The Footprints of Rail Transit

If you properly assess the financial and ecological sustainability of train travel vs. auto travel, you will find the present conventional wisdom that almost exclusively prefers train transportation is possibly misplaced. The idea that bullet trains are more efficient conveyers across long distances than airplanes, for example, is rarely accurate. Similarly, developing light rail transportation, other than in very large urban areas, instead of widening existing freeways, is usually a more wasteful option. Here are examples of “footprints” towards a more comprehensive set of criteria with which to examine rail transportation vs. road vehicle transportation.


(1) Greater Risk of Mass Casualties: With systems as big as passenger trains, an operator failure or systems failure leading to a catastrophic accident will necessarily result in more casualties than with individual cars or even busses. Moreover, with road vehicles, with ever advancing new designs, it is possible to eventually nearly eliminate the probability of fatal accidents, whereas with the size of trains and the necessity to maintain the rails, train transportation will always be like air travel – impossible to operate without risks of accidents with mass casualties. 

(2) Greater Risk of Disease Transmission: Compared to the cocoon of one’s own car, there is a greater risk of spreading communicable disease when humans are packed together in trains. Will trains even operate during severe epidemics or pandemics? 

(3) Greater Risk to Personal Security: Again, compared to one’s own car, there is far greater personal insecurity a rail passenger must endure while waiting on the train platform, or riding on the train, or walking home through the “pedestrian paseo” late at night.

(3) Less Financial Sustainability: The financial folly of using railroads for passenger transit is exemplified by the reality of freight rail. For the most part, freight transit of goods is only cost effective on intercontinental hauls, where huge trains with 100+ cars hurtle from coast to coast from one intermodal yard to another. The primary hauling mode in the U.S. are trucks on roads, which can go from door to door and are therefore more financially efficient than trains. With people as with freight, decisive efficiencies are gained via the door to door capacity of vehicles on roads. To marginalize cars in favor of trains clearly ignores the inherently better financial sustainability of cars.

(4) Opportunity Cost of Neglected Roads: Advocates of rail transport ignore the congestion of our roads caused by failure to widen roads as population increases, or the costs of this congestion in wasted time and energy and additional pollution.

(5) The Environmental Impact of New Rail Corridors: The literally Biblical scale of the additional rail corridors that must be blasted through cities and across vast open areas in order to build rail transportation is conveniently ignored by rail advocates, as is the far less impactful option of upgrading roads, that for the most part, can use existing throughways. And from the standpoint of environmental impact and costs, instead of bullet trains that require completely new throughways to go 250 MPH, why not just upgrade existing rail, at far less cost, to permit speeds of 125 MPH?

(6) Greater Costs to Providing Security: There are far greater costs of ongoing rail operations and providing security for rail compared to roads. Train stations, passenger compartments, and the rails themselves all represent new venues where security is required, venues that have no corrolary in automotive transportation options.

(7) Personal Inconvenience: No matter how comprehensive passenger rail services become, there will always be a limited set of preconditions where rail transit is preferable to the commuter: ultra high density, very large urban centers, and select fast intercity trains on existing track. In general, using mass transit takes much longer than driving a car and is almost always a last resort for ordinary people. Once cars have autopilot, many additional reasons to prefer mass-transit will become obsolete.

(8) The Evolution of Vehicles: The car of the future will have auto-pilot, supersafety features, and total resource sustainability. These will be standard features. And no matter how future technology improves, roads and cars will always be more flexible modes of transportation than rail. 

(9) Onerous Zoning Laws to Create Preconditions for Viable Rail: There is plenty of land in California, so to mandate that every bit of land within legally prescribed “urban service boundaries” must become ultra high density, and ultra congested, while leaving peripheral areas unavailable to development, fails to recognize the increasing sustainablility of cars. Similarly, using “Urban Service Boundaries” as a way to concentrate populations in order to make rail transit viable makes a travesty of property rights and property values, and ignores the natural propensity of unplanned, market-driven land development to create ultra-high density all by itself.

(10) The CO2 Footprint: First of all, it isn’t clear a cradle-to-cradle analysis of future road vs. future rail would indicate rail has a lower CO2 footprint. The opposite could well be the case. And so what? The U.S. only produces about 20% of the anthropogenic CO2 currently emitted worldwide, and anthropogenic CO2 emissions only represent about 2-3% of total global CO2 emissions, the rest are natural. And it isn’t even clear that CO2 emissions are having a negative impact on global climate. Using CO2 as the primary criteria for sustainability is problematic.

Rail transit is clearly not a solution that should be ignored altogether. But there should be vigorous debate, mindful of all criteria, i.e., all footprints, before rail transit is ever preferred over roads. Sustainable and versatile, providing security against communicable diseases or pedestrian violence, capable of independently transporting anyone (with their cargo) efficiently to within a few steps of their final destinations, cars are simply too desirable an option for humanity to be “reeducated” away.

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