Friday, December 21, 2007

Rail Revival?

Railroads are posed to stage a comeback. U.S. railroad miles peaked at 380,000 in 1920s, then went into decline as the interstate highway system and the motor carrier industry provided competition. By 2006, railroads had abandoned nearly 70% of its track, with only 120,000 miles of track left.

Recently, however, rail transport has been making something of a comeback, as rising fuel prices, concern over global warming and fuel supplies, and traffic congestion, have brought energy efficiency to the fore. A 2000 study by the Oak Ridge national Laboratory found that intercity rail was the second most efficient mode of passenger traffic, surpassed only by intercity bus service.

This month, the national Surface transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommended a $357.2 billion investment in rail by 2050 to significantly expand intercity passenger rail service by 2050, citing safety, energy efficiency, and as an alternative to driving.

At the same time, other countries are exploring even more energy efficient forms of rail travel. Earlier this year Japan unveiled a clean energy hybrid prototype that uses a battery powered motor at low speeds. Japan has plans to run a hybrid tram in Tokyo, although they are still trying to modify and improve the hybrid train's performance.

In the U.S., a popular program in recent years has been the rails-to-trails movement that has converted abandoned railway right of ways into bicycle and hiking trails. But with the resurgence of interest in rail traffic, rails-to-trails has come into conflict with possible future rail development. In California, a long planned coastal hiking a and biking trail, envisioned as an alternative to auto traffic, has run into a roadblock as the state transportation agency--trying to balance the demands on the rail corridor--waits for rail plans that could include a high speed train system reaching from Sacramento to San Diego.

Although these developments are largely under the radar now, rail transportation is very likely to become increasingly important in the future as an efficient alternative to highway traffic.