Global Expansion of High-speed Railroads Gains Steam

Interest in high-speed rail (HSR) is growing around the world and the number of countries running these trains is expected to nearly double over the next few years, according to new research by the Worldwatch Institute for Vital Signs Online. By 2014, high-speed trains will be operating in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States, up from only 14 countries today. The increase in HSR is due largely to its reliability and ability to cover vast geographic distances in a short time, to investments aimed at connecting once-isolated regions, and to the diminishing appeal of air travel, which is becoming more cumbersome because of security concerns.

 

The rise in HSR has been very rapid—in just three years, between January 2008 and January 2011, the operational fleet grew from 1,737 high-speed trainsets worldwide to 2,517. Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. By 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units.

 

Not only is HSR reliable, but it also can be more friendly than cars or airplanes. A 2006 comparison of greenhouse gas emissions by travel mode, released by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, found that HSR lines in Europe and Japan released 30–70 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometer, versus 150 grams for automobiles and 170 grams for airplanes.

 

Although there is no universal speed definition for HSR, the threshold is typically set at 250 kilometers per hour on new tracks and 200 kilometers per hour on existing, upgraded tracks. The length of HSR tracks worldwide is undergoing explosive growth in order to meet increasing demand. Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of operational track has grown from some 10,700 kilometers to nearly 17,000 kilometers. Another 8,000 kilometers is currently under construction, and some 17,700 kilometers more is planned, for a combined total of close to 43,000 kilometers. That is equivalent to about 4 percent of all rail lines—passenger and freight—in the world today.

 

By track length, the current high-speed leaders are China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany. Other countries are joining the high-speed league as well. Turkey has ambitious plans to reach 2,424 kilometers and surpass the length of Germany’s network. Italy, Portugal, and the United States all hope to reach track lengths of more than 1,000 kilometers. Another 15 countries have plans for shorter networks.

 

But in Europe, France continues to account for about half of all European high-speed rail travel. HSR reached an astounding 62 percent of the country’s passenger rail travel volume in 2008, up from just 23 percent in 1990, thanks to affordable ticket prices, an impressive network, and reliability. And in Japan, the Shinkansen trains are known for their exceedingly high degree of reliability. JR Central, the largest of the Japanese rail operating companies, reports that the average delay per high-speed train throughout a year is just half a minute. On all routes in Japan where both air and high-speed rail connections are available, rail has captured a 75 percent market share.

 

Further highlights from the research:

 

  • A draft plan for French transportation infrastructure investments for the next two decades allocates 52 percent of a total of $236 billion to HSR.
  • In 2005, the Spanish government announced an ambitious plan for some 10,000 kilometers of high-speed track by 2020, which would allow 90 percent of Spaniards to live within 50 kilometers of an HSR station.
  • Currently, China is investing about $100 billion annually in railway construction. The share of the country’s railway infrastructure investment allocated to HSR has risen from less than 10 percent in 2005 to a stunning 60 percent in 2010.
  • Intercity rail in Japan accounts for 18 percent of total domestic passenger-kilometers by all travel modes—compared with just 5 to 8 percent in major European countries and less than 1 percent in the United States.
  • In France, rail’s market share of the Paris-Marseille route rose from 22 percent in 2001 (before the introduction of high-speed service) to 69 percent in 2006. In Spain, the Madrid-Seville rail route’s share rose from 33 to 84 percent.

Weekly Mulch: Climate Change On Obama’s Back Burner

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touched on climate issues only briefly. He called on the Senate to pass a climate bill, but did not give Congress a deadline or promise to veto weak legislation. Nor did he mention the Copenhagen climate conference, where international negotiators struggled to produce an agreement on limiting global carbon emissions.

The Obama administration’s attitude towards climate change still represents a remarkable shift from the Bush years, when global warming was treated as little more than a fairy tale. But in the past year, Congressional squabbling has stalled climate legislation, and international negotiators nearly gridlocked in talks over carbon admissions at the multinational Copenhagen conference. Without strong leadership from the president, work to prevent this looming environmental crisis will stall.

