Mobility 2050/Trains Instead of Planes

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

For a long time, trains were the industry leader among long distance travel options, and have even been hallmarks of American success in expansion westwards. In more recent U.S. history, they have fallen off in favor of a combination of cars and planes. A large majority, around 69%, of Americans support moving towards carbon neutrality by 2050 according to the Pew Research Center[1]. However, if the U.S. is to approach a world less focused on major carbon emitters being used as transportation, there has to be a shift back to transportation options that can operate with power sources far better for the environment. Travel by trains can reduce carbon footprint by almost half when compared to planes[2]. A mass shift to usage of trains over planes could have a large impact on reducing carbon emissions. Many of the changes needed to make this change are social/cultural and political, although some technical improvements are needed to make train travel safer. This goal for the world of 2050 will be much more achievable following the path laid out here.

Current Projects[edit | edit source]

Many countries around the world have been working towards more sustainable futures by increasing accessibility of passenger rail transportation. Most notable are France and Japan, who have taken somewhat different approaches to this issue. Over the past few decades, Japan has built a large network for the Shinkansen[3], a high speed bullet train. This was originally constructed for long-distance travel, but also functions as an option for commuters in metropolitan areas. Although the mesh of coverage currently doesn’t cover the majority of Japan, new proposals and current construction is very promising for covering a large portion of Japan in coming years. On the other side of the world, in 2023, France passed legislation that bans flights shorter than 2.5 hours in favor of rail travel[4]. This serves as a stepping stone to push people to choose trains when traveling. The U.S. can take inspiration from both of these examples when designing a plan to shift from planes to trains.

In the U.S. there are projects in California and Florida to build high speed passenger rail lines: California High Speed Rail Authority and Brightline. The California High Speed Rail has faced many roadblocks especially regarding funding and acquiring property. Brightline has had more success, recently starting operations in Florida and further receiving $3 billion in federal funding for construction of a high speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas[5]. The success of Brightline in Florida is due to much of the land already being allocated for rail usage, so this project faced fewer issues with land acquisition[6]. This project successfully incorporated new rails with existing freight lines, reducing costs and resources needed. Currently, Brightline is the only privately owned high speed rail company operating in the U.S. and can be used as a role model for future projects.

Technology changes[edit | edit source]

Currently, all of the technology needed to make this vision a reality exists and is used throughout the world, such as the vast interconnected rail systems in Europe and the high speed rails in Japan. Although no new technology changes are needed for widespread rail travel to be viable, some technology changes would be beneficial to the existing rail lines in America. The new pieces of technology needed are mostly safety related. This may include robotic solutions to control trains in order to prevent them from going too fast in dangerous parts of the track. Recent large crashes have been attributed to operators not recognizing that they had to slow down for sharp corners, and this could serve as a great way of preventing that in the future.

Political changes[edit | edit source]

Pressure from the National Association of Railroad Passengers can initiate short-term changes to improve efficiency of Amtrak travel. Currently, the laws give Amtrak the right of way over freight trains, but freight trains are too long to yield for Amtrak because of the lengths of side tracks. The Department of Justice does not go after the freight train companies despite them violating the law. Action in federal court and enforcement from the Department of Justice will help reduce passenger rail travel times by giving Amtrak right-of-way over freight trains. This will serve as the first major step towards improving the desirability of train travel, further enabling improvements to the dynamic between freight and passenger rail. Next, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an agency that administers rail funding, can then focus on improving existing rail lines so they can handle newer, faster trains via infrastructure funding allocations. Existing infrastructure is one of the main limitations currently for passenger rail travel. Many railroads feature sharp curves, old bridges, and tunnels that trains cannot safely travel on at higher speeds[7]. Therefore, infrastructure funds will assist with upgrading current rail to enable the adaptation of higher speed trains. Remaining funds will create new rail lines to expand existing routes to underrepresented areas. These changes will increase accessibility of travel by trains, making them a more competitive option with planes.

