Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Train Madness

Okay, this high-speed rail madness needs to get addressed.  Most of the opposition to HSR attacks it either as a wildly expensive boondoggle, which it is, or comes from people who aren't concerned about the fundamental expected benefit of HSR, emissions reduction.  But HSR doesn't work even on its own merits.  Adding nationwide HSR would increase net emissions.  Let me explain.  A friend of mine recently shared this infographic from Yglesias:

Yes, but. The thing missing from this infographic is that these numbers need to be broken down by BTU per passenger mile per pound and compared to the other things they're replacing, that is, the marginal cost of what else we could be using those rails for. Air travel is fuel-inefficient, so we only use it for lightweight, time-sensitive cargoes like passengers and priority mail packages.  Rail is very efficient, but isn't currently very fast, so we generally use it to move the heaviest things that need moving, i.e. bulk goods and freight.  All the HSR proposals out there right now are trying to get comparatively lightweight passenger trains onto our rails and make them go faster than freight trains currently do, but none of these proposals address the reality that this will displace several times that weight of freight onto comparatively inefficient trucks on our highways, multiplying net emissions. Even if we built brand new dedicated rail corridors for HSR (which is what we'd have to do if we actually want shiny 200mph bullet trains, instead of just 90mph express trains like we had in the 1930s) we'd still reduce more emissions using those new rails for heavy freight than for  light passengers. We'd save a lot of money on highway maintenance, too, since semis are responsible for the overwhelming majority of wear-and-tear on our roads.  If we really wanted to be preventing emissions, we'd certainly be looking at ways to encourage and expand use of our nation's railways, only for freight rather than passengers.  We would also be looking at what it would take to get our canal networks back into commission, since barges are an order of magnitude more efficient even than trains. As it stands, the current advocates for HSR are more interested in seeing shiny, sexy new passenger trains (and handing multi-billion-dollar construction contracts to political backers in the case of the politicians) than in actually reducing net emissions.  It is fundamentally unserious.