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Rails, Roads and Emissions

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Message Arshad M Khan

It is common knowledge that emissions affecting climate are least for rail travel in comparison with airplanes or road vehicles. Consequently the $80 billion allocated to rail in an otherwise laudable budget appears paltry.

Why is the US not investing in rail? The usual reason given is that distances are so vast that it's a no-brainer for business travellers to rely on commercial airlines. But the way the technology is advancing, and as Europeans (and the Chinese) have demonstrated, a network of high-speed rail can offer a greener alternative.

Trains are getting faster and new innovations like tilting trains lower the cost of replacement tracks. If 200 mph is being breached more often, then 250 mph should be in our sights. And Elon Musk has proposed vacuum tubes to remove wind resistance and reach even higher speeds.

Yet a 250-mph rail network with average speeds in excess of 200 mph would revolutionize the concept of travel. New York to Chicago in five hours and east to west coast overnight with the possibility of visiting neglected areas out of reach with expressways and airplanes would bring new growth and dynamism where it is needed.

A point to note is prevailing interest rates. They are so low historically that railroad bonds at a competitive interest rate would be snapped up especially if they were guaranteed by the government.

While one can agree with the aims and compassion clearly evident in the president's proposals, the process to achieve them is less clear. In particular on climate change the goal of net-zero emissions within a decade is laudable. But a speedy switchover to electric vehicles raises questions: Simply, how?

The system is geared to internal-combustion engines. Mechanics train for years to become proficient. Aside from that, has anyone wondered what happens to all those large electric car batteries when they have to be replaced? Since lithium used in them is a finite resource, it would have to be recovered or the 80 million tons estimated to be the world's store would eventually be depleted.

Another issue is the electricity used to charge the batteries. If it comes from a coal-fired plant, are we back to square one? Currently about a quarter of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Of course dealing with pollution at the source (like a coal plant) is easier.

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
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