Rail transport picks up speed

Last year, Obama laid out a sweeping vision for high-speed rail  jump started by $8 billion in the stimulus bill (see “Make no little plans”).  These rail corridors will decrease our dependence on foreign oil and  reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as explained in this CAP repost.

The United States uses 25 percent of the entire world’s oil supply despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, and sprawling communities force people to drive even short distances. We need alternate modes of transportation to kick this oil dependence, and one alternative is high-speed rail, which offers tantalizing environmental and economic benefits. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a strategic plan for high-speed rail last year that includes $8 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $1 billion a year for five years in the federal budget. Their goal is to jumpstart a potential world-class rail system in the United States.

These economic incentives for a mass U.S. network of high-speed rail trains, or HSR, along existing transportation corridors could create much-needed jobs, decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The national implementation of HSR would create jobs in the planning, design, and construction of track and station infrastructure as well as the management, design, and manufacturing of high-speed trains. A study by the California High-Speed Rail Authority found that building their proposed HSR system””which would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco and voters OK’d in 2008″”will create 150,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs.

Critics worry that HSR will encourage sprawl and have a significant impact on parks and wildlife refuges. Yet there have been no links established between existing HSR stations in France and Spain, for example, and an epidemic of suburban growth. In fact, sprawl could be a thing of the past if we take preventative measures to encourage urban density, enact antisprawl regulations, and make it convenient to travel to outlying HSR stations with plenty of garage parking.

HSR systems would take advantage of existing transportation corridors to minimize intrusion onto protected nature reserves, decrease air pollution generated by internal combustion engines in cars, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California HSR, for example, will remove 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 because it uses electricity generated from wind, solar, and other renewable resources. In addition, California’s HSR will save 12.7 million barrels of oil by 2030.

Further, the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology concluded in 2006 that a national HSR system could reduce the number of annual car trips by 29 million and annual plane flights by 500,000, saving 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions equal to removing 1 million cars from the road each year.

If the United States is going to have a world-class rail system, however, it needs to focus on the “speed” part of HSR. President Obama said on January 27, 2010, “there’s no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains.” Yet plans for a network in the United States indicate that U.S. HSR trains will be slower than their European or Asian counterparts. European HSR trains operate in excess of speeds of 180 mph, but the U.S. HSR train speeds vary from express routes that serve major population centers traveling at least at 150 mph to regional routes at 110-150 mph to developing corridors topping out at 90-110 mph on tracks shared with regular rails.

In October 2009, Amtrak laid out a $10 billion plan that only reduces the 457-mile travel time between Washington and Boston from six and a half hours to five and a half hours, while China’s 601 mile line between Wuhan and Guangzhou takes only three hours.

Central Japan Railway, France’s SNCF, and China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock are all competing for President Obama’s $8 billion grant for HSR corridors across the United States. The potential of foreign development forced Amtrak to internally reorganize and make HSR development and implementation their top priority. The publicly owned company announced that it will perform feasibility studies about boosting the Northeast Corridor service to 220 mph. Though Amtrak is notorious for slow trains and hemorrhaging money, grant funding””rather than bonds””for future HSR lines will not require the company to cover backpayment on construction loans, paving the way for profit.

Some may lament that HSR lines in the United States are not the best use of tax dollars during an economic crisis. But a combination of reduced carbon emissions, congestion, and traffic-related deaths will provide an extra $21.63 million worth of benefits a year from HSR as well as the necessary commuting infrastructure for all Americans to lead sustainable lives.

15 Responses to Rail transport picks up speed

  1. Peter Wood says:

    High-speed rail has two advantages compared to conventional rail. Train trips take less long, making rail trips more convenient. But because the trains are faster, you can get more train trips from the same amount of trains. So trains run more often.

  2. Jeff Clemente says:

    Non stop rail service? Nope.
    Rail uses more fuel per passenger mile than air travel. It would not if they could fill the trains.

  3. fj2 says:

    Recently reported that China has allocated $100 billion in stimulus money in high-speed rail though, they might scale back since these systems are expensive and will likely require ongoing subsidies.

    “One worry is whether China is overinvesting in high-speed trains that may require operating subsidies like those for maintaining highways.”

  4. fj2 says:

    Small vehicle hybrid human-electric transit in highly modular systems probably provide the best solutions for high speed at low cost.

    Small vehicles can be defined as those vehicles easily moved by human power alone.

