Railing Against Transportation Emissions
A few years ago, I traveled by train in China at speeds greater than 120 mph. I’ve often wondered since then why such high-speed rail travel has not been developed in the U.S. Given the many environmental advantages of rail over automobiles, the decision to invest in improvements to the rail infrastructure in this country seems like a no-brainer. The fuel economy performance of light-duty vehicles – passenger cars, SUVs and pickups – and freight trucks has been dismal in recent years.
In fact, the average fuel economy of light-duty vehicles has not improved substantially since the early 1990s. And trucks have actually become less fuel efficient.
Between 1990 and 2005, carbon dioxide emissions increased 13 percent per ton-mile of freight hauled by trucks, according to the April 2010 U.S. Department of Transportation Report to Congress, “Transportation’s Role in Reducing US Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”
The same DOT report shows the fuel efficiency of rail has been steadily improving since 1990, posting a 21.5 percent reduction in fuel used per ton-mile. Indeed, compared to all other modes of freight transportation, freight rail has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) per ton-mile.
Statistics for freight rail are more significant compared to passenger rail, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the total GHG emissions for rail transportation as a whole. Even so, passenger rail is a very efficient means of transport.
In terms of GHGs emitted per passenger-mile traveled, it ranks above light-duty trucks, passenger cars and airplanes, and is topped only by motorcycles and buses. And passenger rail often delivers passengers to the centers of cities, precluding the need for additional ground transport, such as taxis or shuttles.
Unfortunately, the environmental benefits of rail have traditionally been outweighed by other factors. A major factor in the evolution of rail in the U.S. and Vermont has been competition from light-duty vehicles and freight trucking, which enjoy the advantage of operating on publicly-subsidized roads. In 2006, light-duty vehicles and freight trucks accounted for 59 percent and 19 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, respectively, according to the DOT report, while rail accounted for only 3 percent.
Another complicating factor is that rail traffic in Vermont and across the U.S. operates on a network of mostly privately-owned track stretching across municipalities and state lines. Improvement efforts, which must be coordinated between several different entities, do not have access to the same level of public funding available for roads.
Vermont was the first state to purchase a privately-owned railroad when the Rutland Railroad went out of business in 1962. The state recognized the need to sustain freight movement and has since continued to buy rail property. Today the state owns 305 miles of the approximately 600 miles of operating rail line in Vermont.
“Rail is a regional or national undertaking. You can’t just talk about the state of Vermont when you talk about rail,” says Gina Campoli, environmental policy manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, “It requires a lot of regional effort.”
Fortunately the future of rail in Vermont and the surrounding region is now looking brighter, thanks in large part to significant grants for rail improvements through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
Recently, a number of projects across the state became eligible for funding under ARRA. Vermont requested ARRA funding for three projects, known as Tracks 1-3, and has received approval for two of them.
The Track 1 application, approved for $50 million, involves improving the Vermonter line to increase freight capacity and increase track speeds, cutting 27 minutes of travel time between St. Albans and the Massachusetts border.
The Track 2 application is for $74 million in funds to extend the Ethan Allen Express along Route 7 to Burlington and make improvements to the existing line. This application was not granted the first time around, but has been resubmitted with some slight changes based on feedback from the Federal Railroad Administration. Joe Flynn, Rail Director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, is optimistic that this revised Track 2 application will be approved.
The already approved Track 3 application for $1 million is to develop a corridor service plan for service between Albany, N.Y., and Rutland that runs through Bennington and Manchester.
Compared to the state’s annual budget, which in 2009 allocated approximately $10 million of state funds for rail, Flynn points out that the ARRA grants give Vermont a level of capital to spend on rail projects that would not be available otherwise.
Vermont contracts with Amtrak to provide two passenger routes in the state. The Vermonter runs from St. Albans to Washington, D.C., with stops in Essex Junction, Waterbury, Montpelier, Randolph, White River Junction, Windsor, Claremont N.H., Bellows Falls and Brattleboro before joining up with the Springfield line in Springfield, Mass. The Ethan Allen Express runs from Rutland to New York City’s Penn Station, via Castleton before crossing into New York state, where it stops at Fort Edward, Saratoga Springs and Schenectady before joining up with the Hudson River Corridor in Albany.
Vermont pays Amtrak an annual subsidy, which in 2010 is $4.8 million, to operate the two lines. Amtrak, in turn, uses a portion of this money to lease rail from host railroads within the state.
Flynn reports that the state is very pleased with the Amtrak service. The segment of the Vermonter that runs on the New England Central Railroad has some of the best on-time performance of Amtrak trains nationwide. On-time numbers for the Ethan Allen Express have also been improving.
Passengers seem to be taking note: Amtrak ridership and revenue have both been increasing recently. Perhaps someday I’ll be going 120 mph on a train in Vermont.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer and frequent traveler who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE NET
Vermont Rail Action Network: www.railvermont.org/
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
October 17, 2010