Are high speed trains good for the climate?


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment, Travel

High speed rail is often held up as a model transport option for a carbon constrained world. By offering speed and convenience, the idea is that such trains will displace flights and thus lead to lower emissions. Of course, running a train at high speed requires using more energy to get up to speed and to combat air resistance. In a recent column, George Monbiot points out this and other issues with high speed trains as a cimate change solution:

Throughout the recent government documents there’s an assumption that the new railway will be sustainable because it will draw people out of planes. But buried on page 162 of the report on which the department has based its case, published in March 2010, are the figures which derail this assumption. Of the passengers expected to use the new railway, 57% would otherwise have travelled by conventional train, 27% wouldn’t have travelled at all, 8% would have gone by car and 8% by air. In other words, 92% of its customers are expected to switch to high speed rail from less polluting alternatives. Yet the same report contains a table (page 179) suggesting that the savings from flights not taken outweigh the entire carbon costs of the railway. It provides neither source nor justification.

The 2007 report shows that even if everyone flying between London and Manchester switched to the train, the savings wouldn’t compensate for the extra emissions a new line would cause. “There is no potential carbon benefit in building a new line on the London to Manchester route over the 60 year appraisal period.” A switch from plane to train could even increase emissions. Unless the landing slots currently used by domestic flights are withdrawn by the government, they are likely to be used instead for international flights. The government has no plan for reducing total airport space.

I do think there are situations where high speed rail could provide environmental benefits. In particular, it could be good to connecting major urban centres that are not too far apart, and where zero carbon forms of electricity are available. Many such connections could be made between cities on the east and west coasts of North America.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah May 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm

A lot of it seems to come down to how the energy is generated, & Monbiot points out that the UK government’s low estimate for Co2 emissions is based on the French part of the Eurostar which is powered by nuclear. Shame we can’t just delegate the UK’s railways to a committee of Europeans.

Tristan May 20, 2010 at 7:32 am

This analysis takes the market as it is, or rather, as it will be altered by this one shift. This is silly. Even if high speed trains did reduce flight travel a little, a little isn’t enough.

What high speed trains do is make it more politically possible to, by legislation, reduce the amount of flights. Maybe not this year, or five years from now – but if you don’t think legislation like this will ever be possible, then I don’t see why you would even bother working on global warming policy.

Tristan May 20, 2010 at 7:34 am

Also, you shouldn’t complain that high speed trains allow more people to make more trips – if you think we can have a politically workable climate change policy that reduces peoples ability to move about (specifically the elite), then you fundamentally mis-grasp the zeitgeist.

Milan May 20, 2010 at 9:33 am

The Zeitgeist is completely at odds with what can be sustained.

You might as well be an Easter Islander saying: “if you think we can have a politically workable environmental policy that reduces peoples ability to build big stone heads (specifically the elite), then you fundamentally mis-grasp the zeitgeist.”

Milan May 20, 2010 at 9:50 am

By which I mean to say, the statement may be true, but it doesn’t say good things about our future.

Tristan May 20, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Are you saying that moderate increases in high speed rail, combined with large increases in local transport and large reductions in personal automobile travel and truck based goods travel is “completely at odds with what can be sustained”?

Milan May 21, 2010 at 10:33 am

In the medium-to-long term, ‘sustainable’ is synonymous with ‘carbon neutral and not reliant on fossil fuels.’

If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, rich countries like Canada will basically need to be carbon neutral by 2050, and possibly sooner.

Tristan June 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

No individual project is good or bad for the climate. If a solar wind farm greenwashes a state’s power production and disables demands for real change, then it’s bad for the climate. Conversely, if it demonstrates the feasibility of solar power, encouraging other actors to invest and people to vote for green energy, then, it’s good.

High speed trains are part of a system. If they help push that system towards taxing carbon and investing in carbon neutral electricity, then they are good for the climate. If they don’t – i.e. if they are marketed as the solution rather than as part of a larger solution, then they are bad for the climate.

The solution to climate change is not a series of small actions – it is a few large actions. And if those actions are “politically impossible”, then some sort of political reform (democratic, fascist or otherwise) which makes those large actions politically possible. Small actions are valuable not in themselves but insofar as they contribute to increasing the likely hood of those actions which do matter.

. August 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm

American railways
High-speed railroading
America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it

Jul 22nd 2010

UNION STATION in Los Angeles has been restored as a fine example of the Art Deco architecture that typified California in the 1930s. It has served as a backdrop for many Hollywood films, from “Union Station” (naturally) to “Blade Runner” and “Star Trek: First Contact”. It was the last grand station to be built before America’s passenger railways went into what you might call terminal decline.

Today it is a hub for Metrolink commuter trains and Amtrak services to faraway cities such as Chicago and Seattle. These trains have to pull in and then back out in a clumsy manoeuvre. But there are plans for through tracks in time to carry the high-speed services that California is desperate to have by 2020 under an ambitious $42 billion plan to connect San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

California’s plans were given a boost by Barack Obama’s stimulus package last year. This earmarks a lump sum of $8 billion, plus $1 billion a year, to help construct fast rail corridors around America (see map). Such lines are common in Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China, yet the only thing at all like them in America is Amtrak’s Acela service from Boston via New York to Washington, DC. It rarely reaches its top speed of 150mph (240kph) and for much of the way manages little more than half that, because the track is not equipped for higher speeds. Acela, like virtually all trains run by publicly owned Amtrak, has to use tracks belonging to freight railways, whose trains trundle along at 50mph; passenger trains must stick below 80mph. Despite the excitement of railway buffs and the enthusiasm of environmentalists, high-speed rail in America is likely to mean a few more diesel-electric intercity trains at 110mph, not swish electric expresses going nearly twice as fast.

But the problem with America’s plans for high-speed rail is not their modesty. It is that even this limited ambition risks messing up the successful freight railways. Their owners worry that the plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. “The freight railroads feel they are under attack,” says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virginia.

Milan August 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

What are those freight trains hauling? To a large extent, coal:

Coal is the biggest single cargo, accounting for 45% by volume and 23% by value. More than 70% of coal transport is by rail. As demand grows for the lower-sulphur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, it has to travel farther. In response railroads have invested in more powerful locomotives to haul longer coal trains: since 1990 the average horsepower of their fleet has risen by 72%. Yet energy efficiency has also improved. Lighter, aluminium freight wagons, double-decker ones and more fuel-efficient locomotives have lifted the number of ton-miles per (American) gallon of fuel from 332 to 457—an improvement of 38%.

This underscores the complexity of trying to make good climate policies piece by piece. Would high speed passenger rail reduce emissions, by replacing flights, or increase them by making freight transport less efficient? How does the role of rail in delivering coal affect the calculation? Could increased passenger rail increase the price of coal, encouraging the use of alternative energy sources?

Milan August 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

That article includes a scary coal train photo:

“The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. When I testified against the proposed Kingsnorth power plant, I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsible for the extermination of about 400 species – its proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm.”

James Hansen

. September 21, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Even if some cities benefit, other places beyond the rail network may suffer: speed is attained partly at the cost of stops, so areas well served by existing services may find new lines bypass them. Parts of Britain, for example, fear that a new zippy railway will create a second tier of cities supplied by fewer and slower trains. High-speed lines, like other regeneration projects, often displace economic activity rather than create it.

The advantages, meanwhile, mostly accrue to business travellers. In China ticket prices are beyond the reach of most people, so new trains yawn with empty seats. Yet because high-speed lines require huge investments, usually by governments, ordinary taxpayers end up paying. So instead of redistributing wealth and opportunities, rich regions and individuals benefit at the expense of poorer ones.

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