Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Case for Rail

In previous articles, I have mentioned that transport by railroads, and especially electrified rail, is much more efficient, and less damaging to the environment, than transportation by car or truck. In this article I will provide more information on how and why railroads can provide these benefits, what other countries are doing, and how we can get there.

One study shows that in the US, for cargo transport, the existing rail system, which is not one of the most efficient systems in the world, and is generally not electrified, still manages to be four times more efficient than transportation by truck. Another study says that trucks use 11 times more oil in order to transport only a quarter of the cargo. By electrifying two-thirds of US rail, and switching half of truck cargo shipping to rail, total US oil consumption could be reduced by 7 percent. This is a massive reduction in energy use and would dramatically lower carbon emissions.

If the rail infrastructure (electric or not) were expanded further in order to provide a real alternative for cross-country passenger transportation, this could provide even more savings. Like a subway system in a major city, once it reaches a critical size, people are able to depend it on it as a primary transportation method and can give up their cars. In many cases, there are existing unused rail lines that were abandoned decades ago. These may be rebuilt or repaired, and even where the lines are gone, existing right of ways are often still in place. This would facilitate any expansion.

As the network expands, the need for trucks for long distance cargo transportation could be virtually eliminated. We would still need trucks to deliver goods to and from local train depots, but this would require vastly fewer trucks, and electric vehicles would be a good candidate to fill this role. This could help to reduce even further our dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles.

Another advantage of electrified rail is that this is existing, proven technology that has been in use for decades in many places such as Europe. We are not dependent on any experimental or speculative new technology, we already know how to do this. With such a significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels, it also becomes much more feasible to generate the electricity required for the new rail network with renewable power sources.

There are other potential savings as well. Across most of the US and Canada, we are still building new roads and highways. This requires significant resources and energy. The asphalt used is also made from fossil fuels. At the very least we could stop all expansion of road networks. Maintenance of existing roads is also very resource intensive. Trucks, especially, do significant damage to roadways because of the weight they carry. By eliminating more cargo transport by truck, we can greatly reduce the amount of maintenance required, saving even more energy and resources.

Governments frequently talk about the need for more green jobs, and how this can be an area of growth which can help to reduce unemployment. A national project to expand and improve rail infrastructure could create a great deal of jobs, perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands. Many autoworkers have lost their jobs with the collapse of the US auto industry, and most of these workers could likely be easily retrained to build train cars instead of automobiles. Even better, many existing factories could likely be reused for this purpose.

Once the infrastructure is fully established, taxes or other incentives can be put in place in order to provide an impetus for more people and companies to switch to rail. Over time, as the rail system expands and usage grows, we should be able to actually reduce the number and size of roads and highways. This can save money and resources by reducing future maintenance, and some of the land could even be reclaimed for sustainable agricultural use.

By investing in a larger and more efficient rail system, we can create jobs, dramatically reduce our energy use and put in place an infrastructure that can serve us for decades. We already have the technology, and other countries can show us the way and provide assistance. This can be a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win in the fight against global warming.

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