The carbon footprint of high-speed rail can be up to 14 times less carbon intensive than car travel and up to 15 times less than aviation - claim industry groups
The European Commission's 2011 Transport White Paper Roadmap to a single European transport area - towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system
outlined ambitious plans for the development of high-speed rail in Europe. Under the proposal, the European HSR network would triple in size by 2030 and be "completed" by 2050 – therefore, helping to ensure that the majority of medium-distance passenger transport can go by rail.
The fundamental justifications for the promotion of HSR are the advantages for society, the economy and the environment that it offers, compared to other modes of transport. With this context in mind - the International Union of Railways, supported by the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies, has recently published two new research papers outlining the ways in which HSR can contribute to a more sustainable transport system. The main report High speed rail and sustainability
considers the social, economic and environmental aspects of HSR, and makes a compelling case for why rail has major advantages in all three areas. An accompanying background report Carbon footprint of high speed rail lines
takes four case studies of high-speed rail lines - two in Europe and two in Asia - and carries out a transparent, robust assessment of carbon emissions for each route; including the planning, construction - track and rolling stock - and operation phases.
Looking at environmental issues, the reports conclude that the carbon footprint of high speed rail can be up to 14 times less carbon intensive than car travel and up to 15 times less than aviation even when measured over the full life-cycle of planning, construction and operation. For example, emissions on the high-speed Méditerranée line from Valence to Marseille average 11.0g CO2 per passenger per kilometre, compared to 151.6g CO2 per passenger per kilometre for a car and 164.0g CO2 per passenger per kilometre by air. The carbon 'pay back' time for this route – the length of time it takes for the carbon emissions saved by the impact of the new high-speed services to overtake the additional carbon emissions produced through the line's construction – was just 5.3 years.
New high-speed lines can lead to significant reductions in CO2 emissions by creating modal shift from air to rail. For example, 48,000 less tonnes of CO2 are now produced on the Madrid to Seville corridor following completion of the high-speed line - and have a lower direct land-take requirement than roads. And HSR, which is only operated on the electrified network, can directly benefit from the "greening" of the energy supply network - which over time will reduce its carbon emissions even further. The research also provides a strong rebuttal to a common objection to HSR, that the energy required to power a high-speed train is much greater than that needed at conventional speed. In fact - HSR trains can be just as energy efficient as, or even better than conventional trains, for four main reasons.
First and most importantly, the higher capacity utilisation or load factor of HSR can make the energy consumption per passenger smaller than that achieved on conventional trains. Second, the higher permitted speed in the downhill phase leads to lighter braking. This means that less kinetic energy is lost during braking and less energy is needed to maintain speed on following level or climbing sections. Thirdly, in some cases the distance between two stations on HSR routes is shorter and more direct than on conventional lines. This reduces the energy consumption per passenger kilometre.
In Spain, for example, the average distance of HSR lines is 13 per cent shorter than that of the conventional lines between the same points. Finally, the energy consumed by auxiliary services of the train - compressors, ventilators, heating, air conditioning, lighting and so on - decreases as the same proportion to the average speed increases. A 50 per cent increase in the average speed typically means a 29 per cent reduction in the energy consumed by the auxiliary services.
The economic benefits of high-speed rail are also clear. It supports and helps economic development in the cities that are linked by routes. An example often cited is the French city of Lille, where a new inner-city high-speed station was built to help stimulate regeneration of the city. Over a 13-year period from 1990-2003, the number of tourists in the city increased by a factor of 15. Employment is another key factor for the economy and for society as a whole. According to the French rail network manager Réseau Ferré de France, the number of jobs created or saved by the six years of construction for the Ligne à Grande Vitesse Est stands at around 63,000 – partially, due to the demand of civil works enterprises.
The Madrid-Valencia HSR line has created more than 100,000 direct jobs during the construction period from 2004-2010, while during the first five years of service 135,000 permanent jobs were created. To summarise, we have to underline the sustainability benefits that putting our trust in high-speed rail would bring; in addition to the wider benefits that it offers for the travelling public. The commission has outlined its vision of how HSR can be developed. It is now up to the railways and to European Union member states themselves to help realise this vision, so that all these benefits can become reality. Matthew Ledbury is senior environment adviser at the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies and Alex Veitch is head of the sustainable development unit at the International Union of Railways