EarthTalk: If train travel is so much less
polluting than driving or flying, why are passenger rail
options in the U.S. so limited compared to Europe? And is
anything being done to shift more travelers over to American
rail lines from cars and planes?
-- Jeffrey Orenstein, Bradenton, FL
U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to resuscitate
train travel, which had dropped significantly since
its peak in 1929. But ridership is low compared to
that of other developed countries. The Obama Administration
has now allocated $8 billion to upgrade and increase
speeds on existing lines and create new high-speed
lines in 10 corridors nationwide. Pictured: an Amtrak
train passes south of Manassas, VA on a Sunday afternoon.
© J.P. Mueller, courtesy Flickr
true that train travel is one of the lowest impact ways
to get from point to point short of walking, jogging or
bicycling. In the early part of the 20th century, with car
and air travel both in their infancies, taking the train
was really the only practical way for Americans to get from
city to city. And take the train they did: By 1929 the U.S.
boasted one of the largest and most used rail networks in
the world, with some 65,000 railroad passenger cars in operation
across some 265,000 miles of track.
a concerted campaign by U.S. carmakers to acquire rail lines
and close them, along with a major push in Congress to build
the world’s most extensive interstate highway system,
combined to shift Americans’ tastes away from rail
travel and toward cars. As a result, while Europe focused
on building its own rail networks, the U.S. became the ultimate
auto nation, with more cars per capita than anywhere else
in the world. By 1965 only 10,000 rail passenger cars were
in operation across just 75,000 miles of track.
response to the declining use of America’s rail network,
the U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to provide intercity
passenger train service across the country, running mostly
on pre-existing track already in use for freight transport.
Today Amtrak runs some 1,500 rail passenger cars on 21,000
miles of track connecting 500 destinations in 46 states.
In 2008, upwards of 28 million passengers rode Amtrak trains,
representing the sixth straight year of record ridership
for the publicly-owned rail line. Despite this growth, the
U.S. still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usage rates
in the developed world.
that may all change soon. In the spring of 2009, President
Obama allocated $8 billion of his stimulus package toward
development of more high-speed rail lines across the country,
citing the need to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions
and reliance on foreign oil. Currently only one high-speed
rail line exists in the U.S., Amtrak’s Acela Express,
which can reach speeds of 150 mile per hour on its Washington,
D.C. to Boston route. The success of high-speed, high-efficiency
“bullet” trains in Asia and Europe—where
train rides can be as fast as flying but without the long
waits and security hassles—has helped convince American
transportation analysts that the U.S. should also take the
high speed rail plunge.
first round of federal funding will go toward upgrading
and increasing speeds on existing lines, but the majority
of it will be used to jump-start construction of new high
speed lines in 10 corridors across the country, including
in northern New England, across New York State, across Pennsylvania,
in and around Chicago, throughout the Southeast, and up
and down the length of the west coast.
2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center
for Neighborhood Technology concluded that building a high
speed rail system across the U.S. (similar in scope to that
proposed by Obama) would likely result in 29 million fewer
car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights each year, saving
six billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions—the
equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.
Neighborhood Technology; Center
for Clean Air Policy.
EarthTalk: To what extent does human population
growth impact global warming, and what can be done about
-- Larry LeDoux, Honolulu, HI
population numbers in rapidly developing countries
must stabilize if efforts to curb emissions aren't
to be erased by sheer numbers of more people. Many
experts believe the answer to curbing population growth
lies in: reducing poverty and infant mortality; increasing
women's and girls‚ access to health care, education
and economic opportunity; and educating women about
birth control and ensuring access to voluntary family
© Jake Brewer, courtesy Flickr
No doubt human
population growth is a major contributor to global warming,
given that humans use fossil fuels to power their increasingly
mechanized lifestyles. More people means more demand for
oil, gas, coal and other fuels mined or drilled from below
the Earth’s surface that, when burned, spew enough
carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere to trap warm air
inside like a greenhouse.
the United Nations Population Fund, human population grew
from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion people during the course
of the 20th century. (Think about it: It took all of time
for population to reach 1.6 billion; then it shot to 6.1
billion over just 100 years.) During that time emissions
of CO2, the leading greenhouse gas, grew 12-fold. And with
worldwide population expected to surpass nine billion over
the next 50 years, environmentalists and others are worried
about the ability of the planet to withstand the added load
of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and wreaking
havoc on ecosystems down below.
consume the lion’s share of fossil fuels. The United
States, for example, contains just five percent of world
population, yet contributes a quarter of total CO2 output.
But while population growth is stagnant or dropping in most
developed countries (except for the U.S., due to immigration),
it is rising rapidly in quickly industrializing developing
nations. According to the United Nations Population Fund,
fast-growing developing countries (like China and India)
will contribute more than half of global CO2 emissions by
2050, leading some to wonder if all of the efforts being
made to curb U.S. emissions will be erased by other countries’
adoption of our long held over-consumptive ways.
global warming and consumption patterns are inextricably
linked in their collective global environmental impact,”
reports the Global Population and Environment Program at
the non-profit Sierra Club. “As developing countries’
contribution to global emissions grows, population size
and growth rates will become significant factors in magnifying
the impacts of global warming.”
the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit environmental think
tank, the overriding challenges facing our global civilization
are to curtail climate change and slow population growth.
“Success on these two fronts would make other challenges,
such as reversing the deforestation of Earth, stabilizing
water tables, and protecting plant and animal diversity,
much more manageable,” reports the group. “If
we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population,
there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.”
experts believe the answer lies in improving the health
of women and children in developing nations. By reducing
poverty and infant mortality, increasing women’s and
girls’ access to basic human rights (health care,
education, economic opportunity), educating women about
birth control options and ensuring access to voluntary family
planning services, women will choose to limit family size.
Nations Population Fund; Sierra
Club’s Global Population and Environment Program;
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