High Speed Rail and the Green New Deal

Governments that try and pick a winning technological solution don’t have a great track record. However, the Green New Deal as advertised calls for one. Why? Well, a number of studies suggest it can save energy–under the right circumstances.

Of course, the source of the electricity powering a high speed train counts. If a high speed train is ultimately getting its energy from a coal powered generating plant, it isn’t much help. And although natural gas would be better, it still emits a lot of CO2. But it would take a lot of wind and solar to push a train down the track. But let’s set that aside for a second.

The assumptions for ideal levels of energy savings for high speed trains are that a) they don’t make a lot of stops (stopping and starting and getting up to speed use a lot of energy) and b) the introduction of high speed trains diverts passengers from air travel, which uses a lot more energy–and fossil fuels.

It’s a horses for courses thing. Right now, for example, California is trying to get high speed trains built from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s expensive and getting more expensive by the day, it seems. But if it gets built, it will achieve its green goals if it gets people off the plane and if it’s more or less a straight shot without intermediate stops.

However, the staggering costs of the California project make it unlikely that the cost of a ticket will entice people to abandon the airlines. Equally important, cities between LA and SF are clamoring to get a stop so their citizens can hop on board. They argue that their taxes are helping pay for it–why shouldn’t they benefit?

So it gets complicated very quickly. Nonetheless, a study in Spain charted 29% less energy usage by a HSR compared to a conventional train. The idea is not absurd on the face of it.

Much in the way that we designed the interstate highway system, it would be much to our advantage to have a national strategy for high speed rail. There are enough journeys from isolated cities to other isolated cities that might justify HSR. Maybe Minneapolis to St. Louis, or Portland to San Francisco.

As for the power sources, well, we can add this to the ever-growing amount of green energy we will require. A nation-wide system of HSR would use a prodigious amount of energy–more if it is successful enough to pack the tracks with more trains and stimulate construction of more lines.

This will be hard to cost–and we won’t do it here. But we will note that funding for Amtrak looks set to drop from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. They run only 44 routes on their 21,000 miles of track. High speed rail will not be cheap.

On the other hand, China’s high speed rail system covers 18,000 miles of track and handled 3.1 billion passenger trips last year. Something to shoot for. They pay between $17 million and $21 million per kilometer to build their network out, about 10% less than Europeans do.

So if we built an equivalent network in the U.S., ballpark construction costs would be about $450 billion. That’s a lot of money–but again, we wouldn’t have to sign a check in advance and it would take a decade or more to build. If we decide we want it, we can build it.


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