Rail travel is fast, efficient, easy, and environmentally friendly. As a viable alternative to automobile and air travel, it is capable of moving more passengers, with less land use, and less pollution, in numerous cases, as has been proven for decades in Europe and Asia. With so much evidence at hand, it's time to consider rail travel as a preferred alternative, and a means of saving the environment from toxins, reducing carbon emissions, and restoring land to a healthy state.

Ideally, rail travel can be thought of as two complementary interlocking systems: one for moving passengers and freight within cities, and one for moving them between cities. These are called intracity rail, or light rail, and intercity rail, or high-speed rail. Light rail is usually an adjunct to a mass transportation system, involving trams, light rail, and busses. High-speed rail connects major cities, with stops in between for smaller cities.

An Italian High-Speed TrainCredit: Public Domain

A high speed train in Italy


High-speed trains have been running for more than eighty years, and originally had average speeds up 80 miles per hour, and top speeds of 100 miles per hour. The first commercial modern high-speed line was Japan's Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which opened in October 1964. The first French TGV line was opened in 1981, and similar lines followed throughout Europe and Asia. The United States currently has only one high-speed network, which does not run at true high speed rail speeds.

About High-Speed Rail:

Most high speed trains are electrically driven via overhead lines; some generate their own power through solar panels on the roof and battery storage, to allow the trains to operate at night. Speeds can be as much as 200 miles per hour for high-speed rail. High-speed rail can operate 15 trains per hour and 800 passengers per train for a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction. Highways, on the other hand, transport 2,250 passenger cars per hour (excluding trucks or RVs). Since the average vehicle occupancy is 1.57 people, a standard twin track railway has a capacity 13% greater than a 6-lane highway (3 lanes each way), but needing only 40% of the land. So passenger rail carries 2.83 times as many passengers per hour as the same space allocated to a road. Some passenger rail systems can carry as many as 20,000 passengers per hour per direction. Congested roadways tend to be commuter and carry fewer than 1.57 persons per vehicle during commute times. Maximum capacity is also adversely affected by congestion (traffic jams).

For trips of up to four hundred miles, high speed rail is less expensive and faster than air travel, as well as being far more convenient. The security systems do not need to be as extensive, and baggage is not a problem. (This article's author once moved house on a train.) Traveling by rail eliminates taxiing, boarding (fewer doors), security check, luggage drop, ticket check and more. In addition, rail stations can be placed near city centers, unlike airports.

A Russian High-Speed TrainCredit: Public Domain

A Russian high speed train

Although high speed rail is quite expensive compared with air travel in the United States, in other countries it is much less expensive. Travel of about 400 miles in France cost a total of $15 in 2000. The SNCF (Societé National de Chemin de Fer) has other privileges; your cell phone will work, there are electrical outlets for your laptop and other appliances, there is a dining car and a bar car, and there is plenty of leg room and the ability to get up and walk around freely--avoiding the possibility of deep vein thrombosis, a real danger in air travel. The SNCF is currently in talks with the U.S. government about expanding into Texas.

Air travel is cheaper for another reason: airlines in the United States are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Aviation fuel is free of tax, as is the land around many airports. The airlines themselves receive enormous taxpayer subsidies, and still have trouble remaining profitable.

About Light Rail:

Light rail is usually powered similarly to high speed rail, with an overhead electric line, and often cars have solar panels installed on the roof to feed power back into the line. Each light rail line can carry up to 8 times more than a corresponding lane of freeway (not counting buses) in peak hours. Roads have a chaotic breakdown in flow and a dramatic drop in speed (a traffic jam) if they exceed 2,000 vehicles per hour per lane (with each car allowing two seconds' following distance). The average car occupancy on many roads carrying commuters is only 1.2 people per car during rush hour. Therefore, roads can carry approximately 2,400 passengers per hour per lane. The problem can be mitigated using high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and introducing ride-sharing programs, but in most cases lanes are simply added to the highways. In order to carry 20,000 automobile commuters per hour per direction, a freeway must be at least 18 lanes wide.

Light rail in Phoenix, AZCredit: Public Domain

Light rail in Phoenix, AZ

However, light rail vehicles travel in trains with four cars, and carry up to 20,000 passengers per hour in much narrower rights-of-way, barely more than two car lanes wide for one track in each direction. They can also be run through existing streets and parks, or in the medians of existing roads. If rail lines are placed in existing streets, trains are usually limited by block lengths to four 180-passenger vehicles (720 passengers). By running on two-minute headways using traffic signal progression, a well-designed system can handle 30 trains per hour per track, achieving peak rates of over 20,000 passengers per hour in each direction, the equivalent of a 18-lane wide freeway!

In many cases, light rail is much faster (an average of 66 miles per hour) than a car trip, and costs far less (the average commute to work is 33 miles, with an average car mpg of 25, vs. average light rail monthly pass of $50, yielding a savings on each trip, at gasoline $2.50 per gallon, of $2.05, for a daily savings of $4.10, or a yearly savings of over $1200).

Automobile vs. Rail Transportation Infographic
Credit: © 2014 by Cynthia K. Wunsch. All rights reserved.

The introduction of rail has numerous economic benefits, as well. Rail promotes development around rail centers, and since rail can have many more stops than planes, even remote areas can see a huge increase in commercial and retail sales. The rail infrastructure needs regular maintenance, and this provides work to isolated economic areas.

San Diego Light RailCredit: Public Domain

Light rail in San Diego, CA

Although rail in the United States is in its infancy, and therefore, high speed travel is not possible cheaply, as it is in Europe and Asia, it is clear that for environmental impact, rail is the way to go!

Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service
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Part travelogue, part investigative journalism, and part vision, this book is a fascinating look at the history of train travel in the United States, its current state, and its possible future.