Research shows that bullet trains are a reliable, resilient alternative to flight disruptions caused by high winds and global warming storms.
With Alan OnsmanForbes Staff
ONEir travel causes a lot of carbon pollution, contributing to a climate crisis whose worsening weather is also making air travel more turbulent and unpleasant. As these conditions intensify in the coming years, research suggests that high-speed rail — which does not exist in the U.S. — would be a durable alternative.
So far this year, there have been more than 1 million flight arrival delays, representing approx. 23% of all flights, the highest rate in a decade, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Scientific consensus suggests that one contributing factor to the spike in disruptions is the worsening weather associated with the climate crisis.
About 75 percent of U.S. flight delays are due to weather, according to Federal Aviation Administration data, and it’s been a particularly big headache this summer amid intense storms and heat, Zhenhua Chen, a professor of urban planning at Ohio State University, told Forbes. . He’s done extensive research on the effects of weather on planes and trains, and finds that places with trains connecting major cities—such as China, Europe, and Japan—ensure travelers have options for short- and medium-distance trips when bad weather interrupts flights. He believes the lack of this alternative in the US has economic implications.
“There is an opportunity cost for the U.S. not to build a high-speed rail system,” said Chen, who researched extensively ways in which bad weather affects air and rail travel, particularly in China. “There is also a loss of productivity for businesses. This is the most important thing that many policy makers have ignored.”
Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading in Britain, studies changes in the jet stream that increase air turbulence. Research published in June 2023 and co-authored by him found that increases in “fresh air turbulence”, were particularly noticeable over the US and the North Atlantic, busy flying areas. This report also found that such incidents increased by 55% between 1979 and 2020.
Even some airline officials recognize the impact climate change is having on business.
“I think irregular events will be more likely to occur as the climate warms,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. Politico Event on July. “More heat in the atmosphere, thermodynamics 101 — we’ll have more storms.”
A high-speed retard
Six decades after Japan debuted shinkansen system, high-speed trains with speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph) or more across Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, and especially China, with its extensive 26,000-mile network. And soon Morocco will join Saudi Arabia and the Indonesian island of Java in debuting its own system. Conspicuously absent: the US, which has no real high-speed trains at all. That could change in the coming years, the result of billions of federal dollars earmarked for such projects in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
The Biden administration disbursed this month $16.4 billion of those funds for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to speed up Acela trains running from Boston to New York to Washington for 160 mph from 150 mph. California’s $105 billion high-speed rail system and Brightline West, a private train connecting Las Vegas and suburban Los Angeles, also hope to win federal grants for their projects 2.8 billion dollars and $3.75 billion, respectively, before the end of the year.
California and Brightline are promoting their plans for the trains as a lower-carbon form of transportation, and both plan to operate electric trains primarily using renewable energy. Data collected from British and European researchers show that CO2 emissions from a high-speed electric train such as the Eurostar running from Paris to London are just 4 grams per passenger/km. In comparison, the average domestic flight in Europe is 246 grams per passenger/km.
By comparison, there is no clear path to decarbonizing aviation, which accounts for 3% of total US carbon emissions. Chen notes that a typical US domestic flight uses up to 10,000 gallons of fuel, so the country’s 40,000 daily flights burn about 400 million gallons of jet fuel.
His concern about the impact on US air travel from a changing climate is summed up in a study he shared with Forbesit is based on hard science, including the work of Williams.
“While all modes of transportation, including high-speed rail, face limitations under certain severe conditions, such as hurricanes that cause temporary disruption of non-essential transportation, aircraft are much more sensitive to adverse weather conditions due to their inherent operational characteristics.” , Chen said. He wrote. “High-speed trains operate close to the ground along a fixed track, while aircraft navigate the vast, unpredictable and turbulent atmosphere.”
High-speed trains are not a solution for coast-to-coast travel or an alternative to trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights. However, since they are not as affected by rain, wind, heat and cold, they could provide more stability in many U.S. transportation corridors, Chen said.
“If we want a resilient transport system, we need to look at alternative modes of transport. So high-speed rail can play an important role,” he said.
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