38 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: The high emissions of flying”

  1. Well said!

    Time for Democrats to put their money where their mouth is, and invest in HSR. Sounds like a component of a Green New Deal.

    1. HSR makes sense in corridors where it can be built relatively cheaply, especially if the private sector is willing to pay for it (Houston/Dallas). But, when were talking about $100+ billion in public money (Seattle/Portland), you could probably get a lot more emissions reduction per dollar spent by focusing on transportation within the two big cities, rather than between them.

      It’s also disingenuous to say that everyone who rides a train would have flown has the train not been there. Just as new highway lanes induce demand, HSR induces demand also. Many of the trips are new trips that would not have happened, not substitutes for higher-emission travel modes.

      1. Continuous HOV/HOT lanes on I-5 from north of Everett to south of JBLM would also make a big difference, as well as HOV/HOT lanes across the Columbia River. This would allow intercity buses to reliably make the trip in about 2 hours and 45 minutes, which is significantly faster than the train currently travels. WSDOT is slowly making progress on this but we’ve still got a ways to go.

      2. Squints: Those lanes would have to be bus exclusive lanes for it to really be reliable. Our HOV lanes don’t move much faster than the general lanes when there is any kind of significant traffic issue, which is often the case. They don’t work when you need them to work the most.

      3. The problem is that HOV 2+ isn’t enough to provide reliable service. The problem simply boils down to math. An average vehicle occupancy of 1.2 means at least 1 in 5 vehicles are carrying multiple passengers. If 1 in 5 lanes is HOV 2+, then you simply end up with 1 in 5 lanes carrying 1/5th of the cars, so, of course it’s going to be just as congested as the other lanes. Especially on weekends, when you have families going places together and the average vehicle occupancy stat is higher.

        As we’ve seen on 520, HOV 3+ is pretty reliable, certainly much more reliable than existing Amtrak Cascades service, which has traffic issues of its own resulting from sharing the track with freight trains.

      4. I am pretty sure that, except at commute hours, about 20 to 25 percent of all the vehicles on a freeway have at least two people in them. If a freeway has at least three or four general lanes, an HOV2 lane becomes pretty useless as a faster lane (and HOT would add vehicles and make it more likely to be useless). HOV3 is pretty much needed to be a useful time savings for overall traffic (except for the highest commute congestion hours).

  2. The US geography and geological features make HSR particularly challenging, especially for coast to coast trips. I often travel to the east coast on short trips and even HSR would take time for 2600 mile journeys. Air Travel is the only feasabile form of transportation.

    1. Topography is just an excuse by politicians. Russia and China have similar large expanses of low-population areas yet still manage to have trains between them. Span has expanses similar to Texas and the midwest yet still has several high-speed rail lines between its cities. You don’t start with North Dakota or Chicago-LA or Dallas-LA and give up saying the distances are too large. You start with the east coast, midwest, Texas, and west coast, that are similar to the many European and Asian success stories, and then figure out what to do about the gap between the midwest and the west coast.

      1. Russia and China do have 2000+ mile long train routes. But, just like here, those routes exist mostly for railfans, while mainstream people traverse those distances in airplanes.

        China is miles ahead of us of trains, but I believe it’s mostly the short-haul, 100-300 mile trip market, where trains do well.

      2. asdf2 is correct – my understanding is that generally speaking HSR can pencil out well for trips under 500 miles dependent on topography and population; longer than that and people other than tourists will fly. Despite Europe’s amazing rail systems, there’s a huge reason why there’s a proliferation of airlines there now (Ryanair, EasyJet, WizzAir, and the national carriers to name a few).

        I’m taking the train from Madrid to Paris next month, but that’s because I want to. Even with the TGV and Spanish high-speed services that’s an 11 hour trip between major capitals… or a two-hour flight (for only $50 more). If I were going to Barcelona, different story – the train would clearly be the way to go.

        Even with a robust high-speed rail push in this country the space between the Mississippi River and the Cascades/Sierra will not be filled with speeding trains in our lifetimes (and beyond). Just like with in-city transport there are different modes that work best for different needs, and HSR between Fargo and Spokane is not one of them.

      3. “HSR between Fargo and Spokane is not one of them”

        Red herring. Vancouver to Portland. SF to LA. LA to Las Vegas. Minneapolis-Chicago-Cleveland. Cleveland to New York. DC to Atlanta. Dallas-Houston-San Antonio-Austin. We should have had these twenty years ago.

