Future of major high-speed rail project looks green

Jul 27, 2012
A study co-authored by an Arizona State University engineer says California's ambitious plan for a high-speed rail system can become a sustainable and environment-friendly transportation alternative. Credit: Photo courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

(Phys.org) -- California has reason to be optimistic that the state's proposed high-speed rail project, due to begin construction next year,  can prove to be a viable transportation alternative from environmental and sustainability standpoints.

That’s the conclusion of research by Arizona State University engineer Mikhail Chester and University of California, Berkeley, engineer Arpad Horvath reported in a study published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Chester is an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, a part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and has a joint appointment in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

Horvath is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley and the study's co-author.

California lawmakers three weeks ago authorized $7.9 billion in local and federal funds for the high-speed rail project, which promises to link Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego with trains traveling at a top speed of 220 mph.

The bill, signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown last week, allows initial construction on the 768-mile rail system to begin next year.

Chester and Horvath compared the future sustainability of high-speed rail with that of competing modes of transportation, namely automobiles and air travel. They determined that in terms of energy consumption and emissions, a mature high-speed rail system wins out when it deploys state-of-the-art trains powered by greener electricity. This was true even after accounting for the emergence of more fuel-efficient airplanes and automobiles.

"We're showing that if this high-speed rail system is deployed, it is likely that California will reduce its transportation environmental footprint," Chester said. But to reap those environmental benefits, the state will have to wait until the system becomes fully operational, which could take an estimated 20 to 30 years after groundbreaking. 

"What had been missing from the public debate is this long-term planning horizon," Horvath said.

"Comparable high-speed rail systems in Europe and Japan have been in place for 30 to 50 years. Why would we expect California's system to provide a return on investment in a short period of time?” Horvath said. “I would compare where we are now to circa 1950, around the start of commercial air travel. Did anybody know then how many passengers Los Angeles and San Francisco airports would eventually see in a year? Air travel has since grown into a massive industry."

To assess sustainability, the researchers conducted an exhaustive life-cycle assessment that inventories the full range of environmental effects associated with each mode of transportation. Included in the analysis are the cradle-to-grave environmental costs associated with extracting, manufacturing and distributing the materials – such as concrete, steel and asphalt – needed to build and maintain the vehicles, freeways, tracks, stations and other integral components of the travel systems.

The researchers considered different scenarios, such as varying levels of ridership and renewable energy use, when calculating emissions of greenhouse gases and conventional air pollutants, acidification and impacts on human respiratory health.

Assuming that the electricity needed to operate the high-speed rail system comes from renewable sources, a goal set forth by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the bigger impact of the project comes from infrastructure and supply chain processes. For instance, approximately 67 percent of infrastructure emissions attributed to high-speed rail are the result of cement production for concrete used in construction.

"If the high-speed rail project uses low-CO2 concrete, it could reduce the infrastructure's environmental footprint by 15 percent," said Chester.

The new study updates a 2010 analysis by Chester and Horvath with newer, more realistic system descriptions, data and projections.

The difference in the new analysis is the allowance for smaller, more energy-efficient trains, such as those already in use in Germany as the ICE high-speed trains, which can be deployed based upon passenger demand. Instead of running a 1,200 passenger train at half capacity, for instance, the system could run smaller, more energy-efficient 400-passenger trains during non-peak travel times. The authors also have used forecasts for cleaner future electricity.

When calculating the future energy consumption of cars, the researchers used the federal fuel economy standards goal of 35 mpg by 2020. They accounted for a 54.5 miles per gallon standard proposed for 2025 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The researchers also accounted for next-generation aircraft that are expected to enter production within the next two decades. Such planes offer up to 20 percent savings in fuel consumption.

The findings indicate that when the proposed high-speed train is occupied by 80 to 180 passengers on average over its lifetime, it would result in as many greenhouse gas emissions on a per-passenger-kilometer-traveled basis as a 35 mpg sedan carrying 2.2 people. The greenhouse gas emission-equivalent for a typical airplane carrying 116 passengers would be a train carrying 130 to 280 passengers.

"There are tradeoffs," said Chester. "Depending on ridership, sometimes high-speed rail is better with greenhouse gas emissions and beats out cars and planes. For respiratory impacts, cars are typically the worst offenders, followed by high-speed rail and then airplanes. Overall, what we're showing is that the trains are looking pretty good."

Horvath pointed out that they matched existing state-of-the-art trains against cars and planes that are still emerging. If more energy-efficient trains or rail technology emerge, the environmental benefits would be even greater.

"It's not clear what technologies will be available for high-speed rail in the future," Horvath said. "We considered the best available technologies now, but there is nothing to say that it will be the best 10, 15 or 20 years from now. I'd be very surprised if best practices weren't improved upon by then."

