Laying the track for high-speed rail

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the second round of recipients selected to receive funding for intercity rail projects under the administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program on October 28, 2010. These projects will bring us one step closer to realizing the benefits of greener transportation.  CAP has the story.

The graph below shows the projects currently under development as a result of the High-Speed Intercity Rail Program’s funding, which includes Recovery Act funding and funding from the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Some projects are in the planning stages while others such as California’s existing corridors (solid red) are already built and are being developed or expanded. The Milwaukee to Madison line and projects in Ohio will likely be canceled by incoming governors for those states (see “Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future”: New GOP governors kill $1.2 Billion in high-speed rail jobs).

This is a shame, because these projects create jobs. The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that building the corridor connecting San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento will create 600,000 jobs.

Intercity passenger rail received $8 billion total from the Recovery Act, which is a huge increase in funding. It traditionally receives much less federal funding than highways and air travel.

We’ve written in this space before about the Obama administration’s new emphasis on building high-speed and intercity passenger rail that connects communities and economic centers around the country, and complements highway, aviation, and public transit systems. But there are other benefits to high-speed rail: It spurs job creation, decreases dependence on fossil fuels, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Intercity rail, some of which is high speed, is also more energy efficient than commuter rail systems””and much more efficient than automobiles or aircraft when compared using British thermal units, or BTUs per passenger mile.

A national high-speed rail system is a long way off, but even systems that connect a few major cities pay environmental dividends. The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that their proposed system from Los Angeles to San Francisco will remove 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 because it uses electricity generated from wind, solar, and other renewable resources. And it will save 12.7 million barrels of oil by 2030.

Those kinds of benefits combined with high-speed rail’s job-creation potential make the administration’s investments a worthy endeavor.

— A CAP cross-post.

12 Responses to Laying the track for high-speed rail

  1. James Rowen says:

    I have devoted multiple posts in recent weeks to high speed rail in Wisconsin.

    You can get into it here:

  2. EricG says:

    I love this stuff, but I’ve gotta admit that I find the savings in BTU’s per mile to be disappointing. If autos to intercity rail is 3,500 to 2,500, that’s a reduction of just 29%. The savings when compared to flying is even less. I don’t know what I expected, but I thought we would do better.

  3. I don’t know where that DOT estimate comes from, but the figure I have heard is that HSR uses one-sixth as much energy as flying.

    That figure only includes energy used in traveling, not the energy used to construct the right of way for rail. Maybe the DOT estimate takes account of the energy used in construction.

  4. alexy says:

    Having had numerous pleasant experiences with intercity rail, internationally and in the USA, I support expansion of this transportation option. However, the data presented here are less than helpful.

    As an example, the last graphic, labeled “Intercity rail is energy efficient”, is interesting retrospectively but is only marginally informative with regard to future policy. In 6 years USA automobile CAFE standards will increase energy efficiency roughly 50% for new vehicles . And it appears likely to be improved even more. It is not unreasonable to believe that before 2025 average energy consumption for new LDVs in the US could be half of that used in the graphic. Allowing for fleet turnover, by 2035 LDV and “present” intercity rail energy consumption per passenger mile would be roughly equivalent. Certainly it is possible that during that time the efficiency of US intercity rail could increase. It is, however, unlikely that it will improve nearly as much as the likely improvement for US LDVs.

    Somewhat similarly, aircraft efficiency is improving. For example, based on anticipated 787 performance, air transport could also be roughly as efficient as intercity rail.

  5. Anne van der Bom says:

    Some info on energy consumption of trains in my country, The Netherlands. According to ProRail (=infrastructure operator) a total of 1400 GWh of traction energy was used. Mostly for passenger trains, freight is less than 10%. So 1300 GWh was used for passenger trains.

    According to CBS (the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics), we travel 16 billion passenger km per year. Dividing the two brings us to 12.3 passenger km per kWh. Trying to get an apples to apples comparison by converting to a primary energy equivalent (=fossil fuel), assuming an average of 45% efficient conversion (mix of coal and CCGT) that is 5.54 km per kWh.

    Let’s assume an average (European!) car: 8 l/100 km, average occupancy (if my memory serves me well) 1.3 passengers. That is 16.3 passenger km per l. A litre of petrol contains 11 kWh of energy, so that comes to 1.47 passenger km per kWh.

    The train is more than three times as energy efficient on average. But if you drive a Prius, the gap is smaller.

    If you compare to a typical EV like the LEAF, doing 6 km/kWh, you get to 7.8 passenger km per kWh, and the train isn’t all that much better.

  6. James Newberry says:

    I agree that DOT figures for efficiency seem biased in favor of road builders and air transport, which is what they have been financially promoting for decades (with an 80/20 formula). They have been good at paving over vast areas, including for airports. Without knowing their assumptions, I take their energy figures with a grain of salt.

