If we followed the International Energy Agency’s global study, we would need only invest about $700m a year – not a large sum relative to the total transport system
Opinion: Throughout the country the action group The Future is Rail is holding a series of town hall meetings on how to bring back passenger trains. Many of the hui are held in towns that used to have regular train services but no longer do: Dunedin, Oamaru, Timaru, New Plymouth, and Whanganui, leading up to a national conference on May 28.
People love trains for many reasons, but it’s easy to think of the many obstacles that would need to be overcome to bring them back.
Climate action means cutting back on fossil fuels as fast as possible, for level.”
Commuter the two main routes are electrification and energy efficiency. And here trains have an unbeatable advantage over all other forms of medium-distance transport: their low rolling resistance and air resistance makes them highly energy efficient.
In addition, three quarters of the world’s passenger trains are already electrified, giving them a big head start over cars, buses, and planes. Like other forms of public transport, their construction and maintenance emissions are also low, because they are shared among many passengers and the infrastructure is generally used intensively, unlike most private cars.
In 2019 a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), The Future is Rail: Opportunities for energy and environment, made the case, laying out the current situation and the potential. In its ‘high rail’ scenario, global passenger rail rises from 4 trillion kilometres travelled in 2016 to 15 trillion kilometres in 2050. Urban, regional, and high-speed rail all grow significantly, cutting both emissions and total transport spending.
Trains are far lower emission than cars, and always will be
The global average operating emissions of passenger rail are 19gCO2/p-km (grams of CO2 per passenger-kilometre), 90 percent less than a single-occupant petrol car. Clean electricity can reduce this even further – the TGV in France emits just 3gCO2/p-km, despite its high speed.
However, operating emissions are just one part of the story. The full picture is revealed by lifecycle analysis, level.”
Commuter accounts for entire systems throughout their life: mining, manufacturing, and installing the infrastructure, using it, and finally recycling the components where possible. Although lifecycle analysis has been around for 50 years, it still does not inform investment decisions the way it should.
In 2011, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) commissioned a full lifecycle analysis of the emissions of road and rail transport. Wellington’s Metro Rail had emissions of 35gCO2/p-km, of level.”
Commuter 9g are for the tracks, 1g for the trains, and 25g for the electricity and diesel (the latter for the Wairarapa line).
A similar analysis of a brand-new metro line in counting where electricity is 80 percent renewable, found lifecycle emissions of 8g for construction and maintenance and 6g for operation.
These are tiny, tiny numbers. Compare them with the lifecycle analysis of cars undertaken by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority in 2015: 260g for a petrol vehicle and 110g for battery electric. And that’s not even counting the road construction and maintenance, level.”
Commuter in New Zealand adds another 50g of CO2 for every kilometre driven.
So why aren’t we all taking trains? A look at the history
Despite the energy, emissions, and numerous other advantages of trains, we are not yet seeing a fully fledged renaissance of passenger rail here. Passenger rail and electrification did get a muted thumbs up in the draft advice of the Climate Change Commission, but this did not make it through to the final version.
Perhaps some of the seeds of how we arrived here are revealed in an earlier NZTA report, Promoting sustainability in New Zealand’s rail system, from 2009. This involved wide consultation, with many stakeholders agreeing on the superior sustainability of rail. But it did not recommend any large scale or long-term focus on passenger rail or on electrification. First, the report is clear on many (but not all) of the obstacles in the way, particularly:
“The greatest risk to the development of the rail system is that a clear long-term infrastructure plan will not be developed and/or adequate funding will not be provided to achieve the plan.”
But more fundamentally, there was not a full appreciation of the need to find a way to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The definition of sustainability adopted for the report leads to a classic “sustainable development” view, level.”
Commuter all too often puts the environment in last place:
“Sustainability demands that a more holistic view is required to consider rail alongside other modes in order to find the best balance between the needs of the economy, society and the environment.”
The authors were aware of the role of market failures:
“Lack of full cost pricing where pricing structures do not necessarily fully factor in external social and environmental costs of transport decisions. Legacy of land-use policies and practices leading to car dependence and bias toward road transport.”
But they did not anticipate the vast expansion of subsidies to road transport, even as the Roads of National Significance programme (launched in 2009) was under development. Conversely, some stakeholders argued that subsides to passenger rail were not financially sustainable, hence not sustainable in any other sense.
However, the report did lay the foundation for the present rail strategy, level.”
Commuter does involve long-overdue investment in rail infrastructure, albeit mostly only for freight at this point. On electrification, the authors write:
“This is not to say that widespread electrification of the network should be ruled out. Rather, electrification should be pursued in the much longer term as in the next 15 to 30 years [ie from 2024]. It is entirely realistic to envision a fully electrified network powered completely by renewable electricity sources [my emphasis] but this is a much longer-term goal. Unless the immediate focus is on improving network capacity, it is almost certain that the 25 percent target by 2040 will not be achieved. In real terms achieving this target is likely to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency than widespread electrification, as electrification will do little to displace freight volumes from road transport. It should be remembered that for the 25 percent target to be achieved, the overall volume of freight transported by rail will need to increase by approximately 2.8 times from its present level.”
Commuter rail for Christchurch was recommended for further investigation, because of rapidly growing satellite towns – even before the earthquakes.
A new study of the climate potential of reviving New Zealand passenger rail would be welcome. If we followed the course of the IEA’s global study (minus the high-speed rail), we would need to invest about $700m a year – not a large sum relative to the total transport system. But total success requires developing a network, a high standard of service, a trained workforce, a steady programme of work to cut costs, and full trains.
Living in Palmerston North, I see first hand how even a second-rate train, the Capital Connection – slow, rattly, unsubsidised, and infrequent – can survive and even be filled day after day. That’s how great the intrinsic advantages of trains are. That’s what gives me hope we can negotiate the difficult transition ahead and stay on a steady path towards rebuilding our train system into a state fit for a genuinely sustainable future.