The comprehensiveness of environmental assessments of future long-distance travel that include high-speed rail (HSR) are constrained by several methodological, institutional, and knowledge gaps that must and can be addressed. These gaps preclude a robust understanding of the changes in environmental, human health, resource, and climate change impacts that result from the implementation of HSR in the United States. The gaps are also inimical to an understanding of how HSR can be positioned for 21st century sustainability goals. Through a synthesis of environmental studies, the gaps are grouped into five overarching grand challenges. They include a spatial incompatibility between HSR and other long-distance modes that is often ignored, an environmental review process that obviates modal alternatives, siloed interest in particular environmental impacts, a dearth of data on future vehicle and energy sources, and a poor understanding of secondary impacts, particularly in land use. Recommendations are developed for institutional investment in multimodal research, knowledge and method building around several topics. Ultimately, the environmental assessment of HSR should be integrated in assessments that seek to understand the complementary and competitive configurations of transportation services, as well as future accessibility.
High Speed Rail
There is significant experience and research on the competition and complementarity of air and high-speed rail (HSR) modes. In synthesizing the body of literature, reviewers focused on government-driven environmental comparisons and academic literature. Both government environmental reviews and academic studies have provided valuable insight into comparative assessments of air and HSR systems; however, institutional mechanisms coupled with methodological advances and tool development are needed to ensure that future long-distance transportation systems are deployed in ways that minimize impacts while improving mobility.
High-speed Rail with Emerging Automobiles and Aircraft Can Reduce Environmental Impacts in California's FutureEnvironmental Research Letters, 2012, 7(3), 034012, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034012
Sustainable mobility policy for long-distance transportation services should consider emerging automobiles and aircraft as well as infrastructure and supply chain life-cycle effects in the assessment of new high-speed rail systems. Using the California corridor, future automobiles, high-speed rail and aircraft long-distance travel are evaluated, considering emerging fuel-efficient vehicles, new train designs and the possibility that the region will meet renewable electricity goals. An attributional per passenger-kilometer-traveled life-cycle inventory is first developed including vehicle, infrastructure and energy production components. A consequential life-cycle impact assessment is then established to evaluate existing infrastructure expansion against the construction of a new high-speed rail system. The results show that when using the life-cycle assessment framework, greenhouse gas footprints increase significantly and human health and environmental damage potentials may be dominated by indirect and supply chain components. The environmental payback is most sensitive to the number of automobile trip takers shifted to high-speed rail and for greenhouse gases is likely to occur in 20–30 years. A high-speed rail system that is deployed with state-of-the-art trains, electricity that has met renewable goals, and in a configuration that endorses high ridership will provide significant environmental benefits over existing modes. Opportunities exist for reducing the long-distance transportation footprint by incentivizing large automobile trip shifts, meeting clean electricity goals and reducing material production effects.
California is planning to spend $40 billion to build a high speed rail system from San Diego to Sacramento. Advocates argue that high speed rail will save money and improve the environment, while critics claim it will waste money and harm the environment. What accounts for these diametrically opposed views about a technology that has been operating in other countries for decades? And what can transportation analysts offer to inform the debate? Disagreements about the cost and environmental impacts of high speed rail can arise when analysts examine only the most direct effects of the rail system, and compare those to only the direct effects of road and air travel—-the two transportation modes from which high speed rail will likely draw passengers. But transportation energy use and emissions result not only from the direct effects of operating the vehicles but also from indirect effects, such as building the infrastructure, producing the fuels, manufacturing the vehicles, maintaining the system, and disposing of materials at the end of their lives. The full range of emissions from automobile travel, for example, includes not only tailpipe emissions but also the emissions created by building roads and parking garages, manufacturing cars, extracting and refining petroleum, and, finally, wrecking yards and tire dumps. One approach to environmental and cost-benefit analysis that takes both these direct and indirect effects into account is life-cycle assessment. In this article we use life-cycle assessment to compare the energy use and pollution emissions of high speed rail and its competing modes.
The state of California is expected to have significant population growth in the next half-century resulting in additional passenger transportation demand. Planning for a high-speed rail system connecting San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento as well as many population centers between is now underway. The considerable investment in California high-speed rail has been debated for some time and now includes the energy and environmental tradeoffs. The per-trip energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and other emissions are often compared against the alternatives (automobiles, heavy rail, and aircraft), but typically only considering vehicle operation. An environmental life-cycle assessment of the four modes was created to compare both direct effects of vehicle operation and indirect effects from vehicle, infrastructure, and fuel components. Energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and SO2, CO, NOX, VOC, and PM10 emissions were evaluated. The energy and emission intensities of each mode were normalized per passenger kilometer traveled by using high and low occupancies to illustrate the range in modal environmental performance at potential ridership levels. While high-speed rail has the potential to be the lowest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, appropriate planning and continued investment would be needed to ensure sustained high occupancy. The time to environmental payback is discussed highlighting the ridership conditions where high-speed rail will or will not produce fewer environmental burdens than existing modes. Furthermore, environmental tradeoffs may occur. High-speed rail may lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per trip but can create more SO2 emissions (given the current electricity mix) leading to environmental acidification and human health issues. The significance of life-cycle inventorying is discussed as well as the potential of increasing occupancy on mass transit modes.