      4. What red herring, Mike? You go on about “Russia and China have similar large expanses of low-population areas” in response to a comment specifically about HSR. My response, also specifically about HSR, is clearly about our “large expanses of low-population areas” as well, and my opinion that they will NEVER have HSR in our lifetimes as we do not have the command economy, cheap labor, and lack of environmental and property protections that China has. Hardly a red herring to discuss the same topic the original poster made.

        Of course we should have had HSR between major city groups such as you mentioned, and more than 20 years ago. That’s not what the original post was about, nor does it have anything to do with my opinion that the gap between Fargo and Spokane is not a solvable question for anything other than tourist travel. The original post is specifically about coast-to-coast HSR travel.

        (Russia has three – sort of – HSR lines and aside from the obvious Moscow to St Petersburg line, continuing to Helsinki, the only other one is the relatively short not-quite-HSR one of about 300 miles from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. This hardly covers the “large expanses” of Russia. It remains to be seen if Russia, with a similar sized economy to Italy, will ever actually be able to complete any of their other proposed lines.)

      5. If climate change is bearing down on us, these arguments about travel time are going to be pointless. If we have to cut emissions, we have to cut emissions. We need to start traveling on less polluting forms of transport. If that means longer journey times to avoid calamity, then that’s what you do. Only if you ignore climate change can these ridiculous arguments be had, and that’s a hell of a blind spot. Future generations won’t forgive either. It doesn’t really sound like flying will be much of an option in most cases.

        Also, it’s weird that we talk about how costly it would be to put in trains when we had no problem building and operating airports and roads of all sorts publicly. Why should trains be held to a different standard? We got the money. Let’s build the fastest trains available, maybe maglev. You’d get from NYC to LA fairly fast that way. Averaging 250 MPH, you’d get there in 11 hours instead of 6 hours 20 minutes by plane. Of course, how often do most of us make such a long flight? It’s still way faster than what was common before flying was the norm. Two thirds of flights are under 500 miles, aren’t they? Just taking those puppies out of the equation would go a long way, and a few hours sacrifice to save the planet doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

      6. OK, I’m just tired of “We can’t do Fargo” being used as an excuse to turn away from rail completely. I don’t care as much whether it’s high-speed as long as it’s there. Our current system only really supports flying and driving. Otherwise you’ve got barely-existing Greyhound and even less-existing Amtrak. The biggest problem is frequency: most Amtrak routes are once a day and most Greyhound routes are once or twice a day.

      7. The easiest solution to solve climate change is to cut the population by half. Then you need less of everything, including buses and trains. This would be done in a couple of generations by preventing reproduction.

      8. The birth rate is already going down heavily. It’s below replacement among native-born Americans. The reason the US population is increasing is immigration, and it won’t be able to prop it up much longer. Pugetopolis’ population is rising because job growth in the US is uneven. I think Mexico’s population has reached parity, and China is now feeling the effects of the one-child policy. World population is expected to increase from 7 billion to 11 billion because of the time lag between birth-rate decrease and population decrease (20+ years). The population hump will be in Africa and Asia. Do you want to shoot millions of people in Africa and Asia to bring the population down immediately? There’s no point in doing anything in the US or Europe: our contribution to the world population is already neutral or declining.

        What would be worth doing is for Americans to have smaller houses and yards and neighborhoods that are more walkable and mixed-use so people don’t have to drive as far. The average American house size has ballooned from 600-800 square feet in the 1950s to 1500, then 2000, then 2500 square feet today.

  3. I suspect a lot of the problem here comes not from short haul flights that could conceivably be replaced by trains with enough public tax dollars, but people taking long haul flights that are simply unnecessary. Part of it is businesses that pay for face to face meetings when video conferencing could suffice. Part of it is binge travelers that try to visit every corner of the world and take an overseas vacation flight every 2-3 months. Resort hotels in remote islands in the Pacific probably shouldn’t exist, and will likely soon find themselves underwater, in part because of all their customers flying back and forth.

    And then there are forms of aviation that are even more carbon intensive than commercial flights. Helicopter tourism probably should not exist, and the people who have to listen to it on the ground would probably be very happy to see it go away. And, travel by private jet should absolutely be subject to very steep taxes. Unlike commercial flights, where you can feel sympathy for people that don’t have a lot of money visiting a dying family member across the country, private jets are for the wealthiest 1% of the 1%, and can afford to pay for their impacts.

    And then, there’s all those military planes that nobody talks about that spew out far more carbon than a 747. How many of those flights are really necessary for national security, and how many of them exist only because of bloat in the defense department? Is the public benefit of watching the Blue Angles perform enough to justify their carbon emissions? The answer is probably not, but nobody is willing to ask the question.

