Modal Shift and High-Speed Rail: A Review of the Current Literature

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014


Executive Summary

This report provides a review of scholarly literature with direct relevance to the topic of modal shift and high-speed rail (HSR). HSR systems are usually planned on the expectation that they will attract riders who would have chosen other modes (such as air, automobile, bus, etc.) had the HSR not been created. Identifying and measuring the actual ability of HSR to effect modal shift is therefore critical. To establish the most current systematic research on the topic, this report examines the evidence concerning HSR and modal shift in both secondary analyses of previous studies and in newer studies that use primarily original data. The studies that were reviewed comprise a large variety of HSR systems, time periods, data sources, and means of analysis. 

Although this literature is still in a formative stage, with key pieces of data and analysis still unavailable, the existing research is quite clear that HSR is extremely competitive with other modes. This finding emerges from essentially every study examined for this report and is reflected in outcomes from the HSR systems of Europe and Asia, with limited information from the US. The convergence of these multiple sources and analytic frameworks on similar results provides a reasonably secure basis for inferring that new HSR systems placed in appropriate travel corridors and managed well are likely to result in significant amounts of modal shift. Essentially, the literature affirms that HSR has resulted in significant-to-dramatic mode shifts where it has been systematically evaluated. 

The most extensive and convincing information concerns HSR versus airline service. In both Europe and Asia, air service for specific routes was reduced, or even curtailed altogether, following coverage of the same routes by HSR. The most dramatic demonstrations of HSR’s ability to attract market share tend to occur under specific circumstances. When HSR is faster from beginning to end of city pairs, for example, HSR gains market share rapidly and decisively. Other possible mediating factors of HSR market share include time to access and egress the system; fare cost versus that of other modes; service frequency; service quality; and number of transfers required. 

The research concerning direct competition with automobiles is much less definitive. The completed research does generally confirm that adding HSR results in substantially less automobile travel, with a few exceptions that seem linked to extraneous factors and not the competitiveness of HSR per se. As well, there is evidence of modal shift to HSR in some markets served by express buses (e.g., Taiwan), but the evidence is relatively scant. When it competes directly with conventional rail, HSR has been shown to emerge as the dominant force in the market, although conventional rail also serves as a complement in many HSR systems. 

The studies compiled here document, with a variety of data and research approaches, that HSR systems have proven competitive in a great variety of settings in industrialized countries. Although this study does not include analysis of new data that would address the California HSR system, the findings from the research reviewed here are highly consistent with the expectation that the planned HSR system is well positioned to achieve comparable modal shift. 

I. Introduction 

Ground will be broken soon on a new high-speed rail (HSR) system in California. Common in many other industrialized nations, the first HSR route was created in Japan in 1964, featuring trains that ran at approximately 130 mph.1 Since that time, HSR service has been added and, in many instances, rapidly expanded in many other countries. It is particularly well established in Japan, China, Taiwan, Germany, Spain, and France. Although there is no globally accepted standard for what constitutes HSR,2 in the US the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has defined various categories of HSR, including “HSR express”: 

HSR – Express. Frequent, express service between major population centers 200–600 miles apart, with few intermediate stops. Top speeds of at least 150 mph on completely grade-separated, dedicated rights-of-way (with the possible exception of some shared track in terminal areas). Intended to relieve air and highway capacity constraints.

The California system is planned to meet the “express” standard for HSR over its newly constructed route. Of particular significance here is the last part of the FRA definition, which specifies at least part of the purpose of creating HSR systems: relieving capacity constraints posed by air and highway systems. Depending on the context, HSR systems may be intended to achieve several other key objectives. Among these are enhancing economic development and job creation, reducing environmental impacts of transportation, and generating a positive return on investment.4 However, the goal nearly always associated with new HSR projects is to provide some form of relief as a viable alternative to congested air and roadways, and this certainly is among the primary motivations for developing the California system.

If HSR systems are to provide such relief, as well as the many other benefits ascribed to them, they must succeed in attracting passengers from other modes of transportation. Moving passengers from existing (and perhaps future) air, bus, and automobile options to HSR is generically referred to as “mode shifting,” “mode substitution,” or “diverted demand.”6 This paper provides a review of existing research concerning effectiveness of the HSR system in effecting modal shift, particularly from airplanes, automobiles, and buses. 

To help ensure use of objective and scientifically reliable findings obtained with rigorous methods, the focus for this review is almost exclusively on scholarly and/or peer-reviewed research that documents either the potential or the record of HSR systems to attract riders from other modes. Additionally, although older research was consulted, the emphasis here will be on more recent research that reflects the latest data and analytic techniques available. Extensive search on relevant terms was conducted in a variety of environments, including the Transport Research International Documentation (TRID), Google Scholar, various Transportation Research Board resources (including ACRP, TCRP, and TRB conference websites), domestic and international rail agency websites, and various electronic library databases, including the Social Science Citation Index, and Academic Search Premier (which encompasses multiple databases). The sources examined emerge from a panoply of journals reflecting the variety of academic disciplines comprising transportation policy. This paper will address the following questions that are directly related to HSR and modal shift: 

  • How do researchers identify and measure mode shift? 
  • How much modal shift among air, auto, and other modes is believed to be caused by the availability of new HSR systems and routes?
  • How much modal shift has been documented by HSR systems in specific countries that have more mature HSR systems? 
  • Which factors have been shown to affect size and quality of mode shift? 
  • How much modal shift has been forecast with direct reference to the California system? 
  • What implications does the existing research generally have for the California system?

Download full version (PDF): Modal Shift and High-Speed Rail

About the Mineta Transportation Institute
The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) conducts research, education, and information and technology transfer, focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. It was established by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and was reauthorized under TEA-21 and again under SAFETEA-LU.

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