Since I’ve moved to Germany, I have a new choice to make when travelling — whether to take a plane or a train when travelling medium distances. There are a few trip planners out there that will show you all of your options for getting from city to city, but they mostly focus on cost and schedule. They say you make what you measure, and in the two variables of time and cost, the train usually doesn’t come out very well, especially around Berlin where even the high speed lines aren’t very fast.
Why do people take these things then, when airplanes fly at 800 kph, and average train speeds including stops are very often less than 110 kph? It’s all of the things that aren’t captured by that number. The experience of taking an airplane is bad and keeps getting worse, but it could get better if we focused on what makes trains great and tried to adapt it to planes.
The problem starts when getting to the airport. Most airports are far from the city center because they are so big and generate noise. Newer airports only make the problem worse, because a new airport is always bigger than the old airport, and the land close to the city center is not available. To allow high volume IFR departures and arrivals, the current thinking is to have a as many parallel runways as possible, with runways spaced 4300 feet apart to meet the regulatory spacing for simultaneous approaches. 10000 foot runways x 4300 foot spacing means at least 3 square miles at a minimum for a new modern airport, but technology could allow us to do better! London City airport is the best example. With a very small footprint, and a 5000 foot runway, it manages to move 30 million passengers per year. The trick is using short takeoff and landing airplanes. For the width issue, at SFO, they have 750 foot spaced runways and in reasonable weather can use both using a procedure called SOIA. With more modern navigation technology, we could also have much more closely spaced runways and still safely land aircraft in IFR conditions.
The result is, airports are hard to get to, and usually have poor or time consuming train connections. On the other hand, train stations are usually near the city center, and are almost necessarily connected to the city’s metro system because the metro can use the same rail rights of way as the intercity trains. Furthermore, in bigger cities, the train will often call at two or three stations in the city, making it even more convenient to get to the train station. Since the train can make quick stops, this doesn’t slow down the train excessively.
The second problem is loading and unloading. Loading an airplane is slow and unpleasant, and has gotten worse. Here’s why the train is better: First, doors. The typical second class train carriage has about 60 seats and has two wide doors, leading to a 21 inch wide aisle. There are only four seats per row. A 737 has a 17 inch wide aisle, which is not wide enough for two people to pass, and is usually loaded from a single ended jet bridge, leading to a small door. What this adds up to is that you can load a train in 4 minutes, and it takes 25 minutes to load an airplane. Worse, on an airplane, the procedure is to line up for boarding, have your ticket checked, only to have to line up in the jet bridge, to line up in the cramped aisle, put your suitcase overhead, and then ask the guy already sitting to get up so you can take your window seat. On a train, you simply stand on the platform, and when the train arrives, you hop on, quickly get to your seat, and sit down. Once you’re underway, someone will come around to check your ticket as you’re seated and relaxed.
If the airlines had more boarding groups, and called them slowly enough that there weren’t lines after taking tickets, the whole process would be much more relaxed. Better yet, slightly wider aisles would allow people to pass in the aisle, greatly speeding up loading. The biggest Duh of the airline industry is why major carriers aren’t loading from both ends of the plane. Low cost carriers routinely do this with air stairs on the tarmac, and double ended jet bridges have been tried, but abandoned due to technical problems. In practice, they reduced the total time to load and unload the plane by over 13 minutes! That’s 13 aggravating, uncomfortable minutes per segment. Wider doors would be another great improvement. The ever controversial Michael O’Leary wants wider doors, but evidently has to go to China to get them! The big elephant in the past few years is of course baggage fees. Now that everyone is carrying on, we have to suffer with the unpleasantness of everyone putting huge suitcases in the overhead bins, and wandering around looking for overhead space.
Finally, there’s the airport itself. When you do finally arrive at the airport, you must wade through lines to get your boarding pass if you need it, and check your bags. Then, you wait in another line to go through security. The security process has been made so absurd that a typical traveller will have to empty his pockets into his bag, remove his shoes, belt, and coat, put them in bins, take their laptop out of its case, put it in a separate bin, wait in another line for the metal detector/naked scanner, keep an eye on their possessions, and finally put it all back together. The whole process usually takes about 10 minutes, but on an unlucky day, it will be 30. Then, you must walk to your gate, which may be some distance from the security checkpoint. At places like Heathrow Terminal 5, this is often a very long distance, and this is now by design. Airports now resemble a shopping mall with an aviation division. Older airports such as O’Hare and Berlin Tegel are much more efficient in walking distance, but sacrifice retail space, the profit center of the airport.
The end result is that you must arrive at the airport an hour before your flight, and much of that hour stressful, unpleasant, hurry-up-and-wait action. On the train, 10 minutes is usually more than enough time to catch a train. The security requirements of train travel are arguably the same as an airplane — both are fast moving, passenger laden, high profile targets. At the very least, money should be spent on making the security process better. This means bigger tables to unload your stuff into bins, more staff for less waiting, and staff to actually help you get your stuff in and out of the x-ray machine. Absurd requirements like removing shoes, laptops, belts, and change still exist, when technology should be able to solve them.
This is a market ripe for disruption, and airlines need to take the lead. The first step is better measurement. Airlines need to stop posting schedules of aircraft door closing to airport door opening times, and start posting true door to door times — passenger enters the airport to passenger exits the airport times. Then airlines can start competing on what really matters, and maybe even improve on their dismal profits.