Back On Track

Shifting public spending from roads and airports
to finance a global rail revival

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 6
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

A growing world transportation crisis is driving government funding away from building roads and airports and toward a global rail revival.

  • European planners are creating a high-speed rail system connecting every major European city.
  • China plans a $20 billion investment in rail expansion and upgrading by 1995.
  • Germany will invest more in rail infrastructure than in roads through the year 2010.
  • California is building a 400-mile Los Angeles regional commuter rail system.

Road building and car production still dominate transportation budgets worldwide, but planners are discovering that continued building of more roads and airports worsens problems of gridlock, pollution, and safety.

Expanding the role of rail would relieve traffic congestion, which not only causes stress and inconvenience, but also costs countries billions of dollars a year in lost employee time and delayed delivery of goods. The United States General Accounting Office reports that productivity losses from highway congestion cost the nation some $100 billion annually. "Winglock" represents further costly delays. The International Air Traffic Association estimates that Europe loses $10 billion each year to air traffic tie-ups.

Rail also has an advantage in its outstanding safety record. In Japan between 1964 and 1992, more than 3 billion passenger trips were made on high-speed bullet trains without a fatal accident; the same volume of road travel killed some 2,000 people. In the US, kilometer for kilometer, the risk of dying in an auto accident is some 18 times greater than the risk of dying in a train accident.

In contrast to highways and airports, which pave over vast expanses of land, railways accommodate passengers and freight in a modest amount of space. Two railroad tracks can carry as many people in an hour as 16 lanes of highway. Compare Chicago’s sprawling O’Hare airport – the world’s busiest with 60 million passengers each year – with the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, which handles 150 million passengers in only a fraction of the space.

Rather than the strip malls and sprawling developments that spring up along highways and around airports, urban rail typically encourages compact, higher-value land use. One example is the $70 billion in new apartments, office buildings, and other developments located near the rapid rail lines in otherwise low-density Atlanta, Georgia. Rail stations also help spark redevelopment in urban cores: Victoria Station in London, Brussels’ Central Terminal, and Washington, DC’s Union Station have all been renovated recently into lively complexes with new offices, restaurants, and shops.

Further, trains offer a vital alternative for people who cannot afford a car or airline ticket, or are physically unable to drive or fly. Only an estimated 10 percent of the world’s people can afford a car. Flying is the privilege of an even smaller elite, with people in North America and Western Europe – less than 13 percent of the world’s population – accounting for nearly three-fourths of global air travel. Even in the highly mobile US, which nearly has a car for every two people, more than 10 million households have no motor vehicle.

Despite the clear advantages of trains, the global rail revival faces daunting obstacles. Chief among them is governments’ failure in past decades to make adequate investments in rail systems. In cities and countries across the globe, ensuring the success of the current rail revival will require bold policy measures. Key steps include:

  • Raising the price of road transport to more accurately reflect its true costs – from urban smog and global climate change to the pavement damage caused by heavy trucks;
  • Making it convenient to reach train stations without a car – by improving bus and bicycle access and direct links to airports;
  • Reforming land use policies to guide urban growth into less car-dependent patterns.

Excerpted, with permission by Worldwatch Institute, from Worldwatch Paper #118, Back on Track: The Global Rail Revival.

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