Obama did address global warming skeptics, saying that they should support investment in clean energy, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

“And America must be that nation,” Obama said.

No push for climate bill

Despite his combative language,  the president did not challenge Congress to push for real solutions to ballooning carbon emissions and energy consumption. As Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer notes, Obama “uttered the phrase ‘climate change’ precisely once.”

The Senate has already wait-listed the climate bill: Health care came first. With health care reform now in line behind work on jobs and bank regulation, climate legislation has little chance of passing the Senate in the coming months, let alone making it to the president’s desk.

If Congress lets this work wait until after the midterm elections, the United States will show up at international negotiations in December 2010 as a leader in carbon emissions yet again, but with little in hand to show a way forward.

Clean energy, not renewable energy

When the president did bring up climate issues, he focused on their connection between climate reform and potential job creation. Obama highlighted areas for growth, not in renewable energy fields like wind or solar power, but in nuclear power, natural gas, and clean coal.

Yes, these fuel sources could decrease the country’s carbon emissions. But they are not solutions that will revolutionize energy production. Grist’s David Roberts was floored that the speech omitted renewable energy entirely and kowtowed to a more conservative litany of energy projects. “I suppose it was done to flatter conservative Senators that will have to vote for the bill Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are working on,” he writes. (The three Senators are working on a version of the climate bill designed to appeal to Republicans.)

“But the SOTU is not a policy negotiation,” Roberts says. “It’s a bully pulpit, a chance to shape rather than respond to existing narratives.”

Roberts argues that progressive supporters would benefit from a stronger message. If activists knew that the White House stands behind a real shift in America’s energy policy, they could use that prompt to drive action on climate change.

What was missing

While touting the virtues of off-shore drilling, Obama overlooked other policies that could broker real change. Although he admonished Congress to pass a climate bill, he did not pressure the legislature on what he’d like that bill to include. He did not mention cap-and-trade, the mechanism the House bill relies on to tamp down emissions and dirty energy use.

President Obama did touch on transportation reforms that could decrease the country’s use of fossil fuels.

“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,”  Obama said. He cited a high-speed rail project that broke ground on Tuesday in Tampa, FL, as evidence that America could best the rest of the world in creating new energy-efficient technology.

But one or two high-profile projects won’t be enough to challenge Europe’s network of high-speed trains or China’s investments in solar power. The White House could put the country at the forefront of sustainable technologies, but it’ll take more money than the president has committed. In AlterNet’s ideal state of the union, projects like the railway would merit sustained attention and funding. Funding for the high-speed train came from this year’s stimulus bill, and there’s no guarantee that similar projects will find federal funding in the future.

“Continued support is still needed” for green jobs and clean energy, Alternet’s editorial staff argues. “It’s unclear yet how Obama’s new proposal for a three-year spending freeze will apply to this sector, but a boost is what is needed, not cuts.”

Green jobs

Michelle Chen argues for In These Times that the president is right to subordinate climate issues to economic policy. “The jobs angle is more than sugar-coating,” she says. A recent Pew Research Center poll put climate change at the end of Americans’ long list of cares, and a Brookings Institution study found that they’re no longer willing to pay as much for greener products.

Jobless workers need green in their pockets most of all, and so far politicians’ promises haven’t made up for the slack economy.

“No matter how slick the marketing, confidence in green jobs may wilt even further absent real investments in the beleaguered blue-collar workforce,” Chen writes.

Copenhagen accord losing momentum

The small role that climate change played in the state of the union address only emphasized the downward momentum of the issue since the United Nations conference on global warming in Copenhagen. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes talked to six leaders in climate change activism, and none of them offered a different strategy than they had last year.