Chester said that while their analysis shows environmental benefits to high-speed rail, "this is not the answer to the state's greenhouse gas goals. This is a tiny piece of the puzzle."

Chester and Horvath say planners and policy makers ultimately need to consider various factors beyond environmental impacts in developing California's high-speed rail system. Changes in travel time, productivity, congestion, safety and urban development opportunities are some of the factors to be considered , the researchers say.

Explore further: EPA staff says agency needs to be tough on smog

More information: • Tracking High-Speed Rail's Energy Use and Emissions (Berkeley Transportation Letter, Spring 2010)
• California High-Speed Rail Authority website: www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/

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User comments : 19

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Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
Wow.

This is a monster construction project. It's a generational build time.

I don't even know if anything like this has ever been done in one go in this country. Even things like bridges and interstate highways only take a few years to a decade to build, and those are modular; add what you want/need when you want/need it.

Only thing that really comes to mind is "secret cities" and their associated military facilities during WWII and the early years of the Cold War.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
Horvath pointed out that they matched existing state-of-the-art trains against cars and planes that are still emerging.


There are already cars that get 50 MPG. People just don't buy them because there's no incentive. Gasoline is still not that expensive that they'd have to care.

Furthermore, mass trasport systems like trains actually increase the passenger-miles needed to move people around because of their fixed endpoints, so passengers end up taking the longer way around to get to where they're going as compared to driving there.

Same goes for airports. You may get a nice straight line from A to B, but because the airport is half an hour away from where you're actually going, you end up taking a taxi anyways.
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
Same goes for airports. You may get a nice straight line from A to B, but because the airport is half an hour away from where you're actually going, you end up taking a taxi anyways.


You are most certainly correct, but hopefully we'd have electric autos which would be at least carbon neutral by then.

Although taxis have so much mileage in a day that it may be difficult to make them electric, but not impossible. I would envisage the company could have "battery swap depots" where the taxi with low juice could go and have their battery swapped quickly. This can be accomplished in about 5 minutes through the use of a crane, which is done with pallet jacks and fork lifts all the time in warehouses.

You could also have small, Golf Cart-like electric vehicles which could be rented for a few dollars at one depot, and then driven across town to another depot and returned, just like borrowing a book at the library.
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
On Mythbusters they created an ultra-efficient, though rather un-stylish, motor cycle by using a tear drop shape made from angle-iron and plastic wrap. There were no advanced alloys or materials involved, just junk lying around from their warehouse and set, and even with the added weight it gained a huge amount in net efficiency and performance.

With lighter modern building materials and an electric engine, with perhaps some solar panels added in places where line of sight isn't an issue, you could make such a bike or car far more energy efficient than existing designs, while still having practical acceleration and top speed. Heck, acceleration in California isn't much of an issue anyway, since the traffic jams are so bad you're rarely accelerating quickly nor going anywhere near a vehicle's top speed anyway.
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
There are so many other electric transport options that have not been considered.

Just take a look at a roller coaster in an amusement park, and consider fair modifications to produce a "sky way" using adaptations of roller coaster technology.

Off-ramps, similar to NASCAR pit stops, could be constructed at participating business and shopping center by building a docking station there. People get on or off as needed, and any empty cars automatically drive themselves to the next place where a ride is requested. It would work much like an "elevator" system, or a Subway system,but at a different elevation above the normal streets of the city, so that you don't have as many construction conflicts with say, the existing train system, sewers, water, power or other utilities systems. Over all, I would think that such a system's final build cost should be significantly less than retrofitting or expanding a sub-way network, for example. Should be little to no drilling involved.
tadchem
5 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
The 'initial stage' calls for a 130 mile line from Madera (Uptown Nowhere) to Bakersfield (Baja Nowhere) at a cost (currently budgeted) of $2.6 billion - $20 million dollars per mile.
Almost *every* pioneering project that involves government dollars invokes cost over-runs - typically about 100% over budget - and delays - typically about 50% past over the original completion time estimate.
This is a phenomenon I call the Curse of Project Optimism.
I have seen nothing to indicate anything different here.
When 'completed' CA will have 130 miles of high speed rail on a route mainly used by braceros (impoverished immigrant farm workers) that will lose money until Doomsday.
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
When 'completed' CA will have 130 miles of high speed rail on a route mainly used by braceros (impoverished immigrant farm workers) that will lose money until Doomsday.


Not necessarily.

Sometimes adding new lanes of travel increases travel demand, particularly if it's high speed. Traveling 130 miles in half an hour means people can easily commute to new work sites, or to sporting or sales events they otherwise wouldn't bother with.

