09 April, 2005

Intercity Transit

I've been looking at intercity transit lately with an eye toward energy efficiency. This government report has been quite useful. Apparently, intercity, commercial (at least, "certificated") air transport uses 3,703 BTUs/passenger-mile compared to 4,803 Amtrak, 3,581 automobile, and 932 or so Greyhound. (Figures 2.11-2.13), all numbers c. 2001.

Airplanes have made major improvements over the last 30 years in energy spent per passenger mile, cars have made modest improvements, and Amtrak has gone backward (!). But the reasons why airplanes are so competitive with Amtrak is capacity: airplanes carry 96 passengers/trip, out of an average capacity of 133 passengers. (Figure 9.2) Amtrak carries an average 14 passengers/car (2.11), out of an average capacity of 90 or so (random googling). So if Amtrak filled more seats, it would be more than competitive with airplanes and at the same level as greyhound. But as it is, it's a big waste of energy--a slower, less efficient (per passenger-mile) form of transportation. It goes from NYC to LA in 3-4 days as opposed to 6 hours.

So what should an energy-conscious passenger do? Ride greyhound, which is pretty uncomfortable for very long distances? Ride the least efficient mode (Amtrak) on the belief that doing so will help make it more efficient? Ride the airplanes because they're pretty much comparable to the non-uncomfortable forms of transportation? If you believe there's a real chance of Americans mass-converting air miles to rail miles, than maybe investing in increasing Amtrak's load makes sense. But if you think Amtrak is a lost cause and people would rather just cancel trips than take 4 days to cross the country, then riding Amtrak is your worst possible choice (besides driving alone, of course).

But, really, that is, exactly, the best solution for cutting down transportation energy use: we have to cut down on passenger miles. This guy says that Americans, on average, travel fifty times as many miles by motorized transport in the year 2000 compared to the year 1900. Do we really need to?

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