High Speed Rail? Not So Fast

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High speed rail is like soccer – Americans want to like it, but it’s still much more popular in Europe.

President Obama included an ambitious HSR plan as part of his Stimulus Package, and plans are now moving forward. But now a recent report (PDF), out of Europe no less, questions one of the basic assumptions of HSR: that it is any cleaner than flying.

As reported in the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times, a recent study by Booz Allen Hamilton, commissioned by the UK Department for Transport, suggests that the net CO2 emissions of a proposed HSR line from London to Manchester would be greater, over 60 years, than if it was never built at all – even if every air passenger switched to rail. Currently, rail holds a 54% share of the air/rail market between the cities.

For a proposed line from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, CO2 emissions would drop below “doing nothing” only if 62% of passengers took the train, up from 15% now.

Taking the train is still cleaner than flying, but the study takes into account not only emissions during operations, but also CO2 emitted in the building of a new HSR line, the pollution from cranes and bulldozers, building new stations, and everything else required in laying down new tracks.

For the United States, the same analysis could be even further weighted towards planes over trains, because this country is not as densely populated as the UK, and thus rail is less likely to capture the market share necessary to reach the same levels of emissions (“emissions parity”) as doing nothing.

Reached for comment, the Department of Transportation said “We believe high speed rail travel will reduce our carbon footprint significantly and that travelers deserve another option beyond cars and planes.” The California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is in the design stage of a line connecting the Bay Area with LA and San Diego, said their line will save 12.7 million barrels of oil a year, and have less impact on the environment than expanding highways or airports.

Of course, the perceived environmental friendliness of rail is just one of its selling points. Increasing safety and efficiency, reducing traffic congestion and promoting “livable communities,” are just a few of the reasons cited by the Department of Transportation in a recent report, “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.”

The UK report is also a “simplistic analysis,” in its authors own words. A multitude of factors could change the equation, including taxing airplane CO2 emissions, changes in technology and in passengers tastes, and a million “unknown unknowns.”

And there is the fact that a national high-speed rail service would be very cool. Like a National Soccer League – oh wait, we already have that.

- BC Upham