It might even change population density distribution, since if you can work in one city whilst living in another less populated city over 100 miles away, and still only have a 30 minute commute time, then it becomes much more attractive due to pre-existing lower land values (in the smaller city,) and perhaps lower crime rates.
GDM
3 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
In spite of the congressional "giggle factor", a high-speed train between LA (even Disneyland) and Las Vegas would save Billions of dolars. Have you ever spent 10 hrs crossing the California/Nevada desert in 5 mph, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the weekend when it only takes about 5 hrs on lighter days?
CapitalismPrevails
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 27, 2012
Sure, there's high demand for cheaper alternatives to travel from LA to Vegas but apparently there isn't enough demand. If there were, the private sector would have no problem financing this project because it would be profitable.
Vendicar_Decarian
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 27, 2012
There is no cure for cancer proven by the economic fact that if there were, the private sector would have no problem developing it because it would be profitable.
Eikka
3.3 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2012
it becomes much more attractive due to pre-existing lower land values (in the smaller city,) and perhaps lower crime rates.


That won't last for too long, though, because when people rely on such modes of commuting, the property/land prices near the transportation hubs skyrocket pretty quickly and you're back to square one.
CapitalismPrevails
2.3 / 5 (4) Jul 28, 2012
There is no cure for cancer proven by the economic fact that if there were, the private sector would have no problem developing it because it would be profitable.

Kinda generalizing aren't you. So has government came up for a cure for a disease with multiple aspects such as cancer? NOPE. But we subsidize the world through by our medical innovation and which country in the world has the most privately operated health care system. We do.

BTW since you seem to demonize profits, were does your precious tax revenue come from? PROFITS.
NotParker
2 / 5 (4) Jul 28, 2012
Horvath has received money from Lucent.

http://www.ce.ber...horvath/

Lucent stands to profit.

http://en.wikiped...l-Lucent
aironeous
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2012
The 'initial stage' calls for a 130 mile line from Madera (Uptown Nowhere) to Bakersfield (Baja Nowhere) at a cost (currently budgeted) of $2.6 billion - $20 million dollars per mile.
Almost *every* pioneering project that involves government dollars invokes cost over-runs - typically about 100% over budget - and delays - typically about 50% past over the original completion time estimate.
This is a phenomenon I call the Curse of Project Optimism.
I have seen nothing to indicate anything different here.
When 'completed' CA will have 130 miles of high speed rail on a route mainly used by braceros (impoverished immigrant farm workers) that will lose money until Doomsday.

Circular logic. All of California used to be "nowhere."
kochevnik
5 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2012
It might even change population density distribution, since if you can work in one city whilst living in another less populated city over 100 miles away, and still only have a 30 minute commute time, then it becomes much more attractive due to pre-existing lower land values (in the smaller city,) and perhaps lower crime rates.
Connecting two shitholes together isn't progress for anyone except illegal Mexicans.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2012
If there were, the private sector would have no problem financing this project because it would be profitable.

The private sector only invests in things with short term profits. Profits 50 years down the line aren't of interest, because in those 50 years the invested money could be earning you profits elsewhere. It might be lower profits, but ver 50 years it adds up to a lot more.

As always private companies let the state handle the long term investments to reap the benefits when the technology is in place.
Without this type of 'socialism' capitalism would still be trying to sell rocks and sticks (exaggerating a bit here - but not much).
Birger
5 / 5 (1) Jul 30, 2012
The US highways were built by government money under the Eisenhower administration, that was a long-term project that worked well.
The DARPAnet was another government-sposored effort that paid off in the long term.
Yes, there will be some bad effects at the traffic hubs. It will require infrastructure in terms of subways, trams and bus stations but the alternative is adding to the roads betwen cities.

A detail I wonder about is the air-conditioning cost: surely a few big units (train carriages) will need less energy that a million cars with AC going at full power.

Readers of Gibson may recall the vision of the Eastern seabord connected into "The Sprawl" by high-speed trains, the Boston-Atlanta region essentially merged.
NotParker
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2012
If there were, the private sector would have no problem financing this project because it would be profitable.

The private sector only invests in things with short term profits.


Really? Drug companies spend around 70 billion a year looking for products they can sell long term.

CapitalismPrevails
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2012
Really? Drug companies spend around 70 billion a year looking for products they can sell long term.


Really? Isn't "really" kind of a trite response from libs on the internet already? Did you know companies like Angies List, Yelp, and other internet companies actually exist? Did you know they crowd source and publicize the reputation of commercial products and services? Besides, if they're spending 70 billion a year, doesn't it go to show you they are making a profit selling drugs because the customers are voting with their wallets for their product?