High-speed rail: a smart move with or without the Green New Deal

Our view: Offering more Americans the option of traveling by high-speed rail isn’t a sacrifice in the battle against climate change, it’s an upgrade

For a non-binding resolution, the Green New Deal raised quite a bit of fuss when it was officially unveiled last week by Democrats Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey with support from 67 fellow members of Congress. At its core, it’s really just a series of policy goals to alleviate the worst effects of climate change. The plan involves everything from moving the nation toward renewable energy to preserving forests and other forms of undeveloped land that naturally absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But one proposal has gotten disproportionate attention: Its call for lower-emissions from transportation.

The Green New Deal or GND doesn’t call for an end to air travel — as opponents have been quick to claim. But it does call for a major new investment in less-polluting forms of transportation with the obvious goal of getting Americans to use high-speed rail and public transit more and airplanes a whole lot less. No doubt the chief reason for this is that jet engines, like large automobiles, are a grossly inefficient user of fossil fuels and a major contributor to greenhouse gases. For passenger travel, trains are tops for energy efficiency, rivaled only by buses, trolleys and subways. As CSX famously noted in its ad campaign, a train can move a ton of cargo more than 400 miles on a gallon of fuel. A Boeing 747, on the other hand, burns one gallon of fuel every second.

It’s fair to criticize some GND specifics (its 10-year time frame for massive change seems pie-in-the-sky, given public resistance to car-pooling, let alone the enormous anti-climate change effort the authors liken to World War II mobilization), but investing in trains is not some hair-brained scheme cooked up liberal do-gooders. In reality, trains are neither a relic of the past nor do they face a future wholly dependent on magnetic levitation or some other form of advanced technology that is not yet in widespread use. In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail is often the best way to get between cities and has been for decades. There are a number of reasons why the U.S. has lagged the world in train service (population density, culture, consumer preference, lack of right-of-way, etc.) but the chief one is that the governments of other nations have been willing to invest in tracks and related infrastructure while the U.S. has spent more subsidizing roads and air travel.

That needs to end, particularly if the U.S. is going to get serious about climate change. While one can certainly make the argument that an Omaha-to-Salt-Lake-City route is unlikely to attract the volume of traffic to justify billions of dollars in new investment in track upgrades, Congress can’t even properly support Amtrak service in the Northeast which is easily comparable to France or Germany or Japan or other rail success stories. The demand is clearly there — Amtrak ridership has doubled in the corridor over the last three decades — but obstacles like our own Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, circa 1873, or the tunnels under the Hudson River in New York that date to 1910 — are costly problems that require tens of billions of dollars in new spending to overcome.

But this should not be seen as a sacrifice the way so many climate change-related proposals are often couched. Reliable train travel is a pleasure, not a burden, and a spur to economic development. Even in its compromised state, Amtrak Acela service from downtown Baltimore to downtown New York is usually less of a hassle than connecting by way of BWI-Thurgood Marshall and LaGuardia. Meanwhile, inaction on climate change carries a big price tag all by itself. The transportation sector accounts for an estimated one-quarter of global carbon emissions. The National Climate Assessment pegs the growing cost of climate change at $35 billion — each year. And with rising temperatures and sea levels, droughts, floods and other changes in weather, there are even more costly problems in the future.

Running high speed trains between cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles? Even without factoring in climate, routes like that ought to be national priority. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to dramatically scale back that state’s high-speed rail (and abandon LA-to-SF) was almost entirely a product of politics and costly compromises in route planning, not a refutation of modern passenger trains. Upgrading the nation’s rail system is a worthy investment, not just because it’s energy efficient or because it reduces air pollution and helps mitigate climate change, but because travelers benefit when there are more transportation choices. Air travel is enough of a hassle (and highways are sufficiently congested) to justify upgrading U.S. rail travel to the standards of other developed countries. Cleaner air and climate change mitigation is the added benefit.

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