May 19, 2024


Travel ideas

The bullet train to lower-carbon travel


Amid all the speak about lessening aviation emissions, modal change does not get a good deal of air time. Nevertheless, the distribute of superior-speed rail (HSR) in excess of the past ten years has designed trains a aggressive, low-carbon substitute to quick-haul flights. I can testify to this individually: given that the launch of the Beijing-Shanghai HSR in 2011, my travel in between the two metropolitan areas has been totally on trains rather than flights. A lot more broadly, aviation decarbonization roadmaps have also commenced together with modal shift as an significant lever for lowering the carbon footprint of travel.

Proximity to town centers and easier security checks give HSR pros in phrases of travel time. Travelers using a educate from Madrid to Barcelona (~500 km) arrive in beneath 3 hours a practice from Beijing to Shanghai (~1300 km) will take fewer than 5 hours. Because prepare vacation around these distances is competitive with traveling, it is probably that an substantial HSR community could have a substance affect on air website traffic. Transportation and Environment estimates that intra-EU air targeted visitors could be slice by 25% if higher-speed rail company were being readily available between all significant metropolitan areas in the area.

In the U.S., in the meantime, the swiftest teach (Amtrak’s Acela Convey) runs at half the velocity of its international counterparts and necessitates seven several hours to travel between Boston and Washington D.C. (~700 km). HSR growth in the U.S. has its champions, but the political issues it faces surface to be wonderful. Regardless of whether Joe Biden’s one trillion dollar infrastructure invoice and his declaration of an “infrastructure decade” will aid change the system continues to be uncertain.

This article investigates the prospective of an air-to-rail modal shift in the US, and its climate implications. To recognize routes on which a modal shift may well occur, we take into account two factors: travel distance and population density. Then we work out the carbon emissions implications of these types of a shift.

Earlier investigation exhibits that HSR can ordinarily substitute for flights up to 1000 km in distance, and they are most aggressive for excursions below 700 or 800 km. Having said that, to estimate the highest probable, we really should take into account the edge circumstance: some HSR routes in China have been competing with flights more than 1000 km, with the longest route achieving virtually 2300 km. Using flights beneath 2000 km as a threshold, Determine 1 illustrates the distance segments replaceable by high-pace rail in the US (whether or not the rail infrastructure exists nonetheless), which accounted for 54% of domestic site visitors and 62% of CO2 emissions in 2019. The replaceable segments in the figure stand for the contribution that HSR could make as a minimal-carbon choice to air travel.

bar chart of modal shift and flight distance

Figure 1. Modal shift probable based mostly on flight distance

The figure reveals that short-haul flights make up half of the U.S. domestic marketplace and are responsible for 62% of the emissions in 2019. The emissions share is increased than the targeted visitors share due to the fact limited-haul flights on typical are drastically more carbon-intensive than for a longer time flights, shown by past ICCT assessment. Flights less than 500 km, in unique, can emit a few instances as much CO2 as a teach experience covering the same distance (Table 1). But small coach routes are reasonably rare simply because they are uncompetitive with vehicles.

Desk 1. Normal carbon intensity of 2019 US domestic flights by length as opposed to passenger rail

Distance Carbon Intensity (gCO2/passenger-km)
Airplane Practice*
<500 km 199 64
500–1000 km 131
1000–1500 km 103
1500–2000km 86
>2000 km 79

*The normal of diesel and electric powered trains, primarily based on the current route blend, with a carbon depth of 79 g CO2/passenger-km for diesel and 38 g CO2/passenger-km for electrical (source: Miller, 2020)

We also believe that HSR would be built only concerning relatively dense urban regions, thinking about its superior construction price. We use a route’s once-a-year passenger load as a proxy for populace density. We estimate that U.S. domestic routes with 300,000 passengers per yr or much more (good orange bars in Determine 2) are backlinks concerning dense urban regions. A tiny fewer than 50 % of the quick-haul flights (underneath 2000km in this circumstance) meet this criterion, and the quick-haul, significant-density section as a complete represents practically a quarter (24%) of all round U.S. domestic targeted visitors in 2019.

bar chart of Modal shift potential based on distance and population density

Figure 2. Modal change possible primarily based on length and populace density

Combining the route screening results and carbon depth of both modes, we can estimate the optimum emissions reduction from a modal shift to rail. CO2 emissions in 2019 would have been 15% lessen if travelers experienced changed flights with electric powered-powered practice vacation. For short haul segments (< 2000km), emissions would have fallen by 23%. Smaller emission reductions—of 8% and 13%, respectively—would have resulted if the trains had operated with today’s diesel and electricity mix.

Bar chart showing CO2 emissions by flight distance with modal shift to rail

Figure 3. CO2 emissions by flight distance with modal shift to rail (assuming electric trains, and a carbon intensity of 38 g CO2/RPK)

Even if high-speed rail infrastructure were available, not all travelers on the identified routes would switch. Research has shown that competing HSR service can reduce air traffic by 7-28%. For instance, a study estimates that about 7% of intra-European short/medium haul traffic can be substituted by rail with no increase in travel time the ratio increases to 17% if travel time is allowed to increase by 20%. In China, the introduction of HSR led to a 27-28% reduction in demand on competitive flight routes in the early years (2010-2013), and a 10% decrease in monthly departures in the longer term (2011-2016), according to two studies.

These studies estimate only voluntary shifts from air to rail, but there are many ways to promote additional modal shift. On one hand, lower ticket fares and better service can incentivize travelers to choose trains over planes. Increasing the connectivity between train stations and local transport also helps. On the other hand, government policies can directly bring about modal shifts. For example, France passed a law banning direct flights where a train trip of under 2.5 hours is available. Many European airlines established partnership with local railways to replace some of their short-haul flights these include collaborations between KLM and NS, Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, and Austrian Airlines and ÖOB. These partnerships demonstrate that the relationship between aviation and rail can be synergistic rather than purely competitive. Also, particularly under 500 km, most of the environmental benefits of HSR could come from getting the many people who drive out of their cars, rather than the relatively few who fly out of planes.

While aircraft and fuel technology will continue to be key to decarbonizing aviation, modal shifts can make unique contributions. Specifically, they reduce pressure on the airline industry to achieve deep decarbonization amid rapid growth, while not jeopardizing demand for flights on more lucrative long-haul operations. Be on the lookout for a major ICCT report that shows how HSR fits into the deep decarbonization of global aviation.

Will the U.S. build high-speed rail? We don’t know. But given the clear benefits of modal shifting, the rationale for building a robust rail system is stronger than ever.


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