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High-Speed Train Travel Is Moving Forward in the US -- Slowly

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Oct 9, 2020

The viability of daily, weekly, or even occasional inter-city train travel in the US lags far behind that of Europe or much of Asia. This is largely because the US doesn’t have high-speed rail infrastructure. A barrage of reasons exists for this, including government stalemates. The Obama administration released a plan for high-speed rail development in 2009 as part of the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, following the Great Recession. Many suggested the proposed funding was not nearly enough for the amount of rail outlined in the plan, but it didn’t matter anyway — as the rail development was nixed by Congressional Republicans the following year.

American car culture is another factor, as is the increasing convenience (at least pre-COVID) and low cost of flying. Flying is certainly faster than taking an Amtrak in most cases, and driving yourself offers the convenience of not depending on the schedule of an airline or train operator and a direct route from point A to point B.

But train travel has a few advantages of its own, and the future is slowly beginning to look brighter. Let’s dive in first with the few but mighty current advantages of train travel:

  • Train travel is more eco-friendly on a per passenger basis than flying, driving, or taking a bus. 2016 US Department of Energy Data Book information shows that Amtrak is about 33 percent more energy efficient than traveling in a personal vehicle and 12 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel on a per-passenger-mile basis.
  • Many train operators, including Amtrak and some public transit departments, provide onboard WiFi, allowing increased passenger productivity. If you can work remotely, you can work on a train.
  • US airports are increasingly located outside of major city centers. Train stations are more frequently located within city centers, and commuter rail trains are often used to shuttle passengers from airports into downtown areas.
  • Touchless travel experiences are far easier when traveling by train than by plane. Seating areas offer more legroom and easier restroom access, and check-in and baggage-check services require less contact.

Now let’s look to the future. Will intercity train travel actually become viable for travelers who need to get somewhere relatively fast?

There’s reason to be hopeful (but also patient).

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is at work on the nation’s first high-speed rail network connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and eventually to Sacramento and San Diego. It’s behind schedule, over budget, and has been proclaimed “dead” more than once by vocal opponents and frustrated Californians. But progress slowly chugs along and, if completed, the SF-LA line will take about three hours at speeds of 200 miles per hour. The authority will also develop rail connecting smaller cities. It recently approved the final section of track development connecting Merced and Bakersfield, for example, paving the way for high-speed rail transport between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Not every high-speed rail project is as slow-moving as California’s, however. In Florida, the privately operated Brightline rail service runs higher-speed rail service — moving between 79 and 125 miles per hour — between Miami and West Palm Beach. An extension to Orlando International Airport is currently under construction and slated to open in 2022. Phase 3 of the project will connect to Tampa on the state’s west coast.

Brightline is also expanding to the West Coast with a rail line from Las Vegas to southern California along the XpressWest right of way. The system will head to Victor Valley and eventually to Los Angeles. In the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia High Speed Rail system seeks to connect Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver in two hours, and eventually more of the region. A feasibility study and government approval have taken place in Washington and British Columbia, but construction has yet to start.

You can help bring high speed-rail to life in the US without leaving your chair by signing this petition from the High Speed Rail Alliance. Also available is a quick option to email or call representatives locally and nationally. The Alliance is working to connect public and private supporters of rail with lawmakers, and public input and support is key to making that happen.

Where does Amtrak fit in?

We’ll be tracking developments on these projects here in the Climate Win column. In the meantime, Amtrak also has big ambitions. Currently, certain Eastern corridor Amtrak lines — including the Acela Express, Keystone, SilverStar, Northeast Regional, and Vermonter — operate at speeds of 125 miles per hour, standing as the only higher-speed rail service in the country’s busiest corridor. Amtrak hopes to make Acela even faster by the end of 2022.

The company’s five-year plan for cross-country routes looks to address on-time performance, currently at 48 percent, while also working to increase collaborations with state-supported service lines to connect passengers to more cities. It currently serves about 500 destinations in the US and Canada. Most notably, the plan demonstrates that Amtrak is taking stock of its own pros and cons with an end goal of better serving Millennial travelers.

“Our challenge is to redevelop and improve our long-distance route system to meet the needs of these changed demographics, and in particular, transform this service to attract new passengers from the growing cohort of Millennials who make up the largest age cohort of Americans and bring with them a different set of expectations and travel needs,” the report says.

More climate wins

Candymaker Mars announced this week it has dropped all palm oil from producers contributing to deforestation. The “Palm Positive Plan” cuts Mars’ supply chain of palm oil producers from 1,500 to under 100. The company plans to rigidly monitor the impact of its palm producers as part of its “Sustainable in a Generation” plan, meaning you can indulge guilt-free (at least tree-wise) the next time you rip open a Twix or a Mars bar.

In July, we reported on companies directly capturing carbon from the air. This movement took a big step forward this week as major companies including Amazon and Microsoft invested billions of dollars into a Canadian company called CarbonCure Technologies. The company works with concrete producers to inject CO2 into the carbon-intensive process of producing cement. According to a report in The Guardian, the carbon is chemically transformed into limestone which reinforces the concrete. The company currently uses outside CO2 but hopes to close that loop in the near future by using carbon captured from the cement production, taking the process full-circle.

Sir David Attenborough, whose new documentary “A Life on This Planet” is currently streaming on Netflix, has partnered with Prince William to create the “Nobel Prize for environmentalism.” It’s known as the Earthshot Prize and will vet 50 solutions to the climate catastrophe by 2030.

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