LRC on Trains

April 2nd, 2021 10:37 PM

I was listening to this afternoon’s Left Right and Center where the hosts discussed the proposed infrastructure plan, and specifically about Amtrak and investments in American rail infrastructure. Two arguments stuck out to me as way off base.

The first was Lanhee Chen’s claim about the relative environmental impact of rail transport. While seeming to be optimistic about investments into airports, he said:

I think rail is marginally maybe more environmentally friendly than flying by plane. If you look at certain measures of energy consumption it’s only marginally better.

Directing the argument to energy consumption feels like a weird direction to go when talking about environmental concerns. I would think the more direct comparison would be the environmental impact of the carbon emissions involved. On this, it’s impossible to take this argument seriously, as trains are simply better than flying. Even our current (terribly slow and inefficient) trains in the US are twice as efficient as flying economy. And more modern, efficient trains (which one would hope an infrastructural investment would aim for) are vastly more efficient. An article in the National Observer suggests that the “kilometers per tonne of climate pollution” for various methods of transport are: 5,000 for flying economy class, 10,000 for a North American train, and 81,000 for the Eurostar train. A 2019 BBC article came to much the same conclusion.

The second point was Josh Barro’s suggestion that the reason rail doesn’t make sense in America is due to our geography:

There shouldn’t be cross country passenger rail. The reason that we don’t have a national high speed rail network has to do with our geography. First of all people overestimate the extent to which these network exist in Europe. They do, but in France it’s basically all a radial network from Paris. There’s no line from Lyon to Bordeaux. The country is too large for it to make sense to run these large operations.

There’s some truth to this, but:

  • focusing on a single European country feels misleading when European rail networks are connected
  • focusing purely on high-speed rail ignores the many regional rail networks (even in France!) that complement the often “radial” high speed networks

And even putting high speed upgrades aside, data on Wikipedia suggests that the European Union has roughly the same sized rail network as the US (~200,000km), but with ~117,000 of that being electrified versus the US’s ~2,000. There are lots of opportunities for improvement here that don’t necessarily result in a “cross country â ¦ high speed rail network.”

And then there’s China. There may be other differences and issues with the Chinese rail network (certainly the political system that got it built), but in terms of “geography”, in under 15 years the Chinese have built more miles of high speed rail than the Amtrak network has in total. Maps of the Chinese HSR network look to me like they cover roughly a third of the country’s area. While that’s a lot smaller area than the area of the contiguous United States, it seems much larger than the combined area of megaregions of the US. Again, lots of opportunity for improvements.

So mostly it feels, as always, like this country lacks a viable and environmentally friendly high speed rail network due to a lack of will.