Will Rail Travel Really Surpass Air Travel?

I like talking about futuristic travel which is why I wrote about it here and here and here. Now comes this study by ARUP, the UK-based international engineering and consulting firm, examining train travel in the year 2050. It is hard to deny some of their projections like 75% of the world’s population of 9.5 million people will live in cities. Absent catastrophic disease, famine, or world war, many futurists agree with this number of people on the planet 35 years from now.

But are they right about train travel? Well, they are certainly correct that outside the U.S., there is a much great commitment to high speed rail and the world’s leading supporter today is China. There is no reason to believe that will not continue into the foreseeable future.

Of course, one advantage of train stations vs airports is size. With no need for long runways, it is simply easier to build stations closer to city centers. However, much of what ARUP projects for train terminals is not that much different than how planners see airports of the future. There will be more – and better – shopping alternatives, better baggage checking and tracking, ticketless technology, and use of robots.

But one thing I haven’t seen projected for the future of airports is use of drones. ARUP has included them as necessary for maintenance and security. Disclosure: I do not wear a tin foil hat, I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, but I did read the book, 1984. Wondering here, just how much more security will the people of the future tolerate before they see it as an invasion of their privacy?

This report includes numerous case studies about how people will be affected by future train travel. However, none of them are Americans. Maybe ARUP wasn’t aware of this omission, maybe it was intentional. Most everyone agrees there is lots of room for rail growth in developing countries but in the U.S., there are financial and political considerations that could easily derail this, so to speak.

Nevertheless, the ARUP visionaries see rail travel for both passengers and freight as the backbone of future travel. That means far fewer long-haul truckers and less air travelers. No one would argue that with the growth of rail, it would be a more competitive universe for all methods of travel but much of this will come down to cost and that is where rail needs to prepare a compelling case. After all, it is inevitable that the taxpayers will underwrite this regardless of transportation method.

Also, will this rail service of the future be owned by governments or private companies? We are beginning to see private rail ownership in the U.S. but this may have a bearing on outcome, and certainly affect regulations. For example, if we have private rail lines, will trains go from their customary 2-2 seating to 3-3? You know the drill from the airlines, squeeze in as many passengers as possible. Will they offer loyalty programs and elite status at least like Amtrak does now? The authors don’t delve this deep into the future but inquiring minds from BoardingArea are curious.

Yes I know, it is easy for a firm like ARUP to paint such a rosy picture of train travel in the future since they plan to be one of the primary design and consulting beneficiaries. But before you pass judgment, take a deep breath and read the report for yourself, especially if you will be one of the fortunate readers who will still be around 35 years from now.

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