“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” – Paul Simon
I have always loved riding the rails. It’s simply the most elegant and relaxing way to get around and it makes the journey itself as important as just getting from point A to point B. Trains are also extremely environmentally efficient because they can transport large numbers of people or huge shipments of cargo with a single engine, thereby using a fraction of the energy used by any other means. This rare mix of being both a super green technology and an inspirational experience makes train travel a standout component when it comes to designing a sustainable model for human life on earth.
In fact, for those of us concerned about carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption, especially now that the Grinch just backed out of the nearly globally accepted Paris Agreement, working toward rail networks at the local level is probably the strongest environmental move we can make. The truth is that trains could take out the petroleum industry single-handedly with or without the Paris Agreement, and they are already leaving the station en masse to do so.
Germany for example just unveiled a zero-emission hydrogen powered train that emits only steam and is already slated for 14 lines. These trains are set to replace the diesel run trains that the country currently uses and other European nations like Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands are already placing their orders for this super lean and clean beauty.
Over in the Persian Gulf, Elon Musk’s 500mph Hyperloop train that transforms a two-hour drive between Dubai and Abu Dhabi into a mere 12-minute jaunt is being tested as this article goes to print. While that is scary fast, this single train could make the estimated 4,000 single vehicles that travel that route daily nearly obsolete.
On the epic tip, China just launched direct freight train service from the city of Yiwa all the way to London, a journey of more than 7,000 miles that crosses nine countries. This just a part of the “New Silk Road” train network that is putting rails on ancient trade routes that have existed for thousands of years.
Even right here in the belly of the beast, California just sold more than $1 billion in taxable bonds to start construction on the first publicly financed high-speed rail system in the United States. The magic here is that the Golden State went ahead and found a way to make this light rail, which will connect the San Francisco Bay Area with Los Angeles and drastically cut down highway traffic and car pollution, happened despite the fact that President Grinch tried to block it by killing federal grants for it just months after he smirked his way into the oval office.
While some might criticize government-funded rail systems as “welfare,” that simply ignores both history and reality. First of all, not only is the entire fossil fuel industry subsidized to the tune of more than $35 billion annually in the U.S. but the upkeep of highways and the mitigation of pollution by cars and freight bearing trucks is almost too high to calculate—yet it is all borne by the public.
Secondly, the entire automotive infrastructure was created by public funds and corrupt corporations in the first place. Trains had to be purposefully suppressed for cars to take over.
Photo courtsey of Orange County Archives/Flickr CC BY 2.0
In fact, the United States had the largest rail network in the world up until after World War II and it only really went into a tailspin when President Dwight D. Eisenhower funded the Interstate Highway System in 1956. At the same time, General Motors purchased the electric streetcar lines in dozens of cities across America, tearing up the tracks to make way for more cars in an act that brought them a federal antitrust conviction and the blame for completely changing the destiny of mega-metropolises like Los Angeles, which at the time had the largest trolley system in the world. It was in the decades that followed this that La-La land became the poster child for endless sprawl, nightmarish commutes and ubiquitous smog.
Since trains, as well as public subway and trolley systems, use centralized stations, they naturally create hubs that high-density neighborhoods and commercial businesses flourish around, encouraging an inward movement instead of an outward one when it comes to urban growth. Bringing back rail travel as a primary means of transportation instantly reverses sprawl, which is driven by the automobile itself. When a train is used for transportation, it makes sense to live and work as close to a station as possible.
As proof of this, consider that on both coasts the cities that rely the most on urban rail systems, New York and San Francisco, have the lowest car ownership rates—in fact, more than half of NYC households are car-free. Why? Because trains make cars completely unnecessary.
It is also not by chance that these two cities have the highest rents in the country, as that kind of pedestrian-friendly urban lifestyle is in fact in high demand but in short supply. This shows that the free market itself will be the end of the fossil fuel industry if we can simply get control back in the hands of the people and lay down the tracks to a rail driven future.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. Cities across the United States, from Denver, restoring their historic Union Station as the center of their new $8 billion FastTracks rail system to Atlanta, integrating new streetcars with neighborhood redevelopment in their massive BeltLine initiative, are quickly taking control at the local level.
The great train comeback is simply just too strong to ignore and the only interest that stands to lose out is Big Oil, which the Grinch is heavily invested in. These rail projects can put a nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry, transform our communities and disempower the corporate kingpins in ways that even the Paris Agreement could not do.
While all of this might look like a well-packed pipe dream to some, keep in mind that the investing world gasped in surprise back in 2010 when stock market guru Warren Buffet made an “all-in” $26 billion dollar purchase of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad line, which operates more than 30,000 miles of rail across the Western two-thirds of the U.S. What the Oracle of Omaha said at the time was that he was making a bet on “the future of the United States.”
That future is coming at us faster than a high-speed bullet train bound for a post fossil fuel sustainable world. In fact, I can already hear the tracks humming.
Main and Lead Photo by alantankenghoe/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Ocean Malandra writes the EarthRx environmental column for Paste Magazine and considers “The Little Engine That Could” the height of inspirational literature.