Wanna hear a good, non-impeachment political joke? High-speed rail.
Seriously, just because high-speed rail has turned into a massive boondoggle in California doesn’t mean we should give up on it. As Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said when including it in the Green New Deal, it has all kinds of environmental benefits.
Or does it? There are a number of people who are saying the environmental benefits of high-speed rail have been, at best, over-stated.
In a 2011 article on the City Lab website, Eric Jaffe said studies showed high-speed rail does far less damage to the environment than flying, but that’s only after it’s been built. He noted there will be a lot of environmental damage and carbon emissions from building such lines, and they will be worthwhile only if the environmental benefits outweigh the damage done in construction.
Jaffe quoted Swedish researches Jonas Westina and Per Kagesona whose studies concluded that, for a 500 kilometer high speed line to create benefits that outweigh the construction damage, it would need to carry 10 million people per year. They would all have to come from flying or driving their own cars.
Jaffe also quoted writer Eric Morris, who stated, “When the emissions spewed by all those earth movers, tunnel boring machines, bulldozers, trucks, cranes, etc. are taken into account, the carbon advantage of high speed rail vis-à-vis air travel largely evaporates.”
To be fair, Jaffe noted it would cost a lot more money and do more damage to the environment if, say, California were to try to meet all its traffic needs with highways.
In a 2015 article that first appeared in “Slate” and was later reprinted by “Mother Jones,” Eric Holthaus described high-speed rail as a waste of time and money. He said it could not be developed fast enough to have a real impact on climate change. He added there are things the money could be spent on that would have an immediate effect on climate change, such as buying electric busses and better regulating aircraft emissions.
Which brings me to this point: America already has more miles of railroad than any other country on Earth. We have so much, at lot of it has been abandoned. When Conrail took over from Penn Central and several other bankrupt roads in 1976, they abandoned about 40 percent of the tracks they inherited.
Why build expensive new projects when we could better utilize and upgrade what we already have? It seems to me that would be a lot less expensive, take less time, and be less destructive of the environment than building new high-speed lines.
You’d be surprised how fast conventional trains can travel on tracks that have been well-maintained. For example, Amtrak’s Wolverine Service regularly tops 100 mph on the line between Chicago and Detroit.
The most inefficient airline flights are short hops, due to the amount of fuel used in take-offs and landings. Short hops are exactly where trains would be most effective.
In his book, “The New York Central and the Trains of the Future,” Geoffrey Doughty noted the New York Central Railroad created a passenger research bureau in the 1950s after their ridership dropped by more than 50 percent between 1948 and 1953. They found the problem with NYC’s passenger trains was they were focused on long-distance, overnight runs. They found that most people who used such trains were leaving the railroad for air travel.
The bureau recommended the NYC focus on short runs in heavily populated corridors during the daylight hours, when most people wanted to travel. They could better compete against air travel and people who drove their own cars.
These ideas were never implemented because the management of the NYC decided to focus on eliminating all passenger services. They hadn’t made money on passenger service since 1929, except for the years of World War II. They were also facing threats to their freight business from subsidized competition like trucks, aircraft, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It’s easy to see why they thought spending money on passenger trains was throwing good money after bad.
The ideas weren’t completely abandoned, however. Amtrak’s greatest success stories have been daylight services in populated corridors. These include the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit, the Cascades between Portland and Seattle, the Surfliners between Santa Barbara and San Diego, and others.
As I see it, we don't need to spend a lot of money and cause environmental destruction to build high-speed rail lines. We can better use what we already have. That would be cheaper, faster, and, in the long run, just as beneficial to the environment as high-speed rail, if not more so. That’s what the “Green New Deal” should focus on, not the dubious environmental claims of the climate hustlers who promote high speed rail.