Will High Speed Rail Help Reduce Emissions?

    A hot topic within the transportation sector these days concerns the epic possibilities of a national network of High Speed Rail (HSR).  President Obama’s failed Jobs Bill dedicated $10 billion towards furthering the technology and implementation.  Here at Earthgarage we are wondering if a High Speed Rail program is this administration’s equivalent to Regan’s Star Wars fiasco or the success that keeps being herald as the future of our country?

    According to the EU’s definition High Speed Rail Trains are “reasonably expected to reach sustained speeds of greater than 125 mph.” There are over 9,000 miles of tracks worldwide in operation today, with the European Union, China and Japan as the undisputed leaders of High Speed Rail.  Expansion of these systems has dramatically increased the flow of travel between cities to the collective advancement of their economies and personal convenience.

    In the United States there is currently just one functional line.  Amtrak’s Acela Express travels between Washington D.C. and Boston and has been operational since 2000.  Considered a success, the train has been estimated to have captured half of air and rail passengers making the trip.  Annually Airplane travel contributes more than one billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Any opportunity available to lessen those emissions through electrified trains should be a priority of everyone looking to lower collective impact.

    One doesn’t have to look hard to find plans for expansion.  Just earlier this month the U.S. High Speed Rail Association held a conference in New York City outlining the steps towards creating a web of rail lines around the country.  A four phase system has been established that will ultimately connect 80% of Americans in 25 years at the low cost of $500 billion (detailed map is located here).  While it is easy to dismiss futuristic ideas as well… futuristic, the nitty gritty of projects already in the works remains promising.

    All of the technology to do this is available and the routes have been established.  Initially as connectors between adjacent cities, we should see High Speed Rails popping up from Los Angeles to San Fransisco, Portland to Seattle, Dallas to Houston, Orlando to Miami and Charlotte to Atlanta by 2015.  Not surprisingly, the Midwest has the most ambitious plans for the upcoming future.  The Mid-West High Speed Rail Association will build four 220 mph bullet train routes to put 43 million people within 3 hours of Chicago.  By 2030 a complete restructuring of our system could connect the entire country.

    The benefits of the these programs will be substantial.  Picture a world where you could go to work in Manhattan and still make a lunch meeting in Boston without ever leaving the electric grid.  The Dutch are no stranger to this.  Using High Speed Rail, the trip from Amsterdam to the Hague has been reduced to that of a typical American commute, an edge for productivity.

    One major step towards climbing out of this recession concerns increasing our efficiency.  As a service based economy, the quicker that we can move around, the more competitive we will become.  High Speed Rail offers a solution that not only saves time but drastically reduces our emissions as well (even more so if we shift combustion in power plants to green alternatives 1 2 3).  Sustainable transportation begins with lowering our reliance on the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels for travel.

    Of course, such an agenda requires leadership and public support for progress.  Unfortunately, given the sorry state of Congress and the degrading nature of the Occupy movement, neither of those options are available right now.  It is up to individuals to learn more about their local agenda and how they can assist in spreading awareness of these efforts.

    You can find a listing of your State’s plan here. Please comment.

    Earthgarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet

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    • http://grantmcwilliams.com Grant McWilliams

      Why was the emissions part put in the title as it wasn’t addressed in the article. In the states electric trains contribute as much Co2 as diesel trains because of our reliance on coal to make electricity. This doesn’t mean electric trains are bad, it just means until we change the way we make electricity we can’t trumpet the environmental impact argument. If you wanted to break the country up into parts though any HSR in the pacific northwest run on electricity would be better for the environment than diesel. The eastern US though is different.

    • author

      Thank you Grant I appreciate your comment.  In reference to the lack of discussion on emissions I could have done a better job explaining it, but was mostly referring to the bottom of the third paragraph explaining how high speed rail would reduce our reliance on Airplanes for city to city travel.  This was not a piece saying that electric trains are greener than diesel trains (although I did provide links to alternatives to our reliance on coal).

    • http://grantmcwilliams.com Grant McWilliams

      I just wanted to make that point because I used to trumpet the environmental benefits to trains but in a debate I ended up recanting on that after digging up information. However, operating costs are a great deal lower with electrified trains for short runs. The Amtrak Cascades would be breaking even right now if it were electrified. There are others that would either break even or come close too. Long distance trains will never be electrified because of the amount of lost energy running lines for thousands of miles. Operating costs for the TGV run between 7 cents to 9 cents per passenger mile.

      Performance is much higher with electrified trains too. Comparing a 13,000 hp TGV engine to a 3,400 hp diesel engine on an Amtrak train shows the amount of difference.

      Eventually when we get clean ways to make electricity trains will win in just about every comparison one could make. 

