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Investment in high-speed rail makes environmental, as well as economic, sense

By David Hewitt - 14 Dec 2010 18:3:1 GMT
Investment in high-speed rail makes environmental, as well as economic, sense

The upcoming launch of a new high-speed rail service between Madrid and Valencia has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by Madrilenos keen to escape winter chills in the Spanish capital and be lounging on a Mediterranean beach just 90 minutes later. And, with the high-speed links already in place between Barcelona and Madrid - not to mention London and Paris - when the first AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) train pulls out Atocha station bound for the balmy coast on December 19th, it won't just be the Spaniards, but Europeans in general cheering as the latest piece of a super-efficient, continent-wide public transport infrastructure is slotted into place.

What's more, though this latest addition to the already-enviable AVE network may well have come at a heavy economic price for a country mired in recession, new research shows that, on an environmental level at least, it has been money well spent.

Of course, it's always been something of a truism that travelling by train is more eco-friendly than travelling to destinations such as Valencia by air, even if it is on a train so powerful it is capable of reaching 205mph. But only now are passengers making use of the AVE network able to boost their green credentials using cold, hard statistics. According to a new report commissioned by the Spanish Railways Federation, the typical travellers going from Madrid to Valencia, for example, by high-speed train would emit 31 fewer kilograms of CO2 than a traveller who made the same journey by air.

Furthermore, despite their extra power, such high-speed trains even offer significant carbon emission savings over slower trains, largely as they tend to stop less.

"A high speed train operating in normal conditions consumes less energy and produces less CO2 emissions per passenger transported (on average 29% less) than a conventional train travelling between the same two points at a lower speed," lead researcher and study author explained in the journal Transportation Research Record.

However, the team behind the report argue that the biggest advantage of investing in an enhanced AVE network is the fact that, by cutting speeds, operators can persuade consumers to ditch their cars or even turn away from low-cost flights in favour of public transport. Add-on enhanced business links and then the case for investing heavily in such technology is strong to say the least, even when public money is tight.

This is certainly the belief in Britain where, perhaps with an eye to the Spanish and French railways, the coalition government has pledged to push on with plans to invest heavily in a new high-speed rail link between London and the 'Second City' of Birmingham, even though it is looking to tighten the purse strings in almost every other area of public spending. In fact, when ministers set out their proposals for an enhanced rail infrastructure suitable for the demands of the 21st century, it looks likely that the greatest dissent will come from individuals wary of having new lines put down in their own backyards, rather than from dissenters arguing about money matters, such are the perceived benefits, both economic and environmental, of high-speed rail.