High-Speed Rail: Green or Mean?

High-speed rail is often touted as a means to move forward and beyond the current modes for long distance transport. Its advocates tells us that, by combining the low energy use of trains and the high speed of planes, it will be the best option for our future transport needs. But is it really so? In this article Hampus Rubaszkin debunks some of the myths surrounding high-speed trains and argues that we can’t solve our transport problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.


Approximately 150 years ago, the train revolutionised travel and transport. Dangerous and difficult journeys by boat or horse wagon were replaced by a radically faster and more reliable system. The glorious times of the trains lasted until about 50 years ago, when the heavy competition of cars and planes put train travel on a slope.

Now the train is prophesied to make a comeback. More countries are planning high-speed rail (HSR) developments, and the primary argument is the need to decrease the enormous carbon emissions from the transport sector.

Can HSR play a part in our endeavour to achieve social and environmental sustainability? There are many reasons to doubt that. Although a high-speed train may look similar to a regular train (only more streamlined), in fact the concept, infrastructure and even ideology of HSR is very different to what trains used to be.

Advocates claim that HSR would cause a shift from fossil-fuel dependent travel on road and by air, to rail transport, potentially powered by renewable energy. A common argument is that some HSR-lines have caused a decrease in flights between the endpoints on those lines, which is true. But if we really want to evaluate the effects HSR have, we should look at a much broader picture.

For every investment in HSR there is also an alternative use of the money. In order to become a fast, safe and affordable alternative to car travel, local and regional public transport is in desperate need of funding. A tragic example is the terrible commuter-train accident in Belgium earlier this year. Belgium is investing millions of euro in HSR, and at the same time the safety standard of local trains has deteriorated to a point where lives are placed at risk.

Another example is the crowded and slow bus line 4 in central Stockholm. It has more passengers every day than the total railway net in Sweden. Plans to convert the line to high capacity trams have been postponed for more than 20 years due to lack of funding. At the same time six out of seven parties in the Swedish parliament are prepared to spend 13 billion euro or more on HSR in Sweden. As proven, HSR lines can draw a few privileged passengers away from inland air travel, but is it really the right priority, when the same money could be just what we need in order to get millions of commuters out of their cars, and on to public transport?

With HSR, endpoint inhabitants in major cities will have a new alternative to travel fast and convenient from city to city. But the people in between are likely to end up with fewer train connections (high-speed trains make few stops), or no train station at all. Because of the need to make HSR-lines very straight, it is also likely that the in-between stations will be built away from city centres, surrounded by malls and shopping centres in connection to the new station. The effect of that is – as we all know – increased car dependence.

Building HSR is extremely expensive and, as a consequence, so is their ticket price. Since the HSR service started running from Paris to Brussels, there is no regular train service left on the route. Ticket prices on the HSR-line are very expensive, and so the budget traveler ends up with two options: bus or car.

Now, what effect will HSR have on carbon emissions? First, the high speed of the trains (top speed 300 km/h) increases energy consumption by at least 60 percent, compared to a modern train operating at regular speed (top speed 200 km/h). Some may argue that in the future this won’t be a problem, because then the energy will be renewable. But we know that for a long time ahead, most electricity in the world will continue to be generated from fossil fuels. High energy consumption equals fossil fuels burned, equals increased CO2 emissions.

Second, the ability of HSR to generate new traffic must be addressed. As described by Per Kågesson, researcher in environmental- and energy-systems analysis, at least 25 percent of the trips will be newly generated.

In the study Kågesson also concluded that one million yearly single trips on a typical 500 km line resulted in a reduction of about 9,000 tons of CO2-equivalents. That is about the same amount as the yearly personal emissions of 900 EU citizens. Considering that building the line causes millions of tons of CO2 emissions, 9,000 tons is negligible. It could take 50 years before even the carbon-debt of building the line is repaid. The climate crisis calls for a much faster response than that.

Calculating the indirect effects is more tricky. In order to do it you would need a systems analysis involving many assumptions about future development. So far there is no proof whatsoever that HSR would be helpful in building a less carbon-emitting society. On the contrary, there are many indications that it’s the other way around. More and more airliners start their own HSR-lines, or start cooperating with HSR-companies. Now you can even do the flight check-in on the train! What impact HSR can have on car-dependence is already described above.

We all know that we need to shift to a society much less dependent on cars and planes. But in doing that we must make sure that we do not build a new unsustainable infrastructure. Local and regional rail investments, combined with airliners starting to pay for their external costs through fuel taxes, is likely to be the fastest and most fair way to make that shift.

Hampus Rubaszkin is a member of the Swedish Green Party and the Traffic and Waste Management Committee in the Stockholm City Hall.

Illustration by Fernanda Torre.


  1. Faizan
    Posted 30 September, 2010 at 19:25 | Permalink

    Many thanks to Hampus & Carbusters for this article. Hampus is very correct when he says we should holistically assess the “solutions” proposed for making the world sustainable, green, clean, etc. Greenwash is abound. Beware!

  2. Eric Britton
    Posted 8 October, 2010 at 12:03 | Permalink

    I have followed Carbusters since the very beginning, and while their point of view is not always my point of view, I have always appreciated their in -our-face style — much needed in a world of people and organizations that all too often prefer comfort and convenience to the bumpy road of hard truths. So bravo CB and to Hampus for putting a thorn into the side of a policy and investment issue which is all too rarely examined for what it is really worth.

  3. Ben
    Posted 1 February, 2011 at 18:34 | Permalink

    I believe we should always look at new and expensive developments skeptically. But here in the US we have spent at least as much on freeway development and have no rail lines at all between major destinations, and there are certainly travel corridors (e.g. the west coast of the US) that would be very well served by HSR.

    I would bet that making it possible to travel from Seattle to L.A. by rail would eliminate a lot of car and plane trips.

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