Long-term changes will focus on implementing high speed rail infrastructure. Efforts from the U.S. High Speed Rail Association will continue to press the FRA to devote more allocations for high speed rail development. These projects will likely take on a similar form to the current Japanese Shinkansen systems, connecting major cities across the United States with high speed bullet trains. Such high speed rail projects will begin with connecting metropolitan areas that demonstrate high traffic between them. Some strong candidates for the first high speed train services in the U.S. are Los Angeles to San Francisco, the Texas Triangle region, and New York to Boston. High speed rail development is most optimal for these types of city groupings due to the large amounts of commuting traffic and interconnected economies caused by their regional proximity. Although flights will still remain faster than high speed trains, the long wait times experienced at airports will enable such regional high speed train services as a faster alternative when considering total travel time.

From there, the mesh of railroads can be expanded to cover the next group of major cities, and so on until the mesh is strong enough to support the vast majority of Americans' travel needs. After a strong mesh of infrastructure has been built, the U.S. can start to look towards social incentives towards using trains instead of planes.

Social changes[edit | edit source]

Socially, the U.S. needs to shift away from the car and plane based society that exists today. In recent years, the younger generation has started to push more for better rail systems, such as those seen in Europe currently. Once the political changes have been put into effect to make rail travel significantly better, social changes can easily start with pushes away from air travel using things like federal carbon taxes on planes, and high taxes or bans on short term flights under a specific amount of time (likely about 2 hours), as seen in France currently. These changes, although law based at heart, are more aimed to remind the American public that trains are a viable and necessary alternative to planes. As rail ridership increases, more privately owned passenger rail companies will be formed. One possibility is airlines expanding their businesses into the train sector, creating more privately owned rails. Amtrak has made similar changes in the past by offering bus travel when their trains are not accessible[8]. There may be concerns regarding security measures of passenger trains compared to planes, but trains inherently need fewer safety measures by design. Trains also offer fewer restrictions on luggage, more privacy, and more freedom of movement[9]. Promoting the existing benefits of train travel is one step in encouraging people to choose trains. The key for many of these changes is still to wait until rail travel becomes a viable alternative to air travel in terms of time and price so that these social changes are treated more as a pull factor to the new and improved train systems rather than a push factor that could see a lot of backlash from citizens.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

To achieve this vision of trains instead of planes, changes to the technology, politics, and social behaviors surrounding train travel must be credible, desirable, and feasible, which this vision demonstrates. This vision is credible because of the countries referenced around the world that are already implementing variations or portions of the tools described here. Desirable because of the positive impact it would have on fossil fuel emissions and improving the comfort of long distance travel. Finally, feasible because the technology used in this vision largely exists, and where it doesn’t, such as the robotic solutions for controlling trains, the technology exists in other forms of transportation and could be more easily brought over to trains because of their one directional nature.

  1. Tyson, Alec; Funk, Cary; Kennedy, Brian. "What the data says about Americans' views of climate change". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  2. Simon, Mollie (2022-06-16). "Traveling Across the United States the Old-Fashioned Way". Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  3. "Shinkansen high-speed train network in Japan". Japan Station. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  4. Ledsom, Alex. "France Legally Bans Short-Haul Flights—Environmentalists Want More". Forbes. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  5. Uranga, Rachel (2023-12-05). "SoCal to Vegas in two hours? High-speed rail comes closer to reality with $3-billion award". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  6. "Brightline Florida: A Model for Fast, Successful Trains". High Speed Rail Alliance. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  7. "Bullet Trains Are Coming to America. Too Bad Our Rail Lines Can't Handle Them". Popular Mechanics. 2023-09-07. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  8. "Amtrak Thruway Connecting Services Multiply Your Travel Destinations". Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  9. Guide, Travel (2020-09-08). "Amtrak vs Flying: Pros and Cons". Amtrak Guide. Retrieved 2023-12-08.