Trains as an effective emissions-calming mechanism: There is strength in numbers

320px-FLV_California_train[1]Picking up right where I left off in “Rails versus roads: Infrastructure equality can work wonders,” the use of passenger trains to mitigate harmful emissions can be a very effective means of doing such, provided that: 1) there are trains of sufficient quantity and quality operating; 2) there exists a ridership base sufficient enough to have an impact; and 3) the kind of congestion the roadway network at many times is burdened with is not likewise duplicated in the train operating environment.

The success of any mechanism to reduce emissions is only as strong as its weakest link. And if the weakest link in this case is ridership shortfalls, then that would be a hindrance. So, I wanted to know what the potential for success is with regard to this particular aspect.

Given that I am a United States citizen and given that the motor vehicle in America reigns supreme, what better place is there than this to test the hypothesis outlined in the first paragraph above, especially with regard to aspect number 2 – ridership sufficiency? It is with this in mind that I consulted the “U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Table 1-40: U.S. Passenger-Miles (Millions),” to ascertain data specifically for the purpose of drawing conclusion(s) and, therefore hopefully, supporting my premise.

In getting started, I looked at the history and trends passenger-miles traveled highway compared to railway. I chose years 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2010, the last being the latest year data was available.

In the railway category, included are Amtrak/intercity, Commuter rail, Heavy rail and Light rail. Examples of Commuter, Heavy and Light rail are Caltrain operating between San Francisco and Gilroy, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) Tasman East/Capitol Light Rail Project, respectively, all of which operate in and serve the San Francisco Bay Area.

Rail – passenger-miles traveled (in billions):

  • 2010 – Amtrak/intercity: 6.420, Commuter: 10.774, Heavy: 16.407, Light: 2.173; total: 35.774
  • 2007 – Amtrak/intercity: 5.784, Commuter: 11.137, Heavy: 16.138, Light: 1.930; total: 34.999
  • 2003 – Amtrak/intercity: 5.680, Commuter: 9.555, Heavy: 13.606, Light: 1.476; total: 30.317
  • 2000 – Amtrak/intercity: 5.498, Commuter: 9.400, Heavy: 13.844, Light: 1.339; total: 30.081
  • 1997 – Amtrak/intercity: 5.166, Commuter: 8.037, Heavy: 12.056, Light: 1.024; total: 26.283

The percentage change of rail passenger miles from 1997 to 2010 is +36.1 percent.

In the highway category, on the other hand, included are Light-Duty Vehicle (LDV), Motorcycle, Bus and Trolley Bus.

Highway – passenger-miles traveled (in billions):

  • 2010 – LDV: 3,645.367, Motorcycle: 19.886, Bus: 292.319, Trolley bus: .169; total: 3,957.741
  • 2007 – LDV: 4,342.054, Motorcycle: 27.173, Bus: 307.753, Trolley bus: .156; total: 4,677.136
  • 2003 – LDV: 4,156.321, Motorcycle: 14.457, Bus: 283.699, Trolley bus: .176; total: 4,464.653
  • 2000 – LDV: 3,959.491, Motorcycle: 15.463, Bus: 313.897, Trolley bus: .192; total: 4,289.043
  • 1997 – LDV: 3,741.740, Motorcycle: 11.089, Bus: 145.060, Trolley bus: .189; total: 3,898.078

The percentage change of highway passenger miles from 1997 to 2010 is +1.53 percent.

While the growth in railway passenger miles traveled increased by more than 36 percent between 1997 and 2010, the growth in highway passenger miles traveled during that time rose slightly at just a percent-and-a-half.

Also interesting to note is that from the time the Great Recession hit in 2007 until 2010 – a period of three years – there was an uptick in rail passenger miles traveled while the opposite was true of highway passenger miles traveled: +2.21 percent (rail) versus -18.2 percent (highway).

Moreover, on Amtrak’s 457-mile Northeast Corridor connecting Boston and Washington, D.C., between Boston and the Big Apple (New York City), Amtrak enjoys 55 percent of the air vs. rail market and on the section between the latter and D.C., Amtrak’s air-rail market share is 75 percent.

What all of the above tells me is that as a contender, rail is quite successful at drawing ridership whether in good economic times or in bad.

So, based on ridership trends, quite compelling is the argument in favor of passenger rail travel compared to motor vehicle travel. Also quite compelling is the inclination for greater emissions reductions gains rail vs. road.

As the expression goes, “Build it and they will come.” With commencement of construction of California’s 800-mile – and America’s first – high-speed rail line just weeks away, what expression could be more fitting?!

– Alan Kandel