That same stasis is showing up in Europe, as well. Spain, which currently leads the European Union, proposed that the European Union’s negotiating position should remain the same as its position before the Copenhagen conference, according to Inter Press Service.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who’s working on climate change legislation in the Senate, offered advice to climate activists at a clean energy forum in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Mother JonesKate Sheppard reports that Sen. Kerry encouraged his audience to get angrier, louder, and more active, in the mode of the conservative Tea Partiers, who have earned plenty of attention. After his speech, he also recalled the tactics that pushed landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act through Congress.

If climate change is going to play a larger role in the next state of the union, the citizens and groups concerned about this issue need to do something to put it on the agenda. Otherwise, next year, the president may find it just as easy to skim over it again.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Jindal's Hypocrisy and Samuelson's Distortions: The Day in High-Speed Rail

Two important stories about high-speed rail today.

First, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) continues to choose politics over policy. A recap of what's happened so far: In February, Jindal mocked the stimulus for including money for high-speed rail, and declared his state would not accept stimulus funds. In July, he was seen distributing and taking credit for stimulus checks all around Louisiana. And earlier this month, his administration seemed set to request $300 million for high-speed rail from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. It seemed Jindal was publicly mocking the policy because it came from a Democratic president but was implementing it anyway because, well, good policy is good policy regardless of its source. Hypocrisy, yes, but at least economically and environmentally sensible mass transit was headed to Louisiana. Then again, maybe not. Today, this from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Two days after a national commentator [Keith Olbermann, apparently] mocked Gov. Bobby Jindal for possibly requesting federal stimulus money to build a light rail system between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the governor's transportation secretary wrote to President Barack Obama's administration saying Louisiana isn't interested.

"Please be advised that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will not be applying for the High Speed AARA funds," state transportation chief William Ankner wrote to his federal counterpart, Secretary Ray LaHood. Ankner was referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [the stimulus]... The news came as a surprise to business leaders who backed the idea and had participated in preliminary discussions with Ankner.

Sigh. When caught red-handed hypocritically playing politics with good policy and forced to choose between politics and policy, Jindal chose the dishonorable route and went with politics. To be fair, Ankner said the project would cost Louisiana $18 million a year beyond the stimulus funds - so I say, why not ask for the difference too? And isn't the timing kind of fishy?

In related news, Robert Samuelson has a Washington Post column today claiming that high speed rail costs too much money for too little return. He's right, it is costly, but Dean Baker does a solid job proving him wrong about the small return:

He tells readers that: "Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile."

The density for the United States as a whole would be relevant if the plans were to build a train network going from Florida to Alaska, but that is not what is on the agenda. Instead, the issue is about deepening and improving the network in relatively densely populated parts of the country, like Ohio (277 people per square mile), New York (402), and New Jersey (1134). The population densities of much of the United States are very comparable to the regions in Europe through which high speed rails travel.

High-speed rail: a key part of both combating climate change and putting Detroit back to work.

Cross-posted from Blue Moose Democrat.

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Promising signs on transportation policy

Today Iowa Governor Chet Culver is taking a train tour to promote passenger rail in eastern Iowa, similar to a trip he took through western Iowa last month. He travels today from Iowa City through several small towns to Moline, Illinois, where the Quad Cities' passenger rail depot will be located. From there Culver will travel to Chicago for the Midwest High Speed Rail Summit on Monday.

The U.S. has ten high-speed rail corridors, and Business Week reported earlier this summer that the Midwestern and California corridors are well-positioned to receive some of the $8 billion in stimulus funds allocated for high-speed rail. A Federal Railroad Administration official spoke favorably of cooperation among eight midwestern governors, including Culver.

Competition for the stimulus rail funding will be stiff. The T4America blog reported last week that 40 states submitted a combined $102 billion in high-speed rail proposals for the $8 billion in stimulus funds. The overwhelming response from states prompted the House Appropriations Committee to allocate $4 billion toward high-speed rail in the coming year. The Obama administration had asked for $1 billion.