  5. Christopher Yaun says:


    First question: How do we invest our limited $$$ resources to gain the greatest reduction in CO2 emmissions?

    You may have to register to view this page.

    Can someone here place the value of light rail on this graph?

    Second quesion: I love New Orleans BUT….has anyone noticed the city is highly vulnerable to sea level rise? Maybe New Orleans is not such a great destination for high speed rail?

    Third question: Where is the Houston to Dallas connection? That seems like a no brainer…and then maybe the new nation of Texas can pay for their own high speed rail system?

    Fourth question: the 93/128 route from central New Hampshire into Boston technological centers is heavily travelled daily. It seems to me that high speed rail serving this corridor would be a no brainer. Are there existing high speed rail systems that are successful at serving this model?

  6. Charles B says:

    High speed rail and other rail services have to be cognizant in their long range planning about our subject matter here, AGW, as many present rail lines on the coasts are only slightly above sea level. In the Seattle area about 100 miles of mainline could be submerged after 2050. Just something else to worry about.

  7. Ray says:

    Energy efficiency (and thus energy independence and reduced global warming) is the major reason for HSR. As Jeff points out, efficiency is dependent on HSR popularity. With American cultural values being what they are, critical to popularity will be speed, comfort and cost per ticket. Of these, I believe speed of the train will be the key issue. Comfort is relatively easy and predictable compared to the other two. Speed will be key in winning popularity and therefore passenger density and that will determine cost per ticket. High speed is therefore the critical issue for the success of HSR.

    Also, are there known climate advantages from reducing emissions at 35,000 ft by moving passengers from planes to rail, from altitude to surface level?

  8. fj2 says:

    8. José Larios, “High speed train is not good for the climate”

    High speed mobility usually has a large environmental footprint.

    This excessive environmental footprint may be made acceptable with vehicles that have a near-zero environmental footprint such as bicycles and derivative vehicles (one percent environmental footprint compared to automobiles). Simple monorail systems suitable for such small vehicles can provide for systems with extremely small environmental footprints and a small fraction of existing systems (maybe, except for shweeb).

    A more advanced material science may be able to provide materials with miniscule near-zero environmental footprints — such as carbon nanotubes — to further amplify a complete environmentally acceptable solution.

  9. dcm says:

    This article says nothing new. What is happening with the paltry $8 billion?

  10. darth says:

    We need to move away from trains (a nineteenth century technology) to systems of personal rapid transit. Basically sending small groups of people (2-4) directly to their destination in a small autonomous vehicle. Leverage information systems tech to keep things running and prevent crashes. The underlying technology doesn’t matter to the control system, could rail, mono-rail, etc.

    Also lessens the terrorist ‘footprint’ since there is no large ‘train’ to attack – only spread out individual vehicles.

    Of course I don’t know how this transition would work since trains have existing infrastructure and lock-in.

  11. Jeff Clemente says:

    Travel by rail is very dangerous.
    People need to be warned.

  12. Tom says:

    There is a great deal of noise in the web-sphere about how inefficient and unsafe rail is in comparison to autos (high speed rail in particular). This noise, however, has a lot of the same characteristics of climate change “skeptisism” (i.e. politically motivated cherry picking of data aimed at preserving the dominant consumption-oriented culture). That said, the actual studies are all over the map, with trains generally winning out by a large margin, particularly with regard to train vs. auto safety (although cars are so unsafe, they almost always lose, and planes almost always win). In terms of efficiency, trains are on average described as somewhat better than any other form of land-based transportation, and much better in terms of freight. Amtrak seems particularly bad (an order of magnitude worse than Japan) at managing its trains, but then again much of this is due to low usage (which is why I think Wi-Fi on trains-particularly when of the commuter variety-might be one of the cheaper untried ways to fight climate change). This low usage is both cultural and a result of greater sprawl and population dispersion. That said, even Amtrak is slightly better than autos on energy efficiency, and if expanded energy production is concentrated in building climate friendly capacity even energy usage by Amtrak is much better than automobile.

  13. Also, if the trains are electric, the same potential for carbon savings exists that make electric cars so attractive: they’ll get cleaner over their lifecycle as the electric grid switches to renewable energy.

  14. jyyh says:

    building fuelling stations for electric cars at the same time beside the tracks might be a good idea. current ecars have a range of about 160km so one in every 60 km’s would expand the area of efficient transportation quite a bit.