High-Speed Rail Won’t Fly Here

Ron Davies, former museum curator of air transport rallies for high-speed rail.

Caroline Sheen

Ronald E. G. Davies, who passed away on July 30 after a series of strokes, was for 30 years Curator of Air Transport at the National Air and Space Museum, during which time he wrote 25 books about air transport. He spoke with Senior Editor Pat Trenner in February.

Air & Space: Early in your career you were a salesman. How did selling airliners suit you?

Davies: There were times when long journeys became tiring and periods away from home irritating. Mainly with Douglas, I have been able to visit all seven continents, including Antarctica, fly around the world, and cross the Seven Seas many times. Through airline contacts I interviewed pioneers and leaders of the airline industry worldwide. I sank many a beer with chairmen of the U.S. local service industry, sipped cappuccinos with the great Ruben Berta in Brazil, and–possibly my most treasured memory – was invited to take tea with India’s legendary J.R.D. Tata in his suite at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi in the early 1970s.

A & S: Before you established an air transport market research department at Bristol Aeroplane, how did aircraft companies decide what to build?

Davies: They relied almost entirely on technical innovation, advancement in structure, design, power, and reliability. The best pre-war example was the Douglas DC-3, which out-performed all others in those criteria. After the 1940s, airliner improvements were made by all manufacturers, mainly by stretching the fuselages. Much still depended on personal contacts, making deals, and mutual trust. Technical details and operating economics were not vital selling factors until the late 1950s, when the role of sales engineering was introduced, and as the world of air transport expanded, the role of research into potential markets was innovated. I first developed a worldwide statistical survey of the airlines to form the basis of a systematic forecasting method to examine which ones needed to reinforce their fleets, and thus to identify opportunities and where the salesmen should go.

A & S: You’re an airplane guy. Why have you long endorsed high-speed rail? And why won’t it fly here?

Davies: My first acquaintance with HSR was in 1964, when I visited Japan to assess the market for the de Haviland Trident (I forecast the sale of 40 aircraft but no one believed me—there was no followup, and Boeing sold the 727). I traveled on one of the first Shin Kan-sen bullet trains and was impressed. Only six months later did I realize that this was not just a faster train—it was a new form of transport. Today, more than 30 countries are either operating, building, or in the advanced stages of planning HSR. The United States is last on the list. It has failed to recognize that an efficient passenger railroad system is an essential public utility, like good roads and electricity. The Chinese 600-mile Wuhan-Guangzhou route is already scheduled at least 20 times a day, in three hours. Yet here, the Washington-New York Acela express, with several stops, averaging 89 miles an hour, is thought to be “high-speed.”

A & S: You’re a fan of the Airbus A380. Will industry produce an even larger transport? And should it?

Davies: The wide-body “jumbo” jets were twice as big as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The same general principle still applies, even though the 500-seat A380 is only half as big again as the Boeing 747. Five airlines are currently operating more than 40 A380s, and this will rise to close to 100 by the end of 2012. By any criterion, this is the beginning of a new generation. The Boeing 787 will be a good replacement for the Boeing 767 or the Airbus A330, and good for domestic routes, but it will not be a major element globally. Statistics show that 75 percent of the world’s international traffic is served by only 25 major airports. This is the market for the next generation. The A380 will meet the traffic demand for this 75 percent, and it has no competitor in the same class. The 787 Dreamliner will be left to cope with the remaining 25 percent. Today, airliners remain in service for 30 years or more. The half-life of the A380 will be at around the year 2020. Already a French airline has ordered two 820-seat all-economy A380s. There is talk of a stretched A380. I may not live to see high-speed rail in the U.S., but I may live to see a thousand-seat airliner.

A & S: What is your most memorable experience aboard an airliner?

Davies: When I really thought I was about to die. On a TWA flight out of Lisbon, the captain started to announce problems with one of the engines. First was an apology that would delay us into New York; then we might have to stop at the Azores; then we would have to. Then the captain suggested that on landing at the Azores, we should practice the emergency evacuation procedures “just in case an engine catches fire.” I realized the problem was serious, unconnected with the engines. Hydraulic, electric, or other system defects would not demand such an emergency. I then suspected their might be a bomb on board. When, on approach to Santa Maria airport, he instructed us to be down the slides and out of the airplane in 90 seconds, I mentally said goodbye to my family.

It had been a false alarm, but this was not made certain until a U.S. bomb squad arrived from Madrid to search the airplane, baggage, and us.

A & S: What will you miss most when you retire from NASM as the air transport go-to guy?

Davies: At the risk of sounding unforgivably banal, the professional companionship of my curatorial colleagues. Serving under five museum directors over the years, we have often held different views and sometimes strongly expressed them, but I do not remember a single harsh word.

A & S: And least?

Davies: I shall happily say farewell to the lack of public transport in the Washington suburbs, which forces everyone to spend half their lives in cars.

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