Republican Congressman Tom Latham (IA-04) tried to strip out $3 billion of the high-speed rail funding for more highway funds. However, the House on Thursday passed the fiscal year 2010 Transportation Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill by a vote of 256-168:

The spending bill passed by the House actually sets out $4 billion for high-speed rail, but Democratic officials expect to transfer half of that total to a national infrastructure bank that would give grants and make loans for large-scale transportation projects, another Obama priority.

"That is the most important transportation initiative since the Eisenhower interstate highway system," said Democratic Representative John Olver, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill.

Light rail projects are also expanding in many cities. At the annual meeting of 1000 Friends of Iowa yesterday, an official involved in planning a commuter rail project for Iowa City said it's currently hard to purchase train cars for light rail because of high demand nationwide.

Those who argue that we cannot afford to invest in passenger rail during an economic recession should read this piece by BruceMcF, one of the best transportation bloggers around.

Speaking of encouraging news, the Obama administration

has appointed Transportation for America Co-Chair Shelley Poticha to be Senior Advisor for Sustainable Housing and Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the department announced today.

Poticha, who is also President and CEO of Reconnecting America, is expected to head a new HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities that would be created under legislation to be sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT).

"Shelley will help lead HUD's effort to change the way we think about how our communities fit with how Americans live their lives," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "Her wealth of experience will help move us forward in creating sustainable, greener and smarter communities."

Poticha will represent HUD in an inter-agency effort to create sustainable communities involving the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation as well. The DOT and HUD announced joint plans to promote livable communities in March, and the EPA joined the effort in June.

Anyone interested in transportation policy should bookmark the Transportation for America coalition's blog.

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Midwest, California likely to receive high-speed rail funding

Via the Environmental Law and Policy Center's blog I saw this piece from Business Week:

High-speed rail plans in the Midwest and California appear to be front runners in the race for $8 billion in stimulus cash based on federal criteria released Wednesday that favor projects with established revenue sources and multistate cooperation.

California voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in state bonds that could be combined with federal money to build 800 miles of high-speed track. Eight Midwest states have cooperated closely to promote a network, with Chicago as its hub, that would join 12 metropolitan areas within 400 miles.

Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, stopped short of naming favorites during an interview with The Associated Press in Chicago, but she praised Midwestern states for their cooperation and pointed to California's bond issue.
[...]

The FRA's 68 pages of often technical rules also seek projects that would reduce regional highway and airport congestion and create jobs, especially among lower income Americans. [...]

The Midwest project foresees upgrades of three existing routes: Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Madison, Wis., via Milwaukee; and Chicago-Pontiac, Mich., through Detroit. Later, they'd upgrade a St. Louis-Kansas City, Mo. route. The governors of the eight Midwest states -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin -- wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in April appealing for money for the region, one of the hardest hit by the recession.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has said it hopes to build 800 miles of track for high-speed trains and would ask for federal funds to work on lines between San Francisco and San Jose and Los Angeles and Anaheim.

These kinds of projects are among the best programs funded by the stimulus bill. Not only will they create construction jobs during the next few years, they will provide lasting benefits in terms of energy use, air pollution and quality of life. I would have liked to see rail projects receive even more stimulus money, but $8 billion is not chump change.

Expanding regular passenger rail is also worthwhile if it provides more alternatives to driving along busy corridors. I was excited to read a few days ago that a passenger rail line between Chicago and Iowa City could be running in two to three years. Apparently an Amtrak feasibility study for this route showed "very promising" results. Such a line would run through the Quad Cities and could eventually be extended to connect Des Moines and Omaha.

I highly recommend BruceMcF's post "How To Build a National High Speed Rail System" for anyone interested in this issue.

There was also good discussion of high-speed rail in a recent MyDD diary by atdleft. I agree with him on the need to connect Las Vegas with southern California population centers by rail, although I would rather see stimulus money fund wheels-on-track high-speed rail (as opposed to the much more expensive maglev approach).

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