Sunday, April 26, 2009

Revolutionizing US Transportation

US transportation sector is one of the most oil exhaustive of all oil consuming end use areas in US. It consumes almost 70% of the total oil consumption in US, of which 3/4th is consumed on highway transportation. Highway transportation in US is very energy intensive, though technology has advanced in the areas of safety and fuel economy, but the overall oil consumption in the sector has increased over the years. It seems almost imperative now, that to reduce oil consumption (energy consumption) in transportation, railways will prove to be a viable option. 

Recently, in a press release on 16th April, the US President announced his plans for a high speed passenger trains. 

“The report formalizes the identification of ten high-speed rail corridors as potential recipients of federal funding. Those lines are: California, Pacific Northwest, South Central, Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire and Northern New England. Also, opportunities exist for the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to compete for funds to improve the nation’s only existing high-speed rail service.

According to the release, $ 13 billion would be provided from the Federal funds to develop this mass transit system ($ 8 billion from the stimulus bill and $ 1 billion each year for 5 years), which is basically regional in nature, as can be seen in the figure above. The investment will drip in with $ 1 billion every year for 5 years to give a jump start to the project. It is quite clear from such an initiative that the government plans to develop a good efficient energy saving system for transportation. President Obama went on to say “My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America.  We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.” The point in question is that, this project would equate to remove 1 million cars from roads, which would not only save a lot of fuel, but also contribute towards reduce CO2 emissions.

Even after such a huge impetus to roll out these high speed passenger trains, with the launch of plug in hybrids and electric cars in general, I wonder if this rail transit system would prove as economical and as energy efficient as plug-in hybrids are ? Initial capital investment is heavy in both, but which one proves to be more economical will hold the key for America’s future way of transportation. For PHEV’s we already have a well developed highway infrastructure, while the infrastructure for such high speed rails is being built now. I guess, speed holds the key in this case, present rail transportation has two problems 1. It is not as economical as driving a car and 2. It has speed limitation imposed. With high speed passenger trains rolling in, speed problem is almost solved but nothing can be said about how economical would  it prove eventually.



combustible said...

I think this is an awesome idea and would absolutely promote economic stimulation. People would be able to commute to work from further distances, reducing on the amount of gasoline burned. This could also have a great impact on how people travel for vacation.

Chris Smith said...

As a Texan boy, I am always amazed by the intricate public transportation rail systems of other big U.S. and International cities. I am even more amazed that similar systems aren't more prevalant in major Southern cities. Just this past week I was in Philadelphia for the first time for a conference on sustainability. I was able to easily traverse across the city on the rail system and enjoyed the ease with which such travel was made. Even better, you don't have to deal with the frustration of traffic!! I could pat myself on the back for being sustainable in my inter-city travel. I also noticed that the system was connected to all major cities in the North. I thought to myself how wonderful it would be for a similar system to exist in the South. A system that connected Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston just makes logical sense. The amount of business travel b/w these cities alone would easily support such a system. Hopefully, this happens in the near future. High-speed rail seems to be such a great way to stimulate the economy while reducing our dependence on oil and reducing our carbon footprint!!

Mark McCarthy said...

I agree with Chris that this would be an excellent improvement within the south and in Texas in particular. I can't think of anyone that ever has to travel between Houston and Austin that hasn't complained about the traffic, particularly at rush hour. It's a pretty good bet that a lot of those people would far rather be getting work done while traveling by train than being stuck in traffic for hours.
One major problem that would have to be overcome, though, particularly in the south, is the lack of good infrastructure at the local level. It only does me a limited amount of good to be able to get to Houston quickly if I can't get where I need to go after that. That's one advantage that cars definitely have over mass transit, and something that will have to be addressed for high speed trains to displace significant volumes of cars for intercity travel.

vik said...

To add to what Mark and Chris say above, the expansion in the rail system should also include a component to expand the local subway systems which should be integrated with the rail network such that there are a number of transfer points where people can seamlessly make transfers from the inter city rail systems to the subways and vice versa. This would solve the problem of local travel within cities. A good example would be the system that exists in the NYC region.