Aircraft start beating bullet trains in costs and travel times over distances greater than 620 miles Feb 2019

…Aircraft start beating bullet trains in costs and travel times over distances greater than 620 miles. That’s just a bit more than the distance between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. So even with a high-speed rail network across the US, there will still be a market for air travel, and no one is proposing to get rid of airlines. It’s just that high-speed trains can replace many short-haul flights, giving travelers more options if they don’t want to fly.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to think we can have air travel, high-speed rail, and highways,” said Yonah Freemark, a doctoral candidate studying the politics of transportation at MIT. And adding more options like high-speed trains makes it easier for travelers if they don’t want to fly.

Shifting from aircraft to trains drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Are high-speed trains good for fighting climate change? In general, yes, but there are some caveats. Like electric cars, high-speed trains run on electricity, which is only as clean the generators that produce it. Running electric trains on coal power still has a carbon footprint.

Nonetheless, taking a train is still far, far less carbon-intensive than flying. A 2018 study in the Journal of Advanced Transportation looking at transit in Europe reported “a remarkable advantage of high speed trains compared to aircraft, with regard to direct [CO2-equivalent] emissions per [passenger-kilometer].”

Trains emit far less carbon dioxide per passenger than aircraft.
Trains emit far less carbon dioxide per passenger than aircraft. 
 Deutsche Welle

Another factor to consider is that building a rapid transit network will also induce its own demand, to an extent, so it won’t siphon off air travelers alone. On the other hand, trains also compete with cars and buses, so the passengers they take off highways is another added environmental benefit.

Could the United States ever pull off a respectable high-speed rail system? “Outside of the US, Canada, and Australia, every developed country has invested quite considerably in high-speed rail transportation systems,” Freemark said. “I think there is no reason to think that the United States is any different [in its transportation potential] than any other country.”

Before you say, “The US is big!” consider that China, another vast country, is building out a massive high-speed rail network, not just within its borders but throughout Southeast Asia. It already has the largest high-speed rail network in the world, with more than 15,500 miles of track, and aims to double it by 2030.

Freemark said it’s helpful to think of rail in the US across several transit corridors — New England, California, Texas, Florida, the Midwest — rather than as a singular network. Pared down, the economics and logistics of high-speed rail start to become more feasible. There are already some efforts underway, like Brightline in Florida. However, building up these networks such that they can compete with air travel will still require more investment.

California has already found this out the hard way. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that California is dialing back its high-peed rail project, originally meant to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, because of an estimated cost of $77 billion.

“I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s vision. I share it,” Newsom said in his State of the State address. “But let’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long.”  The new scope of the project will connect the cities of Merced and Bakersfield.

And indeed, building a new national high-speed rail system to compete with air travel would be expensive. But it has to be compared to the costs of our existing system of highways and airports, according to Freemark. Our existing transportation infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance and will require billions of dollars’ worth of upgrades to cope with rising demand. “No matter what, with a growing population, we’re going to be investing in a high-speed transportation system,” Freemark said.