Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Britain's Wrong Turn on HSR

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

We're bound to hear about this from our local HSR deniers, so might as well deal with it ourselves. The British government has killed a plan to link London to Scotland because HSR supposedly is "not a green option":

In a letter obtained by The Times, Tom Harris, the Rail Minister, said: “The argument that high-speed rail travel is a ‘green option’ does not necessarily stand up to close inspection. Increasing the maximum speed of a train from 200kph [125mph – the current maximum speed of domestic trains] to 350kph leads to a 90 per cent increase in energy consumption.”

It's a controversial rationale, one that will be repeated by the usual folks who argue HSR isn't necessary. It's already drawing fire from British environmental groups:

[Chris Davies, Lib Dem MEP] said that Mr Harris had failed to acknowledge the environmental benefits of persuading domestic air passengers to transfer to high-speed rail. He added: “It is very disappointing to see the minister scrabbling around for excuses for the Government’s inaction on high-speed rail, especially when those excuses are so weak.”

A high-speed train produces about 90 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometre, compared with just over 50g/km for a conventional electric train. But a domestic flight produces 225g/km.

Moreover, the claims that British HSR would increase carbon emissions assume Britain will never move away from coal-fired electricity, and that HSR would not draw more passengers away from airlines, creating a net carbon savings. The British government's decision is completely ass-backward, although such things are now standard with the Labour government.

The situation here in California is even more stark. Intercity trains in California are all diesel-powered. And of course most intercity travel is still made with cars and airplanes, which spew enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. High speed rail, powered by electricity, is estimated by the CHSRA to reduce carbon emissions by 17.6 billion pounds per year - a truly stunning savings. Compared to the other transportation systems we use in California HSR is by far the most environmentally friendly, as this image from Alberta High Speed Rail shows:

Additionally HSR is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 1.4 million cars from the road, and take the place of nearly 42 million annual city-to-city car trips and reduce California’s oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels/year. According to the Final EIR over 63% of trips over 150 miles in California are taken by car, and HSR would help take a significant chunk of those trips off the road, a significant carbon savings.

That in turn will also help the San Joaquin Valley in particular meet its air quality goals - the Valley has some of the most polluted air in the state, due largely to vehicle trips.

Of course, the most carbon emissions savings would be realized if HSR could be powered by renewable and sustainable resources. The CHSRA is undertaking a study on exactly that issue and it should be ready shortly.

What all of this demonstrates is not just that the British government is wrong - but that their rationale is completely inapplicable to California. HSR deniers, like their global warming denier cousins, prefer to ignore or dismiss the truth and the need to reduce carbon emissions. We know that Californians reject global warming denials. It's my belief they'll reject HSR denials too. California needs HSR if we are to meet our carbon emissions reduction goals, and I am confident that voters will recognize that fact this November.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

We need to start building for an alternative energy future. If the line is run by wind or solar it doesn't really matter how fast it goes does it? It'll just cost more.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ I understand your point; however, the challenge/problem really should be viewed through a prism rather than a 2-dimensional viewing glass.

HSR is faster and would attract substantially more travellers than alternatives. Any increase in a new carbon footprint in HSR would be offset by the change in reduced travel by those other modes.

It sounds to me that a British politician learned well from their college persuasive speech class... and skipped redumentary science and math courses.

Rafael said...

I doubt Tom Harris' decision will be the last word on High Speed 2 in the UK. The idea of running bullet trains to Scotland is generally popular in a country where gasoline and diesel already cost well over $8 per US gallon.

The UK has long pursued a strategy of running trains at no more than 125mph because of congestion along the main lines. Also, legacy tracks in the UK tend to be closer to one another than on the continent, mostly because of the many narrow Victorian tunnels that were originally designed for single-track alignments. At very high relative speeds, the pressure pulse created when two trains pass each other could blow out some windows. This was one of the reasons High Speed 1 was built.

It would be difficult to find the land to construct a new, dedicated alignment up to Birmingham or Manchester. This is reflected in the $60 billion estimate. As usual with Labour governments, the real issue is wrong-headed spending priorities.

Note that unlike the UK, California could quite easily run its entire HSR system on renewable electricity, e.g. solar, wind and geothermal - reducing the operational CO2 footprint to zero. CHSRA is spending $40k on a feasibility study to that effect, the report is due in July.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Interesting Blog on Polish HSR


Anonymous said...

This is pretty off-topic, but I'll post it here anyway. The House just passed HR 6003 - "Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act" - by a veto-proof margin of 311-104. This bill authorizes $500 million/year of matching funds for "intercity passenger rail capital projects" (including high speed) and an additional $350 million/year of matching funds exclusively for high speed rail. So a total of $850 million/year.

The authority's plan calls around around $10 billion of federal matching funds over roughly a decade, or approximately $1 billion/year. HR 6003 alone won't get you there because there will be competition from other corridors as well (not so much for the high speed funds, but certainly for the general intercity funds). But it would be a very, very encouraging start that would appear to silence any doubts about whether the Feds will chip in in any meaningful way.

Of course, it still needs to go to committee to be reconciled with its older Senate counterpart (S 294). That passed last year by a veto-proof majority and includes money for intercity passenger rail grants (though not as much).

Rafael said...

Only vaguely on-topic but a colorful headline:

High Speed Rail will Invade Poland by 2020

So, Siemens trainsets then?

Rafael said...

Here's a good one for all you naysayers who claim passenger rail can never be profitable.

For the first time in its history, SNCF will pay the state a dividend - that's after the TGVs are done subsidizing the slower passenger trains and freight operations.

無名 - wu ming said...

amtrak bill passes house by fillibuster-proof margin, 311-104.

next year ought to be even better.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Lots of great links in the comments today, and I've seen all those articles. While I love rafael's brilliant comment on the Polish HSR article, and though I plan to blog the SNCF TGV dividend, I think I'm going to have to go with the Amtrak bill. It's a huge boost to our own efforts here, and of course, anything that helps Amtrak helps us. We should not limit our support to HSR alone, even if that's the blog's focus.

So look for that later tonight.

Anonymous said...

For the first time in its history, SNCF will pay the state a dividend - that's after the TGVs are done subsidizing the slower passenger trains and freight operations.

First of all, keep in mind that all of SNCF bad debts were offloaded to a separate "infrastructure" company. Secondly, those slower passenger trains are run under contract from the French government. Under EU directives, the commuter/regional trains are supposed to be put out to competitive bid, but that has not happened in France; i.e. SNCF books as "revenue" the subsidies it gets for being the sole-source contractor for the local lines.

But certainly by low American standards, SNCF does pretty well.

Anonymous said...

I would like to react to BikeRider comment : actually, the subsidies do also pay for intercity trains that are not TGVs and not regional/commuter. Trains such as Teoz which run, for example, from Paris to Lyon are highly subsidized.

Also, about the bid process for operation at the regional level, I must say that for sure... SNCF wins. It will be different in 2010 when the market will be opened to competition, upon the EU regulations.

If you might be interested by French rail transport issues, we would be glad, with my Transport Expertise colleagues, to help you finding information, analyzing it, etc.

If you are looking for articles about Polish HSR and also the SNCF divident, please know that we wrote about it on our website. We will probably discuss (in French though) the Amtrak bill and the UK HSR situation.