Something that I’ve missed since moving to the United States is the accessibility of public transportation. Public transit, whether in the form of subways, buses, or trains, emits less carbon per person. I remember how a few summers ago I was visiting a friend who was studying abroad in Germany and we hopped onto a train that took us from one end of the country to the other in a matter of hours. Not having to worry about excess carbon emission made my trip that much more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the U.S. lags far behind when it comes to long-distance trains, relying heavily on air travel and cars instead. Two hundred twenty million metric tons of CO2 are emitted annually from U.S. flights. Two-thirds, so approximately 146 million metric tons, come from domestic flights. To put this in perspective, the average annual carbon footprint for a U.S. citizen is “only” 16 tons in comparison. This is still nothing in comparison to the annual carbon footprint from standard vehicles. Conventional cars, light-duty trucks (think your cousin’s pick-up truck), and motorcycles emit approximately 2 billion metric tons of CO2. This is in the U.S. alone.
Well, train lovers rejoice—because the era of clean train travel is arriving in the U.S. Before the Tesla Model S was even cruising down the city streets, the rail company Norfolk Southern had a dream to create a locomotive that could run on zero emissions. When the plans were initially drawn up, the technology was still bringing up the rear of the idea’s geniuses. It was scrapped because it would have been too expensive to produce and run. Since then, electric batteries have gotten better and cheaper to produce. Rail Propulsions Systems (RPS) bought out the original locomotive, named 999, and finished the plan. Now, this zero-emissions locomotive is ready to be introduced to southern California’s Los Angeles Basin.
With the air quality in the Basin nearly the worst in the country due to the widely used diesel engines in the trains in the area, locomotive 999 will be a welcome sight. RPS is also testing a second battery-electric train, nicknamed 1201. However, these two are only the start for RPS. The rail company hopes to recycle and modernize already existing locomotives. RPS Chief Technical Officer Dave Cook says that “the manufacture of a new locomotive has a huge carbon footprint. Up to 100 tons of new steel, plastics and copper wiring goes into new construction. We are able to re-use the main components avoiding the production of tons of CO2.”
What does this have to do with the rest of the transport sector? I’m sure you’re wondering. The diesel fuel air quality catastrophe in the Los Angeles Basin is a common obstacle when discussing bringing in a better rail system to the U.S. Before now, it was hard to see what the benefit would be to build a national rail system that would be able to connect the entire country. Although this would create another mode of travel, with diesel or coal operated trains, the carbon footprint wouldn’t be much better than the aviation sector if it ended up being used widely. With locomotives 999 and 1201 soon starting their journeys throughout California, travel by train will be the cleanest mode of transportation.
It’s time to start speaking up for a national railway system. The future and the past will collide to reduce our national carbon emissions and save our planet.
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Photo by Antoine Beauvillain on Unsplash