As Dave points out, we have quite the task ahead of us when it comes to transitioning from an oil-based economy to one where oil is marginal. If oil is marginal, there’s no way we keep up the same amount of air traffic we currently have.

But then, how would someone get from coast to coast? Right now the options in this future economy are not pretty. You could pay a premium for the traditional 6 hour flight. You could drive a car at a similar premium.

Let’s say premiums get so high those options are out of consideration. How about rail? Right now, a coast-to-coast (NYC to SF) rail ticket is $137 with Amtrak. This is comparable to what it would cost to fly, assuming you book well in advance.

But of course, there’s the issue of opportunity cost. The $137 Amtrak ticket gets you from NYC to SF in about three days. While certain people might not mind this if there’s somewhere to plug in a laptop, the time factor is probably enough to put most people back on the plane, even with a high premium, especially if they have Monday meetings to make.

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Two ways to increase the appeal of rail (and thus ease the transition) might be be to:

  • make it faster; or
  • reduce the opportunity cost involved. A plug at every seat would be a start; internet access would be a huge pull. Cheaper sleeper cars would also help, since part of the cost of a coach ticket is the possibility of bad sleep for three nights — right now that NYC to SF ticket jumps to $739 for a sleeper car, but that does include meals for three days.

I think number two is the way to go. You can only go so fast through the Rocky Mountains. What the rail company would actually be selling here is more of a mindset. To quote a movie I haven’t seen but heard about through this post: Someone asks John Travolta’s character in Be Cool about the speed of his replacement car, a hybrid. He replies, “When you’re important people will wait.”

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