    • Mike

      The point first is to get off oil.  High speed rail will do this corridor by corridor as a national network gets built.  This will be a huge energy and carbon savings right off the bat even if the electricity is generated by coal.  The real benefit of high speed rail is that its powered by electricity so that means as we scale up renewables it phases out the coal, and we can do this simultaneously.  The best plan of all is to build the renewable energy sources as we build the high speed rail network across America.
      Here are some article where this has been done:


    • Mike

      The big difference with high speed trains powered by electricity is they are far more efficient than diesel trains and they carry far more passengers.  A typical HSR train carries over 500 passengers, and in many busy corridors they attach 2 of them together carrying over 1000 people - which is the most energy efficient way to move large numbers of people by far. 

      Carrying 1000 people by airplane usually takes 8 or more airplanes using hundreds of times more energy, and hundreds of times more carbon output.
      Here is a comparison chart of energy consumption showing it compared to airplanes, diesel trains, buses and cars:

    • http://grantmcwilliams.com Grant McWilliams

      The ability to carry passengers is not linked to fuel though. Most of the weight is from the train itself and not the passengers. ALL of the passengers on a dual trainset TGV weight about as much as ONE car. Amtrak has trains that carry as many people as a TGV with Diesel. However it’s not possible to carry them quickly on Diesel. The new AGV hauls even more people per trainset than the TGV because there’s no locomotives on it. I don’t know if they’ll hook them nose to tail like the TGV but if they did you could put 1300 passengers on them.

      Your claim that it takes 8 or more airplanes to haul 1000 is off though. Two A380s will haul 1100 in the most common configuration and could haul 1300 if airlines saw it necessary.

      I think that chart is suspect though. If done right there are efficiency gains with electric trains but that chart shows the absolutely best case scenarios with trains vs other modes worst case scenario.

      Here’s what Amtrak has to say. http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=WSArticlePage&pagename=WhistleStop%2FWSArticlePage%2FBlank_Template&cid=1153323727125

      This puts diesel locomotives at about 18% more efficient than planes. Electric is about double that but not 8x like your chart.

    • Mike

      The statement about 8 or more airplanes is correct because the big super size jets are not used for medium distance trips, but mostly for long international trips.  The vast majority of flights that take place all across America every day hold less than 150 people on each plane, using an enormous amount of energy per passenger.

      This is why the chart is correct.  It comes from the UIC, the leading authority on high speed rail in the world.  One high speed train such as a double duplex can carry the equivalent of about 9 airplanes… compare the energy consumed of 9 airplanes (and the carbon output) to 1 high speed train, and you will see the energy consumption chart is correct!

    • http://grantmcwilliams.com Grant McWilliams

      But you’re comparing the best case scenario for trains with the worst case scenario for planes. That’s not very fair.

      “This is why the chart is correct.  It comes from the UIC, the leading authority on high speed rail in the world”

      I’m sure the leading authority on airplanes would have different chart.

      I am in agreement with you that HSR is great. I love trains and hate commercial planes but still we need to compare apples to apples.

    • Mike

      I am not comparing the best case scenario or worst case scenario of either mode.  I am merely stating the carrying capacity of each mode.  I was assuming the planes being full just like the trains.  The current reality of aviation in America is the majority of the flights are on planes that carry 150 people or less.    That is a fact, not best case or worst case, that is how aviation works in America.  The airlines would never fly the big jets for relatively short flights. 

      When HSR gets built, the standard train on main corridors will carry 1100 passengers.  That same corridor today is serviced by about 8 airplanes to carry the numbers.

    • http://grantmcwilliams.com Grant McWilliams

      Posting to the left since the indenting has gotten crazy.

      You’re still not even close to being fair in comparing 150 seat airplanes with 1100 seat trains. The vast majority of HSR in the world carries 350-380 passengers (and load average for the TGV is roughly 71%). Pulling more cars is not free, in fact most of the cost in running HSR is pulling cars, not people. Since an HSR car will weighs about 100,000 lbs and the people on it only weigh 15,000 lbs if each person weighed 200lbs (not likely). If there was a market to haul 1100 people at a time between two cities in America then airlines will put a wide body on it because the cost per passenger of a 777 and now the 787 is less than a 737 with the same load percentage.

      So the reality is trains will only be as long as they’re needed unless the ticket cost is largely subsidized. The TGV duplex exists because the Paris to Lyon line was down to 3 minute headways. In that case going to HSR with 1000 seat trainsets would give them some breathing room.

      I would rather have smaller trainsets running more often then larger trainsets less often.

      Let’s say Seattle to Portland since I know it well. There are currently 1350 people per day flying that route, 200 taking buses and 2325 taking the train. If we had HSR and it replaced all other methods of travel (leaving out cars for now) it would make more sense to run 8 500 passenger trainsets than 4 1000 passenger trainsets although the latter would be easier to schedule and more efficient. If  we could even match current TGV Duplex technology that ticket would be $12 and anything charged over that would be profit. Currently on the Cascades the cost per rider is roughly $50 with $20 subsidized by the state.

    • http://www.trainsoscaleus.com Model train

      depends if model train will be made to work this way. i guess with the growing technology this isn’t far from reality. 

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