Obama has released his plan for the expanded development of passenger rail in America.
Best practice in high-speed passenger rail is, of course, to power it electrically, from overhead wires. And these things use significant amounts of electricity. A quick search reveals that a French TGV train draws somewhere in the range of 6-12 megawatts. (For comparison, 6 MW is the amount of power consumed by 60,000 regular incandescent 100-watt bulbs.)
Most of the electricity that runs the TGV, of course, comes from France’s extensive nuclear power system. It’s unfortunate that Obama, with his admiration for things European, is not paying more attention to France’s very successful experience with nuclear power.
A quick look at the strategic plan indicates that only part of the proposed build-out would be in the form of dedicated (passenger-train-only) corridors (presumably electrically powered)–the rest would run on existing freight lines, although some of these might have overhead wires added to permit electrical operation. This New Republic article, and this National Review article, suggest that adding passenger traffic to these lines could actually increase energy consumption and CO2 emissions by driving more congestion of the lines and hence increasing freight transit times and reducing the attractiveness of rail vs. truck to shippers.
One thing that is not generally appreciated is that the U.S. has a large, efficient, and successful freight-rail network. A paper cited in the New Republic article asserts that while 38% of freight in the U.S. moves by rail, only 8% of European freight moves via this mode. Part of the difference is accounted for by geographical factors–shorter distances and more use of sea and river transport in Europe–but not all of it. This system is a huge national asset, and people should keep it in mind when they talk about the superiority of European and Japanese passenger rail to our own.
Indeed, it would have been nice if President Obama, in his speech on passenger rail, had mentioned the U.S. freight rail system and spent a few moments giving credit to the people–management and labor–who pulled this system up from the dismal state in which it existed 30 years ago and thereby made an important contribution to the economic well-being of all Americans.