Worldwatch Paper #118: Back on Track: The Global Rail Revival

April 1994
Marcia D. Lowe
ISBN: 1-878071-19-X
54 pages

A growing world transportation crisis is driving government funding away from building roads and airports and toward a global rail revival. This investment is providing an economic boon to the regions involved.

European planners are creating a high-speed rail system connecting every major European city. China plans a $20 billion investment in rail expansion and upgrading by 1995. Germany will invest more in rail infrastructure than in roads through the year 2010. And India's rail passenger traffic has risen more than fourfold since 1950. Even the land of the car, Southern California, is building a 400-mile Los Angeles regional commuter rail system.

Road building and car production still dominate transportation budgets worldwide. But in many places planners have discovered that continued building of more roads and airports worsens problems of gridlock, pollution and safety. Their computer models and practical experience show that a move back to trains and away from lopsided dependence on cars and highways can foster economic growth, save lives and energy, and stem pollution.

Perhaps the most welcome benefit of the rail revival is economic, according to the new study. Although government support of rail is necessary -- since passenger fares seldom cover the full cost of train service -- this subsidy pales in comparison to the hidden costs of road travel. For example, in the United States, few people realize that direct taxes on automobiles and gasoline barely cover two thirds of the cost of road building, maintenance, administration and safety.

Additional social costs of car and air travel -- including accidents, lost time, and loss of quality of life -- are obvious to planners and economists, and are increasingly counted as a real drag on the economy. The social costs of car travel in 11 countries studied is nearly twice that of air travel and seven times that of trains.

Urban trains typically encourage compact, high-value land use rather than the sprawling development that highways and airports attract. Victoria Station in London, Brussels' Central terminal, and Washington, D.C.'s Union Station have all sparked redevelopment in declining urban cores as centers for lively complexes of offices, restaurants, and shops.

Energy savings are also considerable. For every kilometer of travel, an intercity passenger train uses only one-third as much energy per rider as a commercial airplane, and one-sixth as much as a car carrying only the driver. In the United States, annual damage to human and environmental health from vehicular emissions is estimated at up to $93 billion. Subways and light rail, on the other hand, slash urban smog, cut nitrogen oxide emissions from each trip by 60 percent compared to a car carrying one person, and nearly eliminate carbon monoxide emissions.

Experts at the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment unofficially estimate that congestion costs now actually equal or exceed the dollars that federal, state, and local governments spend on building and maintaining highways each year. The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that productivity losses from highway congestion cost the nation some $100 billion annually.

"Winglock" -- the new name for airport traffic jams -- creates further economic drag. The International Air Traffic Association estimates Europe's losses at $10 billion a year due to air traffic tie-ups. In the United States, flight delays from crowded air and runway space cost airlines and businesses at least $5 billion a year. Rail has proven it can relieve costly air traffic congestion. A dramatic example lies in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where trains travel between New York and Washington at speeds up to 200 kilometers an hour. Their speed and relatively low cost help explain why Amtrak, the U.S. national passenger rail service, carries more passengers on that route than any airline.

Recent studies show that rail can even make expensive new airports unnecessary since many short trips could more easily be served by trains. Amtrak and the Coalition of Northeast Governors concluded that spending an estimated $1.3 billion to finish the electrification and upgrading of the Boston-New York rail corridor will displace 50 flights per day at Boston's Logan Airport. The improvements may eliminate the need for Boston's controversial proposed second airport, which has a price tag of $5-10 billion.

Europeans are planning a high-speed rail network to connect Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Iberian Peninsula, and Britain to relieve congestion at near-capacity European airports. Europe faces a 74-percent increase in air travel as a result of the new single market, and 30 major European airports will reach full capacity in six years.

Railways also move people and freight in far less space than roads. Two railroad tracks can carry as many people in an hour as a 16-lane wide highway. And compare Chicago's sprawling O'Hare airport -- the world's busiest with 60 million passengers a year - - with Paris' Saint-Lazare train station, which handles more than twice that number in a fraction of the space.

The advantages of rail are compelling, and the payback of the global rail revival promises to be huge. But an effective shift toward greater use of rail will come only if governments reduce subsidies that promote driving, and require urban and suburban growth to fit into compact patterns that encourage a transportation mix including trains, buses, walking, and bicycles.