As U.S. investment in rail and transit has shrunk over the decades, other countries have stepped in to fill the gap. Many countries in Europe and Asia—including, most recently, China—have embraced effective policies and invested significant funds in their rail and transit sectors. U.S. spending on rail and transit relative to GDP and population lags far behind that of these global competitors, especially for intercity passenger rail.

Relative to the size of its economy, China’s investments in rail infrastructure dwarf those of all other countries. (See Figure 1.) In 2008, the country spent an unparalleled $12.50 per $1,000 of GDP [German-language PDF]. Several European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and the United Kingdom, are also making major commitments. In the United States, even combining rail and all other transit infrastructure, the figure is a comparatively tiny $0.78. If private rail infrastructure (mostly for freight purposes) is included, the number rises to a still modest $1.40.

National Rail Infrastructure Investments for Selected Countries

Similar disparities between the United States and other countries are also evident in comparing combined capital and operations spending. For intercity purposes, China spent $66 per capita in 2009, Germany $156, France $141, the United Kingdom $112, and Italy $87. By contrast, the United States spent only $9, although the stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) temporarily raised this figure to nearly $36.

For urban transit infrastructure, Germany has spent $52 per capita in recent years and France plans to spend $57 in the coming decade, compared with a 2010 figure of $40 for the United States. China spends $28 per capita on subway infrastructure alone. For transit vehicle purchases, Germany spends $36, or twice as much as the United States.

Unless the U.S. seriously steps up its commitment to rail and transit, it is likely to continue to fall even farther behind its global competitors. After the mid-term elections, the prospects have hardly improved, given a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the defeat of Congressman  Jim Oberstar of Minnesota (who used to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), and the fact that the incoming governors of of Ohio and Wisconsin have said they do not want federal cash for high-speed rail.

As Yonah Freeman of the TransportPolitic blog puts it: “Two years of Democratic control over the White House and Congress led to little serious agreement about how to find federal funding for highways and transit; meanwhile, despite advances in the fields of livable neighborhoods and high-speed rail, those programs may be subjected to considerable rethinking or even elimination after the change in power in the U.S. House.”

China, elections, infrastructure, investment, rail, transportation, US

Mention “green economy,” and almost automatically many people will think about alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Without question, the makeup of our energy system needs to change—badly. But other aspects of greening the economy shouldn’t get short shrift either. Changing the way we travel from point A to point B, limiting the voracious appetite of our buildings for heating and cooling, and making industries like steel, aluminum, and paper far more efficient are all essential tasks. In many cases, these activities might be pursued in parallel, as different “wedges” of a climate stabilization policy.

Better yet, such approaches can be combined in imaginative ways. One encouraging example is found in China, where solar energy and rail endeavors came together in a project inaugurated last month. A 6.68 megawatt photovoltaic system was installed on roofs and awnings of the recently completed Hongqiao Station, part of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line currently under construction.

The project’s 20,000 solar panels cover an area of 61,000 square meters, forming the largest standalone PV array in the world. The system cost about $23 million to install, produces enough electricity for 12,000 Shanghai households, will cut coal consumption by 2,254 tons, and will reduce carbon emissions by 6,600 tons.

The Hongqiao array is regarded as a pilot project. But given the massive expansion of China’s rail system, it holds enormous potential. Plans are to lengthen the total rail network from 92,000 kilometers today to 120,000 kilometers by 2020, a goal that may even be raised to 150,000 kilometers. The country’s high-speed lines are set to reach a length of 25,000 kilometers. Earlier this year, some 6,500 kilometers had already been constructed.

The rail station sits next to Hongqiao airport

There will be plenty of rail-station roofs to put solar panels on. For that matter, solar panels could be integrated into many more buildings in Shanghai and China’s other metropolises. China and Taiwan together now produce about half the world’s PV panels, but they export most of them. With the Hongqiao project, perhaps that will begin to change.

China, energy, rail, renewables, Shanghai, solar, transportation

High-tech equipment, precision instruments, and miles of electrical wiring at the Siemens production facility in Krefeld, Germany, might fool you into thinking that what’s being manufactured here is an airplane, or perhaps even a space shuttle. But the roughly 2,000 employees are producing a high-speed train, the so-called Velaro D, which is to go into service in Germany at the end of 2011.

