Earth Policy Institute: Restructuring the U.S. Transport System — The Potential of High-Speed Rail

Carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile on Europe’s high-speed trains are one third those of its cars and only one fourth those of its planes. In the Plan B economy, CO2 emissions from trains will essentially be zero, since they will be powered by green electricity. In addition to being comfortable and convenient, these rail links reduce air pollution, congestion, noise, and accidents. They also free travelers from the frustrations of traffic congestion and long airport security lines.

Existing international links are being joined by links between Paris and Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Paris, and a link from the Channel Tunnel to London that cuts the London-Paris travel time to scarcely two hours and 20 minutes. On the newer lines, trains are operating at up to 200 miles per hour.

There is a huge gap in high-speed rail between Japan and Europe on one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The United States has the Acela Express that links Washington, New York, and Boston, but neither its speed nor its reliability comes close to the trains in Japan and Europe.

high-speed train in tianjin chinaChina is beginning to develop high-speed trains linking some of its major cities. The one introduced in 2007 from Beijing to Shanghai reduced travel time from 12 to 10 hours. China now has 3,750 miles of high-speed track and plans to double this by 2020.

In the United States, the need both to cut carbon emissions and to prepare for shrinking oil supplies calls for a shift in investment from roads and highways to railways. In 1956 U.S. President Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system, justifying it on national security grounds. Today the threat of climate change and the insecurity of oil supplies both argue for the construction of a high-speed electrified rail system, for both passenger and freight traffic. The relatively small amount of additional electricity needed could come from renewable sources, mainly wind farms.

The passenger rail system would be modeled after those of Japan and Europe. A high-speed transcontinental line that averaged 170 miles per hour would mean traveling coast-to-coast in 15 hours, even with stops in major cities along the way. There is a parallel need to develop an electrified national rail freight network that would greatly reduce the need for long-haul trucks.

Any meaningful global effort to cut transport CO2 emissions begins with the United States, which consumes more gasoline than the next 20 countries combined, including Japan, China, Russia, Germany, and Brazil. The United States–with 238 million vehicles out of the global 860 million, or roughly 28 percent of the world total–not only has the largest automobile fleet in the world but is near the top in miles driven per car and near the bottom in fuel efficiency.

Three initiatives are needed in the United States. One is a meaningful gasoline tax. Phasing in a gasoline tax of 40¢ per gallon per year for the next 12 years and offsetting it with a reduction in income taxes would raise the U.S. gasoline tax to the $4–5 per gallon prevailing today in Europe. Combined with the rising price of gas itself, such a tax should be more than enough to encourage a shift to more fuel-efficient cars. The second measure is raising the fuel-efficiency standard from the 22 miles per gallon of cars sold in 2006 to 45 miles per gallon by 2020, a larger increase than the 35 miles per gallon approved by Congress in late 2007. This would help move the U.S. automobile industry in a fuel-efficient direction. Third, reaching CO2 reduction goals depends on a heavy shift of transportation funds from highway construction to urban transit and intercity rail construction.

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For more information on restructuring transport systems, including the use of buses, bicycles, and congestion charging, see Chapter 10, “Designing Cities for People,” in Lester Brown’s latest book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm.

Adapted from Chapter 11, “Raising Energy Efficiency,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm

For information contact:

Media Contact:
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tel: (202) 496-9290 x 12
E-mail: rjk (at) earthpolicy.org

Research Contact:
Janet Larsen
Tel: (202) 496-9290 x 14
E-mail: jlarsen (at) earthpolicy.org

Earth Policy Institute
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Washington, DC  20036
Web: www.earthpolicy.org

Image credits: Burning Images at Flickr under a Creative Commons license; lazlo-photo at Flickr under a Creative Commons license; BenBenW at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Global Patriot

    While the United States does not have the same population patterns as Japan or Europe, there is much that can still be accomplished with a move to mass transit. The automobile society that we have built is not sustainable in the long run unless there is a massive shift to electric/hybrid fueled by renewable energy.

  2. D. W. Major


    This is the Future of High Speed Rail.
    It s faster then an Airplane and thus renders Airtravel as obsolete.
    It is safer then any of those in this Article.
    It is absolute 0 Emission, the only one.
    It is Cheaper to build then any other.
    And it is faster to build then any other.
    It offers Infrastructure Improvements.

    I dare anyone to prove me otherwise.


    The Airstream Train is the only Transportation that we ever need.
    Faster safer reliable and Ecologically Integrated.

    D. W. Major

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