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Ride a Train, Save the Planet

December 5, 2019

The Rail Passengers Association’s Jim Mathews spoke before a crowd of industry leaders about how intercity passenger trains can be used to battle climate change at the American Public Transportation Association’s High-Speed Rail Policy Forum this week, explaining that trains are important not just for their superior energy efficiency over automobiles, but because they shape neighborhoods, cities, and businesses for use by people rather than cars.

The panel, called “Partnering to Save the Planet: Leveraging Technology to Facilitate Conversion to Renewable Fuels and Reduced Energy Intensity,” featured representatives from the electric transmission sector, the business community, researchers, and transportation.

Mathews addressed pollution from transportation, which in the U.S. accounts for over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. He argued that—with proper funding—energy efficient rail systems can be developed to help cut fuel consumption from the transportation sector, guard against future oil price shocks, avoid costly military operations and bolster national security. Amtrak is 23.5% more energy efficient per passenger-mile than cars, and 31.4% more energy efficient than light trucks. This inefficiency is only compounded by worsening congestion: three billion gallons of fuel were wasted in traffic in 2017, enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome four times over!

When asked about the importance of electrifying the national rail network in the U.S., Mathews responded “that is the future—it’s going to have to be.”

“Rail right now does a pretty good job if you start looking at emissions per passenger mile,” continued Mathews. “The last set of numbers I saw was 177 grams of CO2 per passenger mile for a typical intercity passenger rail system, versus 243 [grams] for flying—so we’re already doing pretty well. But if you could take diesel out of the equation… now you’re really starting to look at genuine energy intensity savings on a per passenger mile basis. And obviously some of that is going to depend on the source of the electricity; if I’m making it with coal that’s one thing, if I’m making it with nuclear that’s another. But certainly electrifying the entire country is fantastic for emissions, and also fantastic for a larger, broader vision for high-speed rail, generally.”

Mathews went on to point out that electrification won’t just reduce emissions, but will improve service, resulting in a more attractive service that is able to attract more people out of their cars and into trains. He calculated that if Amtrak was able to reach Europe’s average speeds, the Southwest Chief would be able to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles in 15 hours, down from the current 40-plus hours.

Just as important, passenger trains are an important tool to create walkable, livable neighborhoods. It takes 16 lanes of highway to carry as many people per hour as a single two-track railroad, and 300 miles of railroad uses less land than a single commercial airport. Mathews pointed out that it doesn’t matter if the car is powered by gasoline or a battery, driven by a human or Artificial Intelligence—they still act as “sprawl bombs,” inducing traffic jams and congestion. Young people have clearly demonstrated they want a better way to get from home to work, and transit will need to play a foundational role in allowing that to happen.