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Fast Trains Are Energy Efficient (And Fast)

Cars and planes make sense for short and long distances, but for intercity travel, they don’t even come close to fast trains

2 min read
Photo-illustration by Stuart Bradford
Photo-illustration: Stuart Bradford

I have no animosity toward cars and planes. For decades I have depended for local travel on a succession of reliable Honda Civics, and for years I have flown intercontinentally at least 100,000 miles annually. At these two extremes—a drive to an Italian food store, a flight from Winnipeg to Tokyo—cars and planes rule.

Energy intensity is the key. When I’m the only passenger in my Civic, it requires about 2 megajoules per passenger-kilometer in city driving. Add another passenger and that figure drops to 1 MJ/pkm, comparable to a half-empty bus. Jet airliners are surprisingly efficient, commonly requiring around 2 MJ/pkm. With full flights and the latest airplane designs, they can do it at less than 1.5 MJ/pkm. Of course, public-transit trains are far superior: At high passenger loads, the best subways need less than 0.1 MJ/pkm. But even in Tokyo, which has a dense network of lines, the nearest station may be more than a kilometer away, too far for many old people.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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