Realizing The Potential of High-Speed Rail: For Climate Protection; Business Productivity; and Security

automobile gridlock photo

Gridlock, Image credit: Env.Canada

Aside from the overriding need to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to stabilize climate, there are several other compelling reasons for countries everywhere to restructure their transport systems, including the need to prepare for falling oil production, to alleviate traffic congestion, and to reduce air pollution.As my colleagues and I note at Earth Policy Institute, the U.S. car-centered transportation model, with three cars for every four people, that much of the world aspires to will not likely be viable over the long term even for the United States, much less for everywhere else.

Benefits to security and productivity.
The shape of future transportation systems centers around the changing role of the automobile. With world oil output close to peaking, there will not be enough economically recoverable oil to support a world fleet expansion along U.S. lines or, indeed, to sustain the U.S. fleet. Oil shocks are now a major security risk. The United States, where 88 percent of the 133 million working people travels to work by car, is dangerously vulnerable.

Beyond the desire to stabilize climate, drivers almost everywhere are facing gridlock and worsening congestion that are raising both frustration and the cost of doing business. The automobile promised mobility, but after a point its growing numbers in an increasingly urbanized world offer only the opposite: immobility.

Lessons learned in Japan and Europe.
While the future of transportation in cities lies with a mix of light rail, buses, bicycles, cars, and walking, the future of intercity travel over distances of 500 miles or less belongs to high-speed trains. Japan, with its high-speed bullet trains, has pioneered this mode of travel. Operating at speeds up to 190 miles per hour, Japan's bullet trains carry almost a million passengers a day. On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed rail lines, trains depart every three minutes.

Beginning in 1964 with the 322-mile line from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan's high-speed rail network now stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all its major cities. One of the most heavily traveled links is the original line between Tokyo and Osaka, where the bullet trains carry 117,000 passengers a day. The transit time of two hours and 30 minutes between the two cities compares with a driving time of eight hours.

Although Japan's bullet trains have carried billions of passengers over 40 years at high speeds, there has not been a single casualty. Late arrivals average 6 seconds--surely a seventh wonder of the modern world.

As of early 2007 Europe had 3,034 miles of high-speed rail operating in Europe, with 1,711 more miles to be added by 2010. The goal is to have a Europe-wide high-speed rail system integrating the new eastern countries including Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, into a continental network by 2020.

Once high-speed links between cities begin operating, they dramatically raise the number of people traveling by train between cities. For example, when the Paris-to-Brussels link, a distance of 194 miles that is covered by train in 85 minutes, opened, the share of those traveling between the two cities by train rose from 24 percent to 50 percent. The car share dropped from 61 percent to 43 percent, and CO2-intensive plane travel virtually disappeared.

Carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile on Europe's high-speed trains are one third those of its cars and only one fourth those of its planes. In the Plan B economy, CO2 emissions from trains will essentially be zero, since they will be powered by green electricity.

US can catch that train.
The United States is woefully behind Japan and Europe in high-speed rail. The Acela Express, which links Washington, New York, and Boston, doesn't even come close to the speed or the reliability of trains in Japan and Europe.

To rectify this disparity while also reducing Co2 emissions, the United States needs to shift transportation funds from highway construction to urban transit and intercity rail construction. It should then work to model its passenger rail system after those of Japan and Europe. A high-speed transcontinental line that averaged 170 miles per hour would mean traveling coast-to-coast in 15 hours, even with stops in major cities along the way. There is a parallel need to develop an electrified national rail freight network that would greatly reduce the need for long-haul trucks.

Read the full report.

For more information on restructuring transport systems, including the use of buses, bicycles, and congestion charging, see Chapter 10, "Designing Cities for People," in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which is available on-line for free downloading. Â

Selected posts on this subject from our archives.
5 High Speed Trains that are Changing the Face of Rail
Air Travel and Climate Change: Take the Train
MagLev Trains By 2025 In Japan, Could Reach 361 MPH!
Japan: Producing Electricity from Train Station Ticket Gates ...
Dual Mode trains in Japan

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