    1. This would be great. One can hope that they keep the series VI trains in service, as well, and use the new series VIII trains to increase service. I don’t see how they could cover the current schedule with only 4 series VIII trains. I suppose they could stick Superliners on the PDX-EUG runs, and the morning SEA-VAC run. Those are painfully slow, anyway. One small issue would be the fact that the Wisconsin sets don’t have business class, and I believe the cafe cars are different.

      Note that Talgo is officially suing to correct the errors in the NTSB report:

      The series VI trains are safe, and should be kept in service.

    2. Ugh, this quote is rich:

      “— Washington DOT spokeswoman Janet Matkin tells Trains News Wire, “Amtrak is responsible for supplying appropriate interim equipment to replace Talgo Series VI trainsets currently in service for the Amtrak Cascades system,” but the Federal Railroad Administration is not requiring replacement. She recently told the Seattle Times that her agency wants all Talgo VI trainsets removed from service “as soon as possible” based on a National Transportation Board recommendation. The manufacturer has formally disputed that recommendation [see “Talgo challenges NTSB finding in Cascades accident report,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 1, 2019]. The ongoing conflict between the state and Talgo with Amtrak in the middle has delayed the use of the Series 8s and complicated negotiations.”

      WSDOT and Sound Transit were negligent in the design and implementation of the bypass. They are trying to deflect attention away from their own negligence here.

  4. Any chance that between, say, Vancouver NBC and Portland, automobile travel itself is being subsidized to the point where trains can’t compete? Honest question, and just curious.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Knew it! Just a couple examples.



    What gives me hope is how horrendous traffic jams, often including professional truckers, are every day occasions. Sooner or later, could dawn on people that trains are a solution, and not just subsidized competition for cars.

    Though speaking of horrors, real chill of the month is amount of train service being lost when somebody walks in front of a train. Especially on purpose. Isolating rail right of way, improved video surveillance and heavier trackside patrols might rapidly start to prove their worth.


    1. I think the huge lesson here is that the most effective reply to “ant-tax” folks who want to cut mass transit funding isn’t to argue for transit, but to use their own language: embrace privatization, starting with the stuff historically most subsidized.

      1. As someone who’s generally anti-tax, I agree.

        (Though your typo’s fun; if only we could have ants pay taxes instead of us humans…)

      2. It’s a race down to third world conditions. Transit gets eliminated or put into the hands of for-profit companies who would run only in the high-volume areas and charge twice as much for it. Maybe everything would be peak-only. Everybody who can’t fit into that has to walk or get a car or stay home. The road and car subsidies may or may not be reduced: they’d probably be propped up as a lifeline necessity.

  6. Careful. Recent politics around fossil fuels shows how hard an industry and its backers will fight for a result that leaves a balance sheet in greasy black shreds. Less cars? You don’t like National Defense, do you? Main thing is have your grass-roots politics in fighting condition going in.

    I’m very serious about incorporating public administration into public education at a very early age. Same age, incidentally, that a lot of children really learn to love trains. Shame not to take advantage. Along with machine shop, key step in what should be written into state and Federal law. That school’s main purpose is to create intelligent voters.


    1. National defense would be a hard argument now that multiple generations have grown up without the draft and it’s inconceivable that millions of soldiers would be trucked across the country, much less all at once. It was clearly an excuse to build convenience highways.

      1. Well, the board could give always just give him a push. But that would require them to actually hold the CEO accountable for once instead of just nodding their heads to his talking points.

  7. “This year, Seattle will spend the most it ever has on affordable housing, a total of $110 million, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday…. 1,944 units in a single year.” -Seattle Times

    So it only needs to do that for 75 years to catch up to universal housing affordability. If housing prices don’t rise further during that time.

    1. I want to learn how City of Seattle proposes to build “affordable housing” at an average cost of $56,584 per unit.

  8. The guilt environmentalists live with must be insufferable.

    What happened to “my body, my choice?”

    I’ll travel as I choose. I’ll live my life as I choose. If I want to fly to a fashion show in Paris I will do so. If I want to fly to a concert in Germany I will do so. What business is it of yours?

    Why don’t you ask John Kerry, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jane Fonda, Nancy Pelosi and all the environmental political and Hollyweird hypocrites who travel by private jets how concerned they are about their high emissions of flying?

    Give it a break. Must be exhausting to worry so much in your life while other countries (and hypocrites) don’t give a F about their carbon footprint.

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