Electric Aviation Compared to High Speed Rail

In a future world with expensive oil and limits on carbon emissions, rail is a leading contender for freight and passenger transport. High speed rail has been deployed successfully in Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia. The United States has a large rail freight industry and there are proposals to build high speed rail passenger services between major population centers. A notable example is the planned $18 billion project to link San Francisco to San Diego in California. The first leg of this project has been announced recently with some controversy. Due to protests by residents of the San Francisco area plus limited funds, the first leg will not connect any major cities.


First leg of California high-speed rail project chosen, critics call it a ‘train to nowhere’

Citing a need for jobs and fast-approaching federal deadlines for funding, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board on Thursday unanimously approved construction of the first leg of the project — a 65-mile section in the Central Valley that would not operate trains until more of the system is built.

Costing at least $4.15 billion, the segment would run between Borden and Corcoran with stations in Fresno and Hanford, which are located in an area of the state hit so hard by the recession and declines in agriculture that it has been dubbed the New Appalachia.

Let’s compare the benefits of electric rail with electric aviation:

  1. Carbon dioxide emissions – both forms of transport use electricity and can potentially use carbon neutral power sources like wind and solar. They have equal ability to offset existing emissions from conventional aviation and road transport.
  2. Capital costs – Electric aviation does not require the construction of rails, bridges, viaducts and tunnels. The capital costs for rail are much higher than aviation.
  3. Passenger convenience – Electric aviation would allow much more frequent journeys and point-to-point transport. Train schedules would be limited by access to the single track. Typically, inter-city services operate hourly or less often.
  4. Speed – Electric aviation would be faster than rail. Modern aircraft typically travel at 500 mph or faster. High speed trains operate at 200-250 mph.
  5. Noise pollution – Electric aviation would be almost silent for the take-off and cruise phases. The landing would cause moderate noise in the vicinity of the airport. High speed rail would generate considerably more noise for the length of it’s journey.
  6. Land use – high speed trains require dedicated corridors of land for rails and supporting infrastructure. The land purchases are a major obstacle to the roll-out of rail to new routes. Electric aviation does not require new land purchases and will be deployed using the existing footprint of airports.
  7. Geographic distribution – Most small regional towns in America have an air-strip. It is possible to deploy electric aviation at thousands of towns in a decentralized fashion. Realistically, high speed rail will only reach a small fraction of towns between major population centers. Aviation will have much wider distribution due to the lower capital costs and land requirements.

High speed rail has been successful in some European countries, but it is notable that conventional aviation still provides a high percentage of the inter-city travel in Europe. The capital costs and limited distribution of high speed rail are major issues. Electric aviation can potentially deliver greater environmental benefits at lower cost.

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