Speeding Into the Future: High-Speed Railways and Their Impact on Sustainability

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By: Derrik Chen

Transportation is evolving with the modern world. Central to this transformation are high-speed railways (HSRs), which are emerging as efficient forms of transportation for both passengers and freight alike. High-speed railways are characterized by rail services reaching or exceeding speeds of 110 miles per hour [1]. HSRs have a unique potential in reducing carbon emissions from inefficient and carbon-intensive transportation, providing great benefits to sustainability.

First invented in 1964 in Japan, HSRs have proven to be environmentally sustainable for many reasons. Firstly, they substitute for other forms of transportation, most notably traditional railways, cars, and other vehicles with high levels of carbon emissions [2]. Trains also use ‘greener forms of electricity,’ including renewable forms of energy, such as biodiesel or solar energy as opposed to carbon-intensive sources of fuel such as coal [3]. New forms of prototypes for Chinese trains can travel upwards of 600 miles per hour, using magnetic levitation and magnetic pull to create a friction-free track for the train to float on. This form of technology acts as a strong replacement for carbon-intensive air travel [4]. Japanese investment management company Triodos claims that HSR lines use 88% less energy and produce 92% fewer carbon emissions per seat than airplanes [3]. The European Federation for Transport and Environment estimate that air traffic within the EU could be cut by as much as 25% if HSR were established throughout the region [5]. HSRs represent unique opportunities to improve inter-city passenger transportation while also reducing carbon emissions.

Creating $4 in economic benefits for every $1 invested, HSRs are the prime example of how investment in sustainable technologies can simultaneously boost productivity and economic activity. According to the American Public Transport Association, every $1 billion investment in HSRs creates roughly 24,000 jobs and reduces expenses on expensive foreign oil. Creating efficient modes of transportation also reduces congestion and boosts productivity [6].

But HSRs are not without flaws, as they have many environmental problems of their own. HSRs are not emissions-free, and their construction requires large amounts of cement and steel, which are carbon-intensive materials [2]. They are also only viable if they can use more sustainable forms of electricity, which is not always guaranteed, as traditional forms of power are more accessible and readily available.

Most HSR projects have taken place in China under the China National Railway Administration (CNRA), which has been developing these projects rapidly since 2008. According to the CNRA, the total length of HSR in China totaled 35,000km, accounting for around two-thirds of the world’s total HSR [2]. California is also investing heavily in HSRs, as studies have argued that HSR can be a viable transportation alternative given its sustainable possibilities [7]. However, disputes over sources of funding and caution about committing state financing are slowing these projects down. HSRs are especially expensive because they require new forms of infrastructure and labor to complete. In particular, the California project, which would connect large urban centers in the state, costs a total of $113 billion and necessitates a spending rate of $1.8 million a day, a hefty fee for policymakers [8].

HSRs represent a unique opportunity to decarbonize and meet sustainability goals for many countries, but they are expensive and require extensive planning to complete projects. The future of transportation is bright – and high-speed railways are sure to be a part of it.

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/definitions/uscode.php?width=840&height=800&iframe=true&def_id=49-USC-1972869930-763116002&term_occur=999&term_src=

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0038012122000933

[3] https://www.railway-technology.com/analysis/high-speed-rail-sustainability/

[4] https://thehill.com/policy/equilibrium-sustainability/3702317-equilibrium-sustainability-new-high-speed-train-flies-on-the-ground/

[5] https://www.transportenvironment.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/2020_07_Air2Rail_Briefing_paper.pdf

[6] https://www.greenbiz.com/article/can-high-speed-rail-finally-become-reality-us

[7] https://news.asu.edu/content/future-major-high-speed-rail-project-looks-green

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/09/us/california-high-speed-rail-politics.html

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Speeding Into the Future: High-Speed Railways and Their Impact on Sustainability
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