Research shows that bullet trains are a reliable, resilient alternative to flight disruptions caused by high winds and storms due to planetary warming.
By Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Staff
Air travel generates a lot of carbon pollution, contributing to a climate crisis whose worsening weather also makes air travel more turbulent and unpleasant. As those conditions intensify in the years ahead, research suggests high-speed trains — which don’t exist in the U.S. — would be a resilient alternative.
So far this year, there have been over 1 million flight arrival delays, accounting for about 23% of all flights, the highest rate in a decade, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Scientific consensus suggests a contributor to the spike in disruptions is ever-worsening weather associated with the climate crisis.
According to Federal Aviation Administration data, about 75% of U.S. flight delays are due to weather, and was an especially big headache this summer amid intense thunderstorms and heat, Zhenhua Chen, a professor of urban planning at the Ohio State University, told Forbes. He’s done extensive research on weather’s effects on planes and trains and finds that places with bullet trains connecting major cities — like China, Europe and Japan — ensure travelers have options to complete short and medium-distance trips when bad weather halts flights. He believes the lack of that alternative in the U.S. has economic implications.
“There’s an opportunity cost for the U.S. of not building a high-speed rail system,” said Chen, who’s extensively researched ways in which bad weather affects plane and rail travel, particularly in China. “There’s also productivity loss for businesses. This is the most important thing a lot of policymakers have ignored.”
Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at Britain’s University of Redding, studies shifts in the jet stream that are increasing air turbulence. Research published in June 2023 that he co-authored found that surges in “clear-air turbulence” were particularly noticeable over the U.S. and North Atlantic, busy flight regions. That report also found that such incidents jumped 55% between 1979 and 2020.
Even some airline officials acknowledge the impact climate change is having on the business.
“I think irregular operations events are going to be more likely to occur as the climate warms,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said at a Politico event in July. “More heat in the atmosphere, thermodynamics 101 — we’re going to have more thunderstorms.”
A High-Speed Laggard
Six decades after Japan debuted its shinkansen system, high-speed trains with speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph) or more crisscross Europe, South Korea, Taiwan and especially China, with its sprawling 26,000-mile network. And soon Morocco will join Saudi Arabia and Indonesia’s Java island in debuting its own system. Noticeably absent: the U.S., which has no true high-speed trains at all. That could change in the next few years, the result of billions of federal dollars earmarked for such projects in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The Biden Administration this month disbursed $16.4 billion of those funds for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to speed up Acela trains that run from Boston to New York to Washington to 160 mph from 150 mph. California’s $105 billion high-speed system and Brightline West, a private bullet train connecting Las Vegas and suburban Los Angeles, are also hoping to win federal grants for their projects of $2.8 billion and $3.75 billion, respectively, before the year ends.
California and Brightline promote their train plans as a lower-carbon form of transportation and both intend to operate electric trains primarily using renewable power. Data compiled by the U.K. and European researchers show that CO2 emissions from an electric high-speed train, like the Eurostar that runs from Paris to London, is just 4 grams per passenger/kilometer. By comparison, the average domestic flight in Europe is 246 grams per passenger/kilometer.
By comparison, there isn’t a clear path to decarbonize aviation, accounting for 3% of total U.S. carbon emissions. Chen notes that a typical domestic U.S. 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 impacts on U.S. air travel from a changing climate, summarized in a study he shared with Forbes, is based on hard science, including work done by Williams.
“While all modes of transportation, including high-speed rail, experience constraints under certain severe conditions, such as hurricanes prompting temporary cessation of non-essential transportation, aircraft are considerably more susceptible to adverse weather conditions due to their inherent operational characteristics,” Chen wrote. “High-speed trains operate close to the ground along a fixed guideway, while aircraft navigate the vast, unpredictable, and turbulent atmosphere.”
High-speed trains aren’t a solution for coast-to-coast travel or an alternative to trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights. Still, since they aren’t as impacted by rain, wind, heat and cold, they could provide more stability for many U.S. transportation corridors, Chen said.
“If we want a resilient transportation system, we need to consider alternative modes. That’s how high-speed rail can play an important role,” he said.
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