America is on the verge of a revolution, no, not like the one occurring centuries ago. This one, this time around, is ripe to solve a different problem: To help stave off climate Armageddon. To see that objective through, what will be required is, no, not mass adoption of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and/or carbon capture and reuse (CCR) or other geo-engineering, techno-wizardry-type solutions, but, rather, widespread deployment of a technology that’s been around for hundreds of years: trains. Only this time the rail type required will be a variation on a basic theme: high-speed.
If this sounds outlandish, radical, Buck-Rogersesque, that’s because it probably is. But, isn’t also geo-engineering? Geo-engineering is, put another way, if truth be told, messing with Mother Nature.
The difference here, though, is we know railroads work. And, they’re readily scalable.
But, when it comes to correcting the climate deficit, how effective, really, would high-speed rail be? The answer: extremely.
By the numbers
In fact, in the International Union of Railways’ Nov. 2011 report: High Speed Rail and Sustainability, shown is just how efficient in this regard high-speed rail is.
The data presented below is from Figure 11 “A modal comparison of air pollutant emissions.” It is important to note that while most of the pollutants - oxides of nitrogen (NOx), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), particulate matter (PM) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) are measured in grams (g) - the climate pollutant carbon dioxide (CO2), is measured in kilograms (kg). Mode-comparison types, meanwhile, consisted of airplane (A), car (C) and high-speed train (HST). The route selected for mode-comparison purposes, was Hamburg-to-Frankfurt in Germany. The “Characteristics and components,” furthermore, are expressed in “units per person travelling.”
- CO2 – 77.1 (A), 86.0 (C), 19.2 (HST)
- PM – 2.1 (A), 21.2 (C), 1.0 (HST)
- SO2 – 43.4 (A), 3.2 (C), 19.5 (HST)
- NOx – 268.3 (A), 223 (C), 17.2 (HST)
- NMHC – 20.8 (A), 18.3 (C), 1.1 (HST)
In the final analysis, regarding PM, comparable are A and HST. For “units per person travelling” for SO2, C is the least polluting. As for CO2, NOx and NMHC, again for “units per person traveling,” HST is the most eco-friendly.
Which comes as no surprise. The high-speed train, though its source supply was 100 percent electricity, the presumption here is that this supply was fossil-fuel-derived - namely, from the combustion of coal, oil or natural gas. Swap the supply, from one produced by dirty power generation methods to one coming courtesy of renewable practices, then this would surely be reflected in the high-speed train’s energy performance profile, the change manifesting itself in the form of less damage caused to the environment and atmosphere alike, meaning resulting would be even additional climate benefit.
Now, substitute car (C) and air (A) with high-speed train (HST) in myriad markets, and the climate math then becomes crystal clear.
Okay, so, for each gallon of gasoline burned, released into the air is 5 pounds of carbon which translates to 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (yielding from carbon combined with the oxygen in air).
So, say, for example, trips, one made by car, the other by high-speed train are compared. CO2-pound-for-CO2-pound, there is, well, no comparison. In that regard the train rider wins hands down.
Okay, so, for car versus train, over a 200-mile distance, while the high-speed train patron rides virtually CO2 free, that’s not the case for the motorist. Using a 25 miles-per-gallon typical average fuel-economy rating in the U.S. of 25 mpg, in covering the 200 miles, 8 gallons of gasoline are burned. All told, the gas guzzler emits 157.12 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. And, assuming the train had a 400 person passenger count, the same train over that many miles, for a range of traveling options consisting of four persons going the roadway route decreasing by whole numbers to a single vehicle occupant, listed below are the respective carbon savings made by what were the former over-the-road hogs in switching to train.
- 4 people, 15,712 CO2 pounds
- 3 people, 23,568 CO2 pounds saved
- 2 people, 31,424 C02 pounds saved
- 1 person, 62,848 CO2 pounds saved
Shortly after Amtrak - the national passenger-rail carrier - introduced higher-speed service on home track on its 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail-connecting Boston, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. and introducing its then new and improved Acela schedules in the year 2000, travelers took note and advantage.
In fact, in Peter Richmond’s “A Better Way To Travel?” article featured in Parade magazine’s Nov. 4, 2007 issue, he extolled at least one virtue of using the then at-the-time recently procured Acela trainsets, noting that of the 10K within the daily commuting community, more than half rode the train: And, President Joe Biden, for a time before becoming the nation’s chief executive, regularly rode the NEC to and from Delaware, his home.
What’s not to like?
The real beauty of making the car-to-train or airplane-to-train switch, even if only 10 percent of the travel market did, the differences made - and the eco-dividends paid - would be significant.
Richmond in his piece furthermore pointed out that by driving on America’s thoroughfares this has its limitations, in essence, in the form of both in the amount of road congestion encountered and the volatile nature of gasoline pricing. This was immediately followed by his reference to seemingly non-stop airport security queues and clogged runways.
Meanwhile, countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, Japan, South Korea and even Africa have all built high-speed train networks. Japan’s has been in service since 1964. China’s operations are the most extensive, this Asian country amassing in relatively short order tens of thousands miles of fast tracks. All of those countries providing such services - and there are many - obviously knew something then that seemingly in the United States wasn’t common knowledge.
Though it took a considerable amount of time, America is at long last, now getting on board. It’s about time! And, better late than not at all.
With climate becoming more destructive with more severe, intense and frequent weather-related events transpiring, sticking with status quo policies, simply won’t do.
What was once tried and true and may have worked well in the past, today, with what the world is facing global warming and climate change-wise, we as a world community cannot afford to get the take on climate wrong.
High-speed rail is one option for dealing with the existential threat that climate change is. That said, the time to get rolling on high-speed rail is now!