How Will HSR Reduce Carbon?

High-Speed Rail Helps Reduce Carbon Emissions

In the United States, transportation currently generates 29% of carbon emissions – a driving force in climate change.

No other mode of travel has the flexibility to serve diverse, dispersed markets and spur a massive shift from driving.

Fast, frequent, and affordable trains are the best way to slash carbon emissions.

High-Speed Rail Reduces Carbon Emissions in 3 Ways:

steel wheel

Trains are the most efficient form of transportation readily available

Downtown Limburg

Trains catalyze better, more energy efficient cities and towns

Portland light rail

High-speed rail makes other public transit options work better

steel wheel

Physics Favors High-Speed Rail

Steel wheels on steel rails offer superior energy efficiency to rubber wheels on any driving surface.

Train wheels have smaller contact area, are designed for minimum friction, and do not surrender energy to change directions like cars do.

That means trains can be much bigger than planes and buses.

And, their self-steering feature makes it easier to get to where the people are at speed.

Examples of High-Speed Rail’s Potential to Reduce Emissions

Paris to Marseille

A trip from Paris to Marseille by rail produces scant carbon compared to other modes of travel. Trains are also much more fuel efficient.

The French TGV makes nearly 30 trips per day between these two cities, the fastest in just over 3 hours. Driving takes 7 to 8 hours.

That’s about the same distance as Atlanta to Indianapolis or Sacramento to San Diego.

Paris to Marseille train, car, plane chart
Midwest HSR emissions chart

Midwest High-Speed Rail Could Slash 3.3 Million Metric Tons.

A research study estimated the potential benefits of a 220 mph HSR network in the Midwest. It could reduce emissions in the region by 3.3M metric tons a year.

Converting Short US Domestic Flights to Train Travel.

The International Council on Clean Transportation identified that short-haul flights between dense urban centers comprise a quarter of domestic US air travel. For these flights segments, electric high-speed rail could reduce emissions (compared to air travel) by 23%.

ICCT Short Haul Flight potential chart
Downtown Limburg

Downtown Limburg, Germany.

Fast Trains Catalyze Better, More Energy Efficient Cities and Towns

Fast, frequent and affordable trains make communities more walkable, more interconnected, and more efficient.

Railways commonly operate from stations in the center of town, which leads to ready integration with local mass transit. Travelers can move seamlessly between trains and public transit, downtown destinations, and tourist attractions or accommodations.

On the other hand, both airports and personal cars contribute to urban sprawl. Cars require roads that divide and disrupt cities. Airports’ enormous footprint for terminals and runways mean they are predominantly located in outlying or suburban areas.

High-Speed Rail Makes Public Transit Work Better.

High-speed trains dramatically collapse travel times and so draw massive ridership.

Amplified passenger activity is focused at train stations, typically in town or city centers and usually with connections to local transit. This has a magnetic effect on development, helping reduce sprawl. Fewer and shorter car trips translate to lower carbon emissions.

The benefits here can compound, as more frequent and higher-quality public transit leads to increased ridership and city walkability, which leads to further public transit investment. All along the way, emissions continue to decline.

Portland Light Rail

Portland streetcar.

Reducing Fossil Fuels in California

High-Speed Rail is a Superstar of Energy Efficiency

California has been a problem-solving powerhouse when it comes to climate change, slashing its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent between 2004 (the peak) and 2017. Now it needs to do even better. The state is on track to miss its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels.

Transportation creates roughly 30 percent of the U.S. economy’s total greenhouse gas emissions—more than any other sector. And in California, passenger vehicles alone create 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Which means we can’t solve climate change until we fundamentally transform the way we move around. That’s why the Alliance to Save Energy recently challenged the U.S. to “reinvent our transportation system to be more efficient, productive, cleaner, and accessible.”

California Emissions by source pie chart

Passenger vehicles are responsible for 28% of California’s emissions.

energy use mode chart

Energy intensity of passenger transport, in tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per million passenger km traveled. Source IEA

High-Speed Rail is the Solution.

Shifting drivers to trains creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions, since trains are far more energy efficient than cars (or planes).

Rail networks carry between 7 and 8 percent of freight and motorized passenger traffic, globally, yet they account for just 2 percent of energy use in the transportation sector.

And California’s high-speed line will be far above average, even compared with the most rail lines, in cutting greenhouse gasses. That’s because it will run on 100 percent renewable energy and use electrified trains—the superstars of energy efficiency. In electrified trains, about 95 percent of the energy created by combustion transfers to the wheels from overhead powerlines, versus a 30 to 35 percent transfer rate in diesel-powered trains.


And more trains mean we’ll need to build fewer roads and runways. For example, to match the capacity of the high-speed line from the Bay Area to L.A., California would have to build 4,300 miles of new highway lanes, 115 new airport gates, and 4 new airport runways—at a cost of about $158 billion—according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.

So the new line will take a lot of cars off the road, reduce the number of flights, and replace those options with the most energy-efficient mass-transportation mode there is.

Here’s what the environmental benefits look like for a trip from Paris to Marseille (France), which is roughly the distance from the Bay Area to L.A. This chart from EcoPassenger compares the efficiency and emissions of rail (the left bar) to other modes, and it offers a glimpse of the big win for the environment that comes from replacing cars and planes with a high-speed rail line.

These charts compare the environmental impacts of a Paris – Marseille trip, roughly the same distance as San Francisco – Los Angeles via high-speed rail route.

In short: high-speed rail is crucial to meeting California’s climate change goals in the near term. And it will enhance California’s role as a problem-solving, paradigm-shifting pioneer in the global fight against climate change.

The Latest from HSRA

Our Latest Blog Posts

Check out the latest news, updates, and high speed rail insights from our blog!

Sec. Pete Wows Crowd at HSR Conference

Sec. Pete Wows Crowd at HSR Conference

Post by: Rick Harnish, Executive Director Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was interviewed by former Secretary Ray LaHood in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the US High Speed Rail Conference this week. I left the event motivated by knowing that Sec....

In Memory of Legendary Rail Advocate Anthony Haswell

In Memory of Legendary Rail Advocate Anthony Haswell

The US lost a giant of passenger-train advocacy this week. Anthony Haswell, who founded the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in 1967, died at the age of 94. NARP, now called the Rail Passengers Association, was pivotal in creating Amtrak in the late...

Congressman Quigley Champions High-Speed Rail

Congressman Quigley Champions High-Speed Rail

Congressman Mike Quigley published an outstanding opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune this week called “We need to invest in a high-speed rail future.” Rep. Quigley raised the bar for service in Illinois by calling for a 2½-hour trip time between Chicago and St....