The High Speed Rail Alliance explores the power of trains to fight climate change in the US

3 mins read

Relatively few Americans have an of idea how far train technology has come in recent years. The amenities and comfort of state-of the-art, zero-emissions electric trains must be experienced to be believed. And the technology just keeps getting better.

 California High-Speed Rail is a publicly funded high speed rail system under construction in California
California High-Speed Rail is a publicly funded high speed rail system under construction in California

Sadly, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by Congress this summer missed a great opportunity to put trains front and center in the nation’s transportation priorities. That’s especially unfortunate because the IRA has often been referred to as the most important climate-change legislation in US history.

As the single greatest source of greenhouse emissions in the US economy, the transportation sector is low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change. Transforming the way we move around is the bare minimum for getting serious about the issue. And report after report concludes that decisive action is not just necessary but urgent.

The IRA is being cast as a serious and decisive response largely because of its all-in commitment to subsidizing electric vehicles (EVs). But unfortunately, this commitment is misguided on multiple levels. Most fundamentally, it assumes that solving a small fraction of the problem – tailpipe emissions – will meaningfully address a challenge that is much deeper and more systemic. 

The great drawback of EVs is that they perpetuate the chokehold road construction and repair – and the special interests that benefit from them – over state and federal budgets. Building more roads incentivizes the development patterns that are driving climate change. It gives us suburban and exurban sprawl, hollowed out communities, traffic congestion, and ever-more expenditures on new roads and bridges and the expansion and repair of old ones.

Consider the case of Texas, which wants to spend US$9 billion on rebuilding and widening just 24 miles of I-45. The project would demolish roughly 1,000 homes, 300 businesses, and several churches, largely in Houston’s Black neighborhoods. It is currently on hold, pending a federal review.

There are also enormous environmental harms in mining the lithium used for EV batteries. In turn, the weight of those batteries means that EVs are (on average) about 750lbs heavier than conventional cars. That increases the amount of energy required to manufacture them, move them around, and dispose of them.

Beyond all of that, EVs are just as deadly as regular vehicles – which are incredibly deadly. Nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, even though overall driving was way down. The trend continued in 2021, when there were nearly 43,000 traffic deaths – the most since 2005. The head of the US Department of Transportation called it a “crisis.”

Meantime, trains address the root causes of climate change. They disrupt the dysfunctional status quo and build healthy, safer communities in all the way that cars undermine them.

Trains transform the incentive structures and development patterns that are ripping apart our communities. This is especially true when fast, frequent passenger trains are integrated and tightly coordinated with great public transit. Trains deliver people right to stations right in the heart of city and town centers. They encourage development and redevelopment in places people live – rather than the outskirts of towns and cities. They add value and build wealth in our communities by making them more walkable and bike-friendly; by supporting small businesses that depend on foot traffic; and by making travel to every part of a city affordable and easily accessible to everyone, for work or pleasure. 

And rail is the most advanced transportation sector in terms of electrification. As the International Energy Agency (IAE) has observed, three-fourth of all passenger rail movements (globally) rely on electricity. As a result, trains are “uniquely positioned to take advantage of the rise of renewables in the electricity mix.”

At the same time, trains are safe and convenient. The death rate (in terms of passenger miles) is about 17 times higher for cars than for passenger trains. Adding in the comfort and convenience factor, it’s easy to why people overwhelmingly prefer train travel when they have the choice – even in America, with its relatively sparse train options compared to many developed countries. In the Acela corridor, for example, Amtrak’s share of the air-flight market between New York and Washington, DC, doubled – to 75% – in a decade as it expanded service.

“On both ease of travel and potential productivity, rail holds a large competitive advantage over the plane,” Bloomberg noted. “And that's on mobility alone, without factoring in other benefits to city economies or transport sustainability.”

The truth is: We can’t afford to spend time and resources chasing false solutions. Fortunately, some projects are underway in the US that will demonstrate trains’ power to fight climate change, as well as their comfort, safety, and convenience. When Americans finally do experience world-class train service on a wider scale, they’ll never go back.

For the sake of the planet, the health of our communities, and the safety of our friends and families, that moment can’t come soon enough.