The potential benefits of high speed rail are many: reduced congestion, less pollution, slashed greenhouse gas emissions, and we get a nice, comfortable alternative mode of travel to boot. But from time to time, folks grow dubious about those benefits, and claim that rail is a worthless liberal boondoggle. They're wrong.
To prove it, I present to thee a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, which finds that those benefits to building rail are very real indeed. The East Bay Express parses the findings:
The study analyzed the environmental sustainability of a high-speed rail network compared to flying and driving. The authors concluded that the high-speed rail system, when it's completed, will consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less pollution than autos or planes, even after accounting for future improvements in auto and airplane fuel efficiency and cleaner, greener technology.Bear in mind that it's not like high speed rail is a magic bullet—building and operating rail still produces emissions, and probably not an earth-shaking amount less than cars do: "If the proposed high-speed train is occupied by 80 to 180 passengers on average over its lifetime, the report stated, it would result in the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer-traveled produced by a 35-mpg sedan carrying 2.2 people. The US Department of Energy estimates that the average vehicle in America carries 1.59 passengers per vehicle on average at any given time."
"We're not only looking at greenhouse gases, we're also considering things like the potential for smog formation as well as human health respiratory effects," Chester said in an interview. "What we've found is that high-speed rail would be a cleaner mode."
So that's a gain, and a serious one, but it's not carbon-free by any stretch. And of course the gap widens if the trains are packed, and widens if folks suddenly get smart about carpooling. But the biggest gain rail stands to deliver is in keeping cars off the road; and therefore further limiting carbon emissions and respiratory illness-inducing particulate pollution alike. That means less asthma, less climate change, and less getting stuck in traffic.
See? High speed rail is good for everyone.