When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, critics jumped on it immediately – it can’t be done, it’s too expensive, etc. I want to debunk one of these critiques, and that is that carbon-intensive air travel cannot be replaced with (eventually green) electricity-powered rail travel.
People often cite the size of the country and large distances between cities as the number one reason. The story goes, we used to have regional and cross-country rail, but now we have cars and planes and the former were rendered obsolete. A lot of people have covered why regional transport (think up to 200 miles), now covered by car as flying is not economical, can be effectively replaced by high-speed rail. The definition of high-speed rail requires a speed of at least 125 mph and if sustained, this provides much faster travel than by car (not to mention that it is congestion-free) and a comparable total travel time to air.
But, what about cross-country? Surely this is the domain of air travel given the vastness of the country? Let’s calculate some travel times from our corner here in Seattle (good for accounting for the longest flights possible).
Look at those travel times! So we average almost 440 mph when going to Chicago. The times above are gate to gate including taxi time, or basically the time indicated by airlines. But airport travel involves so much more rigmarole than that!
First, airports are located outside of population centers, usually on one side of the metro area. While they may be convenient to get to for some, usually they involve at least half an hour of travel for most residents of the metro. Second, at the airport one has to walk a fair bit, get through security, get to the gate, etc. It’s risky to arrive at the airport less than one hour before the flight. And third, at the other end of the flight, there is some more walking required, plus finding a cab, or a parked car (let’s consider this to be 15 min), plus one also has another half an hour of travel to their final destination. So, the total travel time must be increased by 2h 15m.
With the times to/at/from the airport the map changes…
All of a sudden, our amazing speed to Chicago dropped to 277 mph. Even the longest stretch, Seattle to Miami averages 342 mph.
But surely that’s still far beyond even the fastest operating trains, China Railway’s CR400 series, with an operating speed of 218 mph?
Well, that’s only half the story.
Most modern trains can reach a much higher speed than there is track for. The CR400 series mentioned above, for example, were designed to operate at 249 mph. But to really see what’s possible we have to look at tests. This is where the world record winner for conventional steel rail is the French TGV150. It travelled at a speed of…
Now, we still have to calculate the time to/at/from a train station, but at 357 mph, we actually have a chance to be competitive with air. Before I go there, you may question my use of a test train for this example. So, a few points:
- The test was done on an existing conventional steel railway with an existing train and in far back 2007. Modifications were done, but this is not a rare magnetic levitation train or completely unproven hyperloop.
- The modifications included:
- They used two locomotives and three double-decker passenger cars with powered bogies, instead of a longer train with unpowered cars. The passengers cars had capacity for 240 seats. That’s still significantly more than the 181 seats on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900.
- The locomotives used larger wheels – negligible cost increase when done from the get go.
- They made slight aerodynamic improvements – again, fairly negligible when done during manufacturing.
- The overhead power was supplied at 31 kV instead of 25 kV. Again, negligible, some slower lines operate at 50 kV.
- The tension of the overhead wires was increased.
- The track super-elevation was changed (again, negligible if done this way when built).
- While this isn’t an off-the-shelf product, the point is that, if we set out design a line for 357 mph operation, it is completely achievable. We are trying to have a manned mission to Mars (never been done before), while this is something that has already been achieved and we can absolutely beat.
Train passing by at 357 mph (chased by a jet for aerial video, as helicopters can’t go anywhere near that fast):
Ok, back to our map. So, to add rail to it, let’s first calculate the time to/at/from the railway station. Railway stations are usually in the downtown of the central city of a region, which is much easier to access both by car and public transport. All the roads tend to lead there.
Let’s assume 20 minutes travel time on each end. Then, at the station, one does not have to go through security and usually just has to walk to the train and hop on. Let’s allow for 20 minutes for that, for a total of 1 hour for to/at/from station.
Now, let’s add rail to the map with a travel speed of 350 mph (accounting for some stops) and a 1 hour overhead.
So all of a sudden, rail becomes faster than air not just for regional trips, but also for most cross-country trips. Faster than air!
In fact, it is only the longest possible trip, Seattle to Miami, where air has a noticeable 9% travel time advantage.
Now, you may ask many more questions – what about intermediate stops, where exactly should the rail lines go, etc etc. All of these are solvable. In fact, they were solved 100 years ago optimized for the railway technology of the time, and can be solved again today, optimized for the high-tech high-speed trains of the day. And again, using achievable upgrades to existing technology, not using unproven or overly expensive technology like maglev or hyperloop.
Our local initiative here in the Pacific Northwest is the study for building high-speed rail between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
In conclusion, we should not cease to be bold and dream big. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to congress the highly ambitious goal of putting a person on the moon by the end of the decade. There had never been a manned landing on a celestial body before. On July 20, 1969, just a little over 8 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on our closest satellite in a moment followed live by almost the entire population of Earth. This country was built on entrepreneurial innovative thinking and fearless pushing of boundaries. The Green New Deal is a perfect embodiment of that. Let’s make it happen.