    However, energy is but one important consideration in favor of rail. These include large improvement in passenger safety (consider the tens of thousands of highway deaths, and many more injuries, in the US every year on roads), the proven catalyst for economic development around rail, enjoyment of rail travel including bypassing traffic jams and highway pollution and their negative impact on public health, being able to read instead of watching the road, track beds that are not impervious to rainfall, and the ability for citizens living in a built-out transit network to even forgo the need to own their own personal vehicle, if that is their choice. What a concept!

    America was substantially built on railroads. Too bad we threw most of them away. Many great railway stations and urban rail systems lie abandoned, or demolished, across the USA. Yet traffic jams and profligate combustion of oil and its distillate are universal. It is interesting to consider what $1000 of propaganda per vehicle sold can do to public perception on travel (and never mention we send a billion dollars or so every day overseas for oil, which elevates our current account deficit, not to mention the sacrifice of our brave men and women in petro-states like Iraq).

  7. Roger Wehage says:

    Speed Kills.

    Amtrak trains crawl compared to high speed trains; kinetic energy goes up as the square of speed. (200 mph/50 mph)^2 = 16! A train traveling 200 mph versus 50 mph will have 16 times more kinetic energy. In an accident, that kinetic energy will be dissipated in unpredictable ways as the derailed cars are brought to a stop. High speed train accidents could kill hundreds or even thousands instead of the much smaller Amtrak numbers shown in the above statistics. Much of that energy will be dissipated by mangling the derailed cars and everything within them. Have a safe trip; I’ll continue to drive my Prius at 55 mph.

  8. Chris Winter says:

    The latest year for which fatality data for all transportation modes is available (2007) — Table 2-1:

    It gives the following data for that year:

    Air travel: 540 (general aviation: 496)

    Highway total: 41,259 (Private cars: 16,614)

    Railroad total: 845 (Pure railroad: 510)

    Waterborne total: 811 (Pleasure boating: 685)

  9. Chris Winter says:

    It will be interesting to see whether the backlash against the TSA’s new, intrusive search methods at airports make flying truly unpopular.

  10. Roger Wehage says:

    Regarding stats given by Chris Winter in #8:

    First, I assume these stats are for the United States.

    The fatality stats should be normalized by total passenger hours. Fatalities per passenger hour would be much more meaningful. Then highway fatalities per passenger hour would surely be the smallest number in the above list, and railroad fatalities per passenger hour might be the largest, given that rail travel is not very popular in the United States.

  11. DreamQuestor says:

    It seems to me that there are a number of other factors that are not taken into account when performing a risk/benefit analysis. (Caveat: Statistics is my not field, so I could easily be wrong.) The first is that trains can operate safely in weather that makes driving risky. The second is that trains can serve a larger number of people including those who are ineligible to drive (the elderly, people with vision problems, illegal immigrants, et cetera.) Just taking these people off the road improves the safety of the highways. A third factor is that trains do not require nearly as much maintenance as an automobile does. Ensuring that the tracks and rail cars meet standards is much easier than reminding tens of millions of drivers to properly inflate their tires, for example. There is also another benefit: It is easier to refuel a fleet of trains than it is to fuel a nation of cars. Should the flow of oil be interrupted significantly (as was the case during the ’74 oil embargo), freight and food can still be transported to all of the major hubs. Few people remember it, but the highways were originally intended to make it easier for the military to transport supplies. The fact that it made travel for tens of millions of people easier was an unintended benefit. There may be benefits to high speed rail that we cannot imagine.

  12. Craig P. says:

    I’d have to agree with alexy (#4). I use the bus for my daily commute because it allows me to relax and read and it allows me to maintain only one car rather than two cars for my family of five, and I’ve likewise had pleasant experiences of intercity rail on the occasions when I’ve used it. On the other hand, for trips other than my daily commute for which I’ve developed a very efficient travel pattern, having the flexibility of traveling door-to-door in my own vehicle on my own schedule is a huge advantage.

    Rail and bus service are only really efficient when they are full (or mostly full), but to provide a service which goes beyond the most heavily traveled destinations and provides frequent service to make it really convenient necessarily involves running quite a few of the buses or trains half full or less.

    Maybe making personal transport more and more efficient (plug-in hybrids, fully electric for the second car in a household, etc.) is the way to go.

    Also, for what its worth, the last illustration in the post is somewhat deceptive (probably not intentionally). The plume of smog coming out of the car is about 4x larger than the plume coming out of the intercity train (based on area, which is in fact how people perceive the ‘size’ of an object on a screen or page), while the energy use as shown on the left-hand scale is only about 1.4x larger for the car than the train.