Siemens Pressebild, www.siemens.com/press/de/pressebilder/?press=/de/pressebilder/bilder-photonews/2010/pn201006/pn201006-06.htm.

At a length of 200 meters, an eight-wagon Velaro trainset seats about 450 people—comparable to some variants of the Boeing 747. The Velaro’s top speed of 400 kilometers per hour doesn’t match that of a long-range plane. But for distances of up to 650 kilometers, and perhaps even as far as 900 kilometers, high-speed trains can be a faster option than air travel, given that the latter involves trips to often remotely located airports, checking and retrieving luggage, cumbersome security measures, etc. Of course, ticket costs and other factors matter as well, but fast trains have drawn passengers away from air travel in a growing number of places, on routes including Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or Madrid-Barcelona in Spain.

Another advantage of trains is their lower environmental impact. Siemens claims that the Velaro uses as little as 0.33 liters of gasoline-equivalent per seat per 100 kilometers. (That translates into a stunning 713 miles per gallon per seat.) The Velaro’s greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer would thus be 90 percent lower than those associated with typical air travel.

In growing numbers of countries, there is palpable excitement about high-speed trains, in line with an overall growth in rail investments. According to German consulting firm SCI Verkehr, worldwide operations and capital budgets for all types of rail (passenger and freight) amounted to a combined $590 billion in 2008. The annual market for rail-related goods and services worldwide runs to about $170 billion, up a fifth from 2006.  It is expected to reach $214 billion by 2016.

In 2009, high-speed rail lines totaling 10,700 kilometers were operational worldwide, including more than 2,000 kilometers in Japan—the pioneer in this field—and about 5,800 kilometers in the European Union. (In the EU, high-speed rail travel accounted for a quarter of all train travel, and rose to almost 100 billion passenger-kilometers in 2008; see Figure.) China is on track to build the longest network by far, planned to reach 25,000 kilometers. Relative to territory, Spain’s goal of 10,000 kilometers by 2020 is even more impressive. If China were to match Spain’s effort relative to land size, it would have to build 190,000 kilometers of lines; in proportion to population, it would have to be 290,000 kilometers.

More and more countries are jumping into the fray. Listed in order of their track-building ambitions between now and 2025, in addition to China and Spain they include France, Turkey, Japan, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Italy, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran, and some others. The United States, too, is eager to join the high-speed league.

Variants of the Velaro are being sold to Spain, Russia, and China. But Siemens is facing intense competition from other manufacturers. Among them is Bombardier, a Canadian company with extensive European manufacturing activities. It has been involved in producing some of the most famous high-speed trains in the world, including the TGV in France, AVE in Spain, ICE in Germany, ETR in Italy, and CRH 1 in China. And along with France’s Alstom, it built Amtrak’s Acela Express—the closest that the United States has to date come to fast intercity rail travel. Spain’s Talgo and CAF are becoming growing competitors. Meanwhile, Kawasaki and other Japanese companies had long focused on their domestic market but are now increasingly pursuing export markets—already successfully in Taiwan, China, India, and the United Kingdom, and competing for contracts in Brazil, Vietnam, and the United States.

And now, Chinese companies—China Northern Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CNR) and China Southern Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CSR)—are increasingly challenging the established producers. The leading foreign manufacturers were lured by the potentially vast market in China. But they could set up shop in China only under stiff local-content requirements and technology transfer agreements.

Without question, the high-speed rail race is heating up—both in terms of building new lines and deciding who manufactures the trains. It’s a critical part of greening the economy.

Alstom, Bombardier, China, climate, European Union, fuel efficiency, Germany, high-speed, japan, manufacturing, rail, Siemens, Spain, transportation

I admit it was in part the thrill of speed that made me take the Maglev train from Shanghai to nearby Pudong International Airport. I was in town for a high-level symposium on economic recovery jointly organized by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

To my knowledge, there’s no other ground transportation system on Earth that comes close to the dash through the Chinese countryside that reaches a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (267 miles per hour). Alternatively, I could have taken the metro—the No. 2 line was recently extended out to the airport, part of Shanghai’s rapidly expanding network. Instead, I took the No. 1 and 2 subways from the city center to Longyang Road, where metro and Maglev link up.

