 90*9.8*1609/15 = 94,600 J. Multiplying by the $-per-J we find the marginal cost is 1¢ per mile: virtually nothing compared to driving.
The marginal cost of 1¢/passenger mile explains why airplanes offer crazy-low, fares to fill seats. But this is just the marginal cost. The average energy cost is higher since it includes the weight of the plane. On a reasonably full 737 flight, the passengers and luggage weigh about 1/4 as much as the plane and its fuel. Effectively, each passenger weighs 800 lbs, suggesting a 4¢/mile energy cost, or $20 of energy per passenger for the 500 mile flight from Detroit to NY. Though the fuel rate of burn is high, about 5000 lbs/hr, the mpg is high because of the high speed and the high number of passengers. The 737 gets somewhat more than 80 passenger miles per gallon, far less than the typical person driving — and the 747 does better yet.
The average passengers must pay more than $20 for a flight to cover wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and landing fees. Still, one can see how discount airlines could make money if they have a good deal with a hub airport, one that allows them low landing fees and allows them to buy fuel at near cost.
Compare this to any proposed super-fast or Mag-lev train. Over any significant distance, the plane will be cheaper, faster, and as energy-efficient. Current US passenger trains, when fairly full, boast a fuel economy of 200 passenger miles per gallon, but they are rarely full. Currently, they take some 15 hours to go Detroit to NY, in part because they go slow, and in part because they go via longer routes, visiting Toronto and Montreal in this case, with many stops along the way. With this long route, even if the train got 150 passenger mpg, the 750 mile trip would use 5 gallons per passenger, compared to 6.25 for the flight above. This is a savings of $5, at a cost of 20 hours of a passenger’s life. Even train speeds were doubled, the trip would still take 10 hours including stops, and the energy cost would be higher. As for price, beyond the costs of wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and depot fees, trains have to add the cost of new track and track upkeep. Wages too will be higher because the trip takes longer. While I’d be happy to see better train signaling to allow passenger trains to go 100 mph on current, freight-compatible lines, I can’t see the benefit of government-funded super-track for 150+ mph trains that will still take 10 hours and will still be half-full.
Something else removing my enthusiasm for super trains is the appearance of new short take-off and landing jets. Some years ago, I noted that Detroit’s Coleman Young airport no longer has commercial traffic because its runway was too short, 1051m. I’m happy to report that Bombardier’s new CS100s should make small airports like this usable. A CS100 will hold 120 passengers, requires only 1463m of runway, and is quiet enough for city use. The economics are such that it’s hard to imagine mag-lev beating this for the proposed US high-speed train routes: Dallas to Houston; LA to San José to San Francisco; or Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh. So far US has kept out these planes because Boeing claims unfair competition, but I trust that this is just a delay. For shorter trips, I note that modern busses are as fast and energy efficient as trains, and far cheaper because they share the road costs with cars and trucks.
If the US does want to spend money, I’d suggest improving inner-city airports, and to improve roads for higher speed car and bus traffic. If you want low pollution and high efficiency, how about hydrogen hybrid buses?