It’s Easy Being Green: Rail Transport Picks Up Speed

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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 a waste 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.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series