EarthTalk: Rail Travel, Climate Change and Population

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


The U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to resuscitate train travel, which had dropped significantly since its peak in 1929. But ridership is low compared to that of other developed countries. The Obama Administration has now allocated $8 billion to upgrade and increase speeds on existing lines and create new high-speed lines in 10 corridors nationwide. Pictured: an Amtrak train passes south of Manassas, VA on a Sunday afternoon

Dear EarthTalk: If train travel is so much less polluting than driving or flying, why are passenger rail options in the U.S. so limited compared to Europe? And is anything being done to shift more travelers over to American rail lines from cars and planes? – Jeffrey Orenstein, Bradenton, FL

It’s true that train travel is one of the lowest impact ways to get from point to point short of walking, jogging or bicycling. In the early part of the 20th century, with car and air travel both in their infancies, taking the train was really the only practical way for Americans to get from city to city. And take the train they did: By 1929 the U.S. boasted one of the largest and most used rail networks in the world, with some 65,000 railroad passenger cars in operation across some 265,000 miles of track.

But a concerted campaign by U.S. carmakers to acquire rail lines and close them, along with a major push in Congress to build the world’s most extensive interstate highway system, combined to shift Americans’ tastes away from rail travel and toward cars. As a result, while Europe focused on building its own rail networks, the U.S. became the ultimate auto nation, with more cars per capita than anywhere else in the world. By 1965 only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation across just 75,000 miles of track.

In response to the declining use of America’s rail network, the U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to provide intercity passenger train service across the country, running mostly on pre-existing track already in use for freight transport. Today Amtrak runs some 1,500 rail passenger cars on 21,000 miles of track connecting 500 destinations in 46 states. In 2008, upwards of 28 million passengers rode Amtrak trains, representing the sixth straight year of record ridership for the publicly-owned rail line. Despite this growth, the U.S. still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usage rates in the developed world.

But that may all change soon. In the spring of 2009, President Obama allocated $8 billion of his stimulus package toward development of more high-speed rail lines across the country, citing the need to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil. Currently only one high-speed rail line exists in the U.S., Amtrak’s Acela Express, which can reach speeds of 150 mile per hour on its Washington, D.C. to Boston route. The success of high-speed, high-efficiency “bullet” trains in Asia and Europe—where train rides can be as fast as flying but without the long waits and security hassles—has helped convince American transportation analysts that the U.S. should also take the high speed rail plunge.

The first round of federal funding will go toward upgrading and increasing speeds on existing lines, but the majority of it will be used to jump-start construction of new high speed lines in 10 corridors across the country, including in northern New England, across New York State, across Pennsylvania, in and around Chicago, throughout the Southeast, and up and down the length of the west coast.

A 2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology concluded that building a high speed rail system across the U.S. (similar in scope to that proposed by Obama) would likely result in 29 million fewer car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights each year, saving six billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions—the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.

Center for Clean Air Policy
Center for Neighborhood Technology



World population numbers in rapidly developing countries must stabilize if efforts to curb emissions aren't to be erased by sheer numbers of more people. Many experts believe the answer to curbing population growth lies in: reducing poverty and infant mortality; increasing women?s and girls? access to health care, education and economic opportunity; and educating women about birth control and ensuring access to voluntary family planning services.

Dear EarthTalk: To what extent does human population growth impact global warming, and what can be done about it? – Larry LeDoux, Honolulu, HI

No doubt human population growth is a major contributor to global warming, given that humans use fossil fuels to power their increasingly mechanized lifestyles. More people means more demand for oil, gas, coal and other fuels mined or drilled from below the Earth’s surface that, when burned, spew enough carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere to trap warm air inside like a greenhouse.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, human population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion people during the course of the 20th century. (Think about it: It took all of time for population to reach 1.6 billion; then it shot to 6.1 billion over just 100 years.) During that time emissions of CO2, the leading greenhouse gas, grew 12-fold. And with worldwide population expected to surpass nine billion over the next 50 years, environmentalists and others are worried about the ability of the planet to withstand the added load of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on ecosystems down below.

Developed countries consume the lion’s share of fossil fuels. The United States, for example, contains just five percent of world population, yet contributes a quarter of total CO2 output. But while population growth is stagnant or dropping in most developed countries (except for the U.S., due to immigration), it is rising rapidly in quickly industrializing developing nations. According to the United Nations Population Fund, fast-growing developing countries (like China and India) will contribute more than half of global CO2 emissions by 2050, leading some to wonder if all of the efforts being made to curb U.S. emissions will be erased by other countries’ adoption of our long held over-consumptive ways.

“Population, global warming and consumption patterns are inextricably linked in their collective global environmental impact,” reports the Global Population and Environment Program at the non-profit Sierra Club. “As developing countries’ contribution to global emissions grows, population size and growth rates will become significant factors in magnifying the impacts of global warming.”

According to the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit environmental think tank, the overriding challenges facing our global civilization are to curtail climate change and slow population growth. “Success on these two fronts would make other challenges, such as reversing the deforestation of Earth, stabilizing water tables, and protecting plant and animal diversity, much more manageable,” reports the group. “If we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.”

Many population experts believe the answer lies in improving the health of women and children in developing nations. By reducing poverty and infant mortality, increasing women’s and girls’ access to basic human rights (health care, education, economic opportunity), educating women about birth control options and ensuring access to voluntary family planning services, women will choose to limit family size.

United Nations Population Fund
Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program
Worldwatch Institute

Image Credits: J.P. Mueller, courtesy Flickr, Jake Brewer, courtesy Flickr.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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  1. Hi this is truly encouraging news. Yes, train travel should be endorsed as it is the most green way for thousands of people to travel from one place to another. Planes and cars produce large amounts of emissions that adversely affect the environment. Government stepping in to create high speed rail corridors to facilitate this is a step in the right direction.

    Great news!
    Joost Hoogstrate


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