The air versus rail debate is strong in Europe, but is there any hope for high speed rail in the US?

Airlines worldwide are working to become better environmental stewards through the adoption of a variety of activities, ranging from carbon offsets to reducing cabin waste. And the biofuel industry has taken off during the past decade, with some airlines investing in biofuel development companies as work continues to bring alternative fuels to the mass market.


Summary:

  • Airlines worldwide are working to become better environmental stewards but, for now, North America appear to be staying apart from the ‘Flight Shaming’ movement;
  • This could be due to the limited alternative transport options with high-speed rail pretty much non-existent outside of the northeastern corridor;
  • But, there are some signs that the high-speed rail debate could be revived in the United States of America during the not too distant future.

For now, North American airlines appear to be staying apart from the ‘Flight Shaming’ movement that has swept across Europe. There could be several reasons for those operators steering clear of the agitation, and the most obvious is that there is little prospect of high speed rail ever becoming a reality in North America’s largest aviation market – the United States of America (USA).

But there are some signs that the high speed rail debate could be revived in the country during the not too distant future. In the US, high speed rail outside the northeastern corridor is essentially non-existent. Automobile travel is essentially a way of life for Americans, and recent efforts at building a structure for high speed rail have been, well, ‘derailed’.

A recent piece in Dope Magazine titled The Great American Train Debate highlights efforts by the administration of former president US Barack Obama to create blueprints for high speed rail systems in ten different parts of the country. But, because Republicans won significant victories in the 2010 US mid-term elections, newly elected governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio nixed those projects, and California’s high speed rail project has also, for the time being, essentially been cancelled.

The publication summed up the view of high speed rail’s proponents as, “America’s love for driving is an unsustainable addiction, forcing us to spend big on automotive infrastructure even as problems with traffic and greenhouse gases worsen”.

A component of the Green New Deal proposed by US legislators earlier in 2019 is building out high speed rail travel, and according to factcheck.org, background materials from the high profile freshman legislator Republican Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regarding the bill include the following statement: “Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.”

In contrary to what is being proposed in Europe, most notably within France, it should be noted that factcheck.org, also stated that the actual resolution introduced in the US Congress did not include any language suggesting an end to air travel.

Given the partisan environment in the US and the historical aversion by Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s opposition party to high speed rail, some aspects of the Green New Deal remain aspirational, for now. However, Ms Ocasio-Cortez represents a growing segment of the US electorate that is zeroing in on climate change as a global crisis, and both she and US Democratic hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders have joined together to pressure the US Congress to declare climate change a national emergency.

The move is largely rhetoric at this point, but the message is clear that the influence of climate change advocates in the US and worldwide will continue (rightfully) to grow. The ever increasing profile of climate change in the public consciousness will increase pressure on aviation to reach for more ambitious goals. North American airlines will also continue to feel that pressure to become better environmental stewards as the voices calling for climate change to be declared a national emergency grow stronger.

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