The metro ride to Longyang Road (which involved a total of seven stops) took about 40 minutes. The Maglev ride [YouTube video] lasted all of seven minutes covering 30 kilometers (19 miles), or about double the distance of my metro trip. With incredible acceleration, buildings and bridges fly past in a blur, and even at top speed there’s fairly little vibration.

Maglev train at Shanghai's Pudong airport

With the World Expo taking place in Shanghai this May through October, I suspect that Maglev ridership will expand, although ticket prices are about ten times as much as the (cheap) metro fares for a comparable distance. (This is still much cheaper and faster than taking a taxi to the airport.) China also just announced—as I coincidentally read in China Daily while riding the Maglev—that the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group in Sichuan province has completed the first domestically made Maglev train, a local version of the German technology used in the Shanghai line.

In truth, the Maglev technology—which relies on powerful magnets rather than on rail tracks—will probably always remain something of an exotic experiment. It’s expensive and you can’t use the technology to its full benefit in densely populated areas or on anything that deviates too much from a straight line. Public opposition has prevented the existing Shanghai line from being extended to the city of Hangzhou or even to Shanghai’s domestic airport, Hongqiao.

More conventional high-speed rail, in the meantime, has growing appeal in numerous countries around the world. China is not only investing vast sums of money in expanding its own network, but is fast becoming a serious competitor internationally. (Though its efforts to learn from and replicate foreign technology has led to angry charges from a Japanese competitor that the country is stealing technology.)

The New York Times recently reported that Chinese companies have already begun to build high-speed lines in Turkey, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia and are looking for similar deals in other countries, including Brazil and the United States. As a sweetener in its efforts to win a contract in California against intense competition, China is offering to help finance construction of the planned line in the financially strapped state.

So, while you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a Maglev line near you to materialize, more conventional high-speed rail lines will likely become more and more prominent.

China, Expo, high-speed, Maglev, rail, Shanghai, subway, transportation

The U.S. “cash-for-clunkers” program—formally known as the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) Program—has apparently been successful far beyond what Washington policy-makers expected.  The $1 billion set aside for the program ran out in a matter of days, leading Congress to vote an additional $2 billion for it. Government data indicate that the average rating for the new car purchases that were stimulated by the program was 25.4 miles per gallon, compared with an average of just 15.8 mpg for the surrendered clunkers.

For a nation that for many years defiantly purchased clunkers … err, SUVs, in the face of worrisome resource and environmental trends, that’s not a mean feat to accomplish.  Still, the 7 million tons of carbon emissions avoided over the next decade by trading in a quarter million gas guzzlers are equal to just 0.04 percent of total U.S. emissions of 16 billion tons from gasoline-powered vehicles over the same period of time.

False God? Image courtesy of billaday

The United States will have to keep working hard to reduce the environmental footprint of its transportation system, catching up to Europe, Japan, and even China in fuel economy.

France, which already has far more efficient vehicles than the United States, in December 2007 adopted an “ecological bonus-malus” program [PDF; in French] for new car purchases to further reduce the carbon footprint of cars. The program offers a bonus of €200–1,000 ($275–1,380) for vehicles emitting a maximum of 130 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer, and €5,000 for those emitting no more than 60 grams. (More efficient cars emit less CO2).

But the program also brings in revenue, and provides an incentive not to purchase less efficient cars. Vehicles emitting more than 160 grams of CO2 are subject to a charge of €200–2,600 ($275–3,580). As a result, the share of newly registered vehicles that emit less than 130 grams per kilometer rose from 31 percent to 44 percent in a single year.

The French experience offers some good lessons for the United States.  Automobile manufacturers would have far greater incentive to meet and surpass corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards if car buyers could be persuaded to consistently seek out the most efficient models.  As under the French approach, buying a gas guzzler would attract a hefty fee, while purchasing a top-performing vehicle would be supported either with cash incentives or tax benefits.

Further, instead of only imposing average fuel economy requirements, the government should consider outlawing sales of any vehicle that does not meet a minimal mileage requirement. This floor could then be raised with each passing year.

There is no shortage of effective measures to reduce the climate footprint of vehicles.  Ultimately, however, it’s even more important to work on reducing the heavy reliance on cars and to promote public transit, rail, and walkable communities.

cars, France, fuel efficiency, government, transportation, US