With oil prices soaring and emissions targets looming, a new age for the railways looks set to pick up pace as high-speed rail accelerates around the globe.
Twenty-first century citizens are travelling more than ever before. According to experts the upward trend is set to continue, with global travel predicted to increase by around 1.6 per cent each year between now and 2030.
There is, however, a price to pay for all this mobility in the form of carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, the transport sector already accounts for 28 per cent of global energy consumption and pumps 6.4 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – 23 per cent of worldwide energy-related CO2 emissions.
Personal transportation is the biggest polluter. More than half of the transport sector's energy consumption can be attributed to cars, while road freight traffic accounts for 30 per cent. At just 13 per cent, air traffic's contribution is relatively low, while rail systems account for only 2 per cent of the sector's energy use.
Rail travel, then, clearly presents some sort of answer to the CO2 problem – or, more accurately, high-speed rail. Driven by increasing petrol prices, cutbacks in flight schedules, delays and increased security at airports and the seemingly endless traffic congestion, governments around the world are looking seriously at rail investment.
China is already rolling in the right direction. The country, which has the most extensive rail network in Asia, is getting its system ready for the future – mainly to ensure that it can accommodate rising freight and passenger volumes. To this end, China plans to expand its rail network from the current 86,000km to 120,000km by 2020. An associated investment of approximately £560bn will flow mainly into the construction of high-speed rail lines.
Even the United States, a country that is synonymous with car ownership is taking the plunge. In the US, the rail system is largely out of date. Although the country has an extensive network, little has been done to improve infrastructure in many regions over the last hundred years. Rural railroads, in particular, are often marked by poorly maintained lines, abandoned stations, and old and slow trains. What's more, there are no high-speed trains like those found in Europe and Asia. Development over the last 50 years has focused on the highway system rather than on railroads, which has made the US the automobile nation par excellence – with all the consequences that poses for the environment.
According to the American Lung Association, in 2007 air pollution was higher in the greater Los Angeles area than in any other urban region in the US. This isn't surprising, given the huge number of cars and underdeveloped public transport.
Rebirth in the US
While the railways helped to tame the Wild West in the American expansion in the 19th century, they have since taken a backseat for US travellers. Unlike in Europe or China, trains offer no real alternative to planes in the modern transport mix.
But this could all be set to change under US President Barak Obama's ambitious plans to develop a high-speed rail network for the US, prompted by $8bn in the recent stimulus package with another $5bn. The infrastructure project could create up to 145,000 new jobs in the regions surrounding Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, and Albany and businesses located there could generate as much as $19bn in additional annual revenue as a result.
Expanding the US rail network is expected to also boost economic productivity by reducing travel costs and time. Not to be forgotten is the fact that rail network expansion would reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 2.8 million tonnes per year. 'High-speed rail transport is the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way to strengthen the economies in these US regions,' Hans-Jörg Grundmann, CEO of Siemens' mobility division, says.
A joint study by Siemens and the US Conference of Mayors last year highlighted the benefits of high-speed rail. A good example came from Los Angeles with its four million inhabitants in the city and 13 million spread over its sprawling suburbs. The plan is to have 50 high-speed trains measuring the 500 miles from San Francisco and Sacremento in the north to San Diego in the south – a journey between the two that would take up to eight hours by road sliced to 2 hours 40 minutes. More importantly, the report suggests that the rail network could take 5,000 commuters of the busy Los Angeles road system. By 2035 it is predicted that 12.3 million long-distance travellers will be plucked out of the skies by America's new high-speed rail system.
Another major centre for high-speed rail will be Florida, where two tracks are planned. The first is south west from Orlando – and its international airport – to Tampa, connecting with Walt Disney World on the way; this will later be extended to Florida's space coast on its eastern seaboard to the Miami area.
'I've had the opportunity to ride high-speed rail and I've always been a huge supporter,' says Buddy Dyer, mayor of Orlando. 'Now we're ready to catch up with cities in Europe and other parts of the world. We're going to have the first true high-speed rail in America here on the Orlando-Tampa corridor, with trains travelling upwards of 170 miles per hour. This will be the first step toward a nationwide network. A big part of the reason we're now making such progress is regional cooperation and partnerships. That's what the US Department of Transportation was looking for when awarding high-speed rail grants.'
Florida is no newcomer to rail as more than a century ago much of Florida was developed based on Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, which ran down the coast to the Florida Keys. But much of it was destroyed by a hurricane. 'So in some ways Florida does have a long history in rail, but it was interrupted for a century or so,' Dyer adds. 'But I don't think this lack of history is a handicap. Central Florida will double in population by 2050, so today it's a necessity as well as a boost to the economy.'
Mayor Dyer is also convinced that high-speed rail will help tourism, the lifeblood of Florida's new-found wealth. 'The technology itself is going to attract people,' he explains. 'It wouldn't surprise me if people going to Tampa choose to fly into Orlando instead just so they can experience the high-speed rail connection. But it also plays a key role for the clusters that we're developing along the high-speed rail route – digital media, biomedical life sciences, simulation and training, and others.
'High-speed rail affects so many different things: economic development, jobs, the environment, congestion relief. Florida has historically been extremely reliant on the car. High-speed rail, together with commuter rail, has the potential to change that.
'Most of our communities weren't really designed for people without cars. But rising fuel prices and congestion, together with rising environmental awareness, have now made it easier for Americans to embrace new technologies like high-speed rail.
'Some people will make their decisions based on environmental concerns. But for a lot of people their reasons are personal and practical, for example it's cheaper or quicker. One big advantage of high-speed rail is that there's some certainty. When you get in your car you never know if there's been an accident that's shut down the Interstate.'
While Europe and the US are focusing mainly on modernisation of infrastructure and harmonising solutions, China, India, and other Asian nations are concerned with major expansions and efficient, new infrastructures. 'The average travelling speed for cars in many large Asian cities is currently less than ten kilometres per hour,' Siemens's Grundmann says. 'That shows just how important it is to expand commuter rail and subway networks.'
China wants to expand its nationwide rail network from 86,000km to 120,000km and ensure that 10 per cent of the network will be able to accommodate high-speed trains. In order to achieve this goal, the country will invest more than $250bn between now and 2012 in the construction of 42 high-speed routes.
A train boasting what is currently the world's highest average speed, 350km/h, recently began operating in China. The Harmony Express requires only three hours to travel the 1,000km between Wuhan and Guangzhou. Russia is also expanding its rail network, especially for freight trains to move its abundant raw materials, among other things. The country will invest up to $500bn in the modernisation of its rail system between now and 2030. Plans include high-speed routes and the establishment of links to areas rich in natural resources. The latter will require procurement of one million freight cars and 20,000 locomotives, as some of the locomotives used today were built in the 1920s and 1930s.
There will continue to be opponents to rail's renaissance, strangely from the environmental lobby, who seem to have forgotten their hatred for air travel and transferred their annoyance to the harm that new track will cause the countryside. But their animosity is unlikely to derail a plan that will greatly aid the quest to reduce carbon emissions by taking cars off the road and passengers from the air. *