The United States leads the world in many areas. When it comes to building environmentally friendly, sustainable high-speed rail transport, though, it does not. While other parts of the world have been running high-speed rail networks for decades — Great Britain recently announced plans to spend nearly $20 billion on upgrading its systems — the lack of political will and forward-thinking and traditional resistance to change in Americans’ transportation habits have hindered U.S. high-speed rail development.
But progress is being made, and some camps are working toward making high-speed rail a reality in America within the next decade. In recent years, interest in high-speed rail has been revived due to the cost and environmental impact of air travel and green-era push on being less reliant on petroleum-fueled transportation. California is one of the major hubs of that progress.
A recent study by Arpad Horvath of University of California, Berkeley and Mikhail Chester of Arizona State University took a look at the environmental impact of California’s proposed high-speed rail service, the construction on a 768-mile swath of which is set to begin construction in 2013, after Governor Jerry Brown authorized $4.7 billion in state funds to go along with $3.3 billion in federal funds for the build.
The study concluded that if California were to implement the high-speed rail system, its transportation environmental footprint would be greatly reduced within 20 to 30 years. Horvath said that the “carbon dioxide input for an automobile increases 30 to 40 percent” over that of a high-speed rail (HSR) train but that over a period of time, HSR is “a win-win scenario.”
“Politicians and legislators have to ask themselves, “Do I want to spend the next $1 on roadway mobility on making old highways wider and making them last a little bit longer … or spend that $1 on something that’s going to last much longer and have a smaller footprint?” Horvath said.
While HSR is less controversial outside the U.S., it is met with political and cultural resistance domestically. There have been plenty of setbacks to HSR over the years, and in the last two years, the governors of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have rejected federal aid to build HSR networks in their states. The biggest reasons for the denial are the cost to the states and the expectation of low ridership.
Horvath said that it’s impossible to know exactly what the carbon footprint reduction will be with HSR, because it is dependent on the number of people willing to change their transportation habits and use HSR and how quickly they will do that.
So with the project in California set to begin, and ongoing projects in states like Missouri and Illinois, how will the manufacturing sector be affected? It would make sense that if HSR is going to become green and efficient transport mode of the future, every sector of the train manufacturing process should hop onboard.
To help coordinate and advise manufacturing companies on accomplishing this, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has stepped in. MEP is a nationwide network that provides process innovation and improvement strategies to green manufacturing. It works with partners at the state and federal levels on programs that aid manufacturers in expansion into new markets.
Aimee Dobrzeniecki, the deputy director of MEP, said that her organization has held four “Rail Forums” across the country this year and that 500 different companies have attended.
“These are companies that work in the mechanical components of trains, the communication components and construction components,” Dobrzeniecki said. “We’re opening their eyes to the opportunities and what needs to be done to position themselves to be competitive and get (HSR) contracts in the future.”
Dobrzeniecki added that for many companies, it is “about applying what they’re doing now to a slightly different sector.”
Not every part of the rail manufacturing sector will be as impacted by HSR as others. Chuck Baker, president of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, a trade group, said he didn’t believe that his industry will significantly alter their processes for HSR infrastructure development.
“If you know how to build track, you can build track,” he said. “With the methods of construction, I know companies try to be as green as possible, meeting all legal and public requirements. But in a lot of cases, [being greener] is about the materials used, and the contractor doesn’t usually decide what materials can be used on a project.”
Several experts, though, did say that the type of concrete used in railroad construction can make a big difference on the environment. Using so-called “smart additives” in the making of concrete can significantly lower the environmental footprint.
When it comes to the production of the HSR trains and their components, though, there is a much bigger impact. Armin Kick, director of business development for high-speed rail for Siemens, who is based at the company’s high-tech light rail vehicle manufacturing plant in Sacramento, Calif., which is featured in this video, said that despite all the talk of HSR in the United States, there are currently no companies making trains specifically for it.
Kick was quick to point out, though, that with projects being green-lighted across the country, Siemens could begin production on HSR trains “in a matter of months” at its Sacramento facility.
“Most of the money for high-speed rail (in the U.S.) is going toward infrastructure,” Kick said. “For true, electrified high-speed rail, you need lines to be built. What people have to understand is that the components we’re putting on (new trains) are getting more efficient all the time.”
Kick pointed to Siemens’ new, European-built Velaro high-speed trains. In Spain, the HSR trains are being used successfully in a Barcelona-to-Madrid system, cutting what had been a six-hour trek down to 2 hours and 40 minutes.
The Velaro trains are optimized for high speeds. A fully elevated roof section reduces sonic booms in tunnels. Roof-mounted equipment is fully encased, and the spoiler, nose and front section have been aerodynamically refined, thereby reducing energy requirements to propel it.
Energy efficiency is also enhanced by feeding surplus energy that is not used in braking the train back into the rail power grid. The overall result is equivalent to a gasoline consumption of 0.33 liters per person per 100 kilometers –- reducing energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
The Velaro’s 250-mph top speed drastically outperforms what the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration currently defines as high-speed rail (110 mph).
Long-term is the way everyone, from manufacturers of trains and components to railroad construction companies to politicians who support it, is approaching HSR in terms of infrastructure build-out and system implementation. But it certainly seems that the train manufacturing sector is aboard HSR and starting to move toward a green transportation future.