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A day of air travel over North America, and what it means for rail

From Wired Magazine via Aaron of Streetsblog comes this amazing map and video that shows a day of air travel over North America. Using data from the Federal Aviation Administration and a service called FlightView that tracks airline travel each day, artist Aaron Koblin created this Google map that shows 24 hours of airline travel on August 12, 2008.

Aaron Koblin Airline Travel

There’s also a breathtaking movie version of this same map, that shows the flights in real time through the course of the day.

The sheer number of airplanes traveling over the United States is simply mind boggling. On this day chronicled in the map, the FAA tracked 205,000 flights in U.S. airspace. Anyone who has ever traveled by plane knows that we have plenty of air above our country, but the problem is the fact that too many of them need to be in specific pieces of air at the same time. Or traveling through the same crowded airports.

Watch the movie and look at what happens to the east coast — especially the northeastern corridor — during the major commuting hours. Our major airports are bursting at the seams, and our air traffic control system, while among the safest and most professional in the world, is hard pressed to keep up with the growing demands placed on it.

With some experts predicting a doubling of airline traffic by 2050 — though not considering the impact that fuel prices or economic conditions could have on the industry — we’d be smart to find a way to get some of these planes out of the air.

What if there was a way to remove as much as a third of these planes from the air. Or even just a 1/4 or 1/5? Imagine the difference in our most crowded metropolitan airports (and travelers) if we could ease the burden on their runways and air traffic control systems?

Q: What could we do to make air travel simpler, faster, and more cost effective?

A: Build a robust nationwide network of passenger rail once again to take the pressure off of the airlines and our airspace. Use airline travel for longer trips where it makes the most financial sense. Start with the heavily trafficked shorter city-to-city corridors that are responsible for a huge portion of air travel.

Did you know that 1/3 of all air travel in this country is for trips under 350 miles? Think of heavily traveled corridors like Atlanta to Charlotte, Washington DC to New York, Houston to Dallas, San Francisco to Los Angeles. These are all trips near or under 350 miles.

Imagine the impact that having efficient city to city rail options in heavily traveled corridors would have on air travel in this country — not to mention what it would do for boosting our economic competitiveness, reducing emissions, and improving energy security with an electrified system that isn’t beholden to the price of oil.

Compare this 2001 map from the U.S. Department of Transportation establishing potential high speed rail corridors to the portions of heaviest air travel on Koblin’s map above.

US DOT HSR corridors 2001

High speed rail across the country is obviously something we’d love to see. But a great start would be improving existing passenger rail in these corridors to make it reliable, faster and on-time. The Northeast corridor is the only place where trains don’t have to regularly submit to freight trains, but service is still constrained by obstacles like old trackage, curves in the route, old bridges and tunnels, just to name a few. The distance from Washington to Charlotte’s financial markets is shorter than DC to Boston through the bustling Northeast megaregion, but the trip is hours longer due to freight priority and other constraints.

Dedicated right-of-way for passenger rail could make train travel feasible once again, improve freight times with passenger trains out of their way, and ease up airport congestion. What’s not to like?

So what do you think? What should we do to improve rail service in the United States?

No Comments

  1. Malcolm Kenton

    15 years ago

    Passenger rail service needs to start improving even more incrementally than that. To paraphrase NARP‘s Ross Capon, we have to walk before we can run, and we’ve only been crawling so far. We should expand existing service to the point that it is equivalent to what existed in the 1940s and ’50s before routes and frequencies began being cut. I subscribe to writer and historian Al Runte‘s definition of a reasonable minimum level of passenger train service: at least three daily trains serving every city with a population of 50,000 or greater.

    This can be accomplished if federal and state governments partner with private railroads to double or triple-track all major intercity routes and make grading and signal improvements to allow passenger trains to travel at 90-110 miles per hour. This would allow for more frequent and dependable freight service as well as passenger service. Dedicated rights-of-way for passenger trains are only really necessary in situations like the Northeast Corridor, and even there freight movements are made, mostly at night. If the private railroads resist partnering with governments to make such improvements, we should consider making the railroads publicly-owned assets, but I think railroad owners would benefit greatly from such partnerships.

    North Carolina, where the state DOT’s Rail Division is investing in rail infrastructure and safety improvements even where no passenger trains currently operate, should be a model for the nation in this regard.

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  4. Advisor

    15 years ago

    Actually, HSR is 1/3 the cost of all of the 6,500 US airport expansions that are meant to kill rail, is it sustainable unlike commercial aviation, it would reduce flights by about 50% and road congestion measurably, while creating millions of new jobs.

    But I disagree about fast rail; fast rail is a waste of time and money. There are many independent government reports, but let me cite the defining one (GAO-02-185).

    With the new technology, maglev is cheaper than fast rail (certainly, in the long run).

  5. Advisor

    15 years ago

    Dispelling the myths: Transporting America Beyond Trains, Planes, Automobiles… and Oil


  6. Triandoreprer

    15 years ago


  7. robert_b

    15 years ago

    Maglev is a great idea, but not ready for prime time. HSR is proven and effective. I like the maglev idea, but putting off front-burner HSR projects like the SF>>LA link will stall development for decades.
    Also, Maglev consumes over twice the energy that HSR uses.

  8. Jon Morgan

    15 years ago

    With peak oil setting in, demand for both freight and passenger rail is going to skyrocket. We don’t need separate rights of way per se, but we definitely need to put serious federal money into separate tracks for passenger rail. Both freight and passengers would benefit. I was sad to see the stimulus package spend twice as much on roads as transit, and quite disappointed with the choice of Ray LaHood for DOT Secretary. But I’m very heartened at the changes Obama proposed in his FY10 budget; they seem to start shifting resources away from cars and toward transit. I hope that over 4 or 8 years we’ll accumulate a serious investment in both metropolitan transit and intercity rail. I agree with Malcolm that we don’t necessarily need 155 mph trains, but we do need faster, more frequent, more reliable service between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. Regional commuter rail would also benefit.

  9. Jon Morgan

    15 years ago

    Guess you can’t edit comments here, but I wanted to add that once you have separate freight and passenger tracks, you can start offering local and express service so people have an option to pay more for a faster trip with fewer stops.

  10. Jon Morgan

    15 years ago

    National Journal, an inside the Beltway periodical, has a decent debate in blog form on high speed rail here.