Let’s talk about this new push for high speed rail. Let me state this straight out: If you care about global warming, you should oppose plans to criss-cross the country with high speed rail.
There is a myth out there that passenger trains are somehow ‘green’, and use of them will lower CO2 output. The reality is very different anywhere where trains don’t run at 100% capacity…
Using data from the Transportation Energy Databook here:
Amtrak’s actual results are that it uses 1535 BTU per passenger mile. Commuter rail uses 1603.
Now let’s assume that we’re going to use Teslas instead of trains to move people around. A Tesla model 3 uses about 823 BTU per mile. That’s close to HALF of what it costs in energy to run a passenger train per passenger mile, even with just one person in the Tesla.
These numbers for the train are based on the average number of people that actually ride the train, not its theoretical efficiency at full capacity. These are real numbers. And they don’t help the case for high speed rail, because current passenger trains in the US are in dense corridors where they get higher utilization. There’s no way you are going to maintain those kinds of capacity factors in a nationwide system.
The fleet average of current passenger cars is 2840 btu per passenger mile, with an average of 1.5 people in the car. That’s at an average fleet fuel economy of 24.9 mph. So just by putting three people per car in the current fleet you would make it more efficient than trains.
But more to the point, the fleet average economy goes up constantly as older, less fuel efficient cars are retired. The fleet average in 2040 (long before the trains come online) is projected to be almost 40 mpg. If some of the electric car projections happen, it will be more like 50. But even at 40, that means the fleet average by 2040 will amount to 1775 btu/passenger mile with only 1.5 people per vehicle. That’s right about where current trains are, and would be a lot lower than a nation-spanning HSR.
And if we instead focused on going all-electric, then in a future of electric cars, passenger trains are energy-hogging relics. A Tesla with two people in it can travel cross country on ONE QUARTER of the energy of a passenger train. And for long distances there are options to make them even more energy efficient, such as ‘platooning’ or ad-hoc car trains run by the autopilots.
And when would these trains come online? Not for decades. California’s HSR boondoggle is a case in point: Construction was approved in 2010, with a projected cost of the system of $40 billion, and a promised completion date of 2028, 18 years after the start of the project. The cost has now ballooned to $100 billion, the route has been shortened and stops deleted, and it’s not projected to be fully running until 2033. Hands up, all who think either that budget number or deadline will be hit.
So, at least $100 billion and 20 years of development to build one 380 mile stretch of rail. Now do the math on what it would cost to build the many thousands of miles of HSR across the country.
And what happens before the trains are online, during this critical period where we have to reduce CO2 as much as possible? Well, you’re going to need thousands of miles of high-strength steel smelted, and you’re going to be burning huge amounts of energy on heavy machinery, grading, bedding, concrete, yada yada. The train system is a 100% CO2 emissions source for at least two decades, and more likely many decades.
High Speed Rail uses about 140 tons of steel per mile for the tracks. Smelting a single ton of steel causes the release of about two tons of CO2. So we are talking about 280 tons of CO2 emitted per track mile just for smelting. Then you have to mine the ore, refine it, transport it, work it, weld it, etc. And you need heavy machinery for all that. I don’t have a number for those additional tons of CO2, but it won’t be negligible. In fact, the smelting would only be a fraction of the total energy budget.
So let’s say we built a single HSR link along I-80 between New York and LA. That’s about 2800 miles. Just the smelting energy for the track needed will release 784,000 tons of CO2. And that’s a small part of the overall energy budget as you’ll have thousands of heavy machines, grading, concrete overpasses, etc. So you’ve now committed to decades of increased CO2 production before the first train ever runs.
Then by the time the trains come online, we’ll be driving electric cars and HSR will look like a giant energy sink - a relic of a previous century we can’t afford to run because of CO2 emissions. The same activists that want HSR now will probably be lobbying to prevent it coming online by then…
Another problem with rail is that it is ‘planned’. Putting a passenger rail link between two cities relies on those cities remaining the size that the planners planned for. Let’s say in 1970 you built an HSR between Detroit and somewhere else, basing its capacity on estimates using Detroit’s current population. Today, with Detroit being half its size, your trains would be running half empty and be even more expensive and less energy efficient. In a world of rapid change that’s increasing every day, Tying yourself to a fixed set of rail links between cities that were important 40 years ago is crazy. Much better to have networks of roads which can accommodate large-scale changes in usage patterns.
Finally, every dollar the government spends on a ‘solution’ that doesn’t fix anything is a dollar that could have been spent on something that did. For example, for the cost of California’s HSR you could build ten large nuclear plants (25 if you could do it for the price other countries do), which would help stabilize a grid full of renewables and save thousands of tons of CO2 every year.
There’s another way in which HSR could make global warming worse: If politicians give up on separate track because of all the right-of-way issues and piggyback the system on regular track, they’ll screw up rail freight. And the U.S. has the most efficient rail freight system in the world. So it’s entirely possible that after the politicians get done, the HSR won’t be fast, and more heavy freight will be moved to the roads as they had to do in Europe when passenger rail crowded out freight. And freight is what trains are really good at. Moving more freight to the roads will increase road wear and raise the energy cost of moving goods.
In a world of limited money and political capital, if you think global warming is a critical problem you are insane to support spending trillions on a fancy rail system that will cost huge energy to build, won’t be available for decades, and will likely be no better than, and possibly much worse than other travel alternatives by the time it is finished. Hell, given the pace of change it’s possible that by the time the rail lines are finished the demand for them will have shifted somewhere else…
Debate any of these points if you’d like.