High-Speed Rail (or, Why Conservation Can’t Afford To Be Conservative)

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Published on May 20th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

Proposed high-speed railRay LaHood, President Obama’s transportation secretary, recently pledged to remake the nation’s transportation system, with the key goal of making it more environmentally sustainable.

As part of that, Obama has promised to put down $8 billion to start construction of a high-speed intercity rail network. This investment is something that’s long overdue, and would correct a shameful inadequacy. Most developed countries have substantially more miles of high speed. Even some countries that are significantly poorer like China (275 miles of high-speed rail) and South Korea (205 miles) outpace the United States (224 miles if one charitably includes the Acela train, which only averages 86 miles per hour and hence isn’t even high-speed according to most definitions).

If one wanted, one could find things to critique about the current Obama plan. While $8 billion is a good start, it will take a sustained investment for a decade or two to build any sort of reasonable rail network. For instance, France’s most recent extension to their high-speed rail system will end up costing around $10 million per mile, which is about the same as a mile of U.S. interstate highway. So even completing 2,500 miles of corridors (not even one-half of the full map proposed) might be in the ballpark of $25 billion, or maybe $2.5 billion per year for a decade.

That’s a very doable number given the size of the U.S. budget — but it also is a significant sustained investment (Obama now is promising $1 billion per year after the initial outlay). Moreover, Obama gets his corridor map from a congressionally generated map of potential high-speed rail corridors, which suffers from the classic congressional problem: In the effort to spread the money to lots of states, some corridors are designated that are too long and sparsely populated to be viable. (The St. Louis-to-Kansas City one is a noticeable example of this).

Still, the new promise on high-speed rail is is a significant step forward for environmentalists. All the data suggests that, in general, high-speed rail generates fewer emissions and saves more energy than airplane flights. It also strengthens urban centers, encouraging patterns of development that reduce car use and help build more livable cities.

So why then are some environmentalists, James Kunstler among them, angry about high-speed rail?

Part of this is just healthy nitpicking. The carbon footprint of a train does vary by how full it is, what the fuel is (diesel vs. electricity), how that fuel was obtained, etc. While a scientific debate about these factors is healthy, I do hope the environmental community can keep its message clear: Building a high-speed train network in the United States would be a good thing for the environment.

Kunstler’s opposition represents something more deplorable — a persistant anachronism among some environmentalists. One could argue theoretically that the lowest carbon footprint would occur if we all just took fewer intercity trips, or if American citizens were patient enough to take the slow Amtrak network we currently have. But the clear historical trend is toward more intercity trips (more mobility in general, actually), and Americans aren’t patient enough to take Amtrak when there’s a nice interstate highway system that will get them there quicker.

Like it or not, the world has changed, with new transportation technologies and new patterns of settlements in cities. The cities of tomorrow will not look like the cities of today, or of last century. Environmentalists better give a positive vision of what new transportation corridors should look like, rather than fighting a rearguard action against all new development. Conservation cannot always be conservative.

(Image: The Obama administrations proposed high-speed rail network.)

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Comments: High-Speed Rail (or, Why Conservation Can’t Afford To Be Conservative)

  •  Comment from Krys

    I’m curious about the cost to use the rail system once it’s complete/usable. I can see the prices being so high to compensate for the cost of construction that very few will find it a practical way to travel. But my hopes are high…

  •  Comment from April Lorier

    I own land in Eastern Texas. For years I’ve been prohibited from building even a porch because of the “Houston Toad”. Now, with this highway, I will likely lose my land to imminent domain. I’m not a “purist” – I just want to keep my land/house!

  •  Comment from TB2

    #1 Kunstler is an egotistical idiot.

    #2 High speed rail or even monorail needs to be built along the heavily used interstate highways. I-65 from Indianapolis to Chicago is already, in essence, a rail line – the trucks are nose to tail ALL THE WAY – just hitch them together and put a prime mover in the front.

    YES, the argument has to be made that getting vehicles off the highway will reduce tailpipe pollution, but it will also free up congested highways! Must also have easily available transit at the terminals.

  •  Comment from Danielle

    I’m intrigued to see the development of this proposal over time. Thank you for pointing out the misguided Kunstler stance as just another shade of conservatism. I love the idea of high speed rail, (particularly as someone who has actually taken a midnight train to Georgia), but I wonder if a more realistic plan, given that they are only proposing $8 billion to start, might be to focus on the areas that are more likely to be profitable in the near-term (e.g. the existing Northeast Corridor).

    Those profits could then be employed as part of an ongoing expansion effort, gradually bringing other areas of the country on board (so to speak). Of course, such plans tend to go awry and truthfully, I think this needs to happen whether it’s “profitable” or not.

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