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Trains not planes? The Green New Deal's rail controversy explained

Commentary: The Democrats' recently unveiled Green New Deal aims to reduce the US's carbon footprint... by doing away with airplanes?

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
Senate Democrats/Flickr

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey last week unveiled the Democrats' Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution with the goal of curbing greenhouse emissions while creating jobs and improving infrastructure. 

One part of this proposal stuck out to me as part of my coverage of train transportation tech here at CNET: That one way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions was to invest and expand our high-speed rail network. How timely, I thought -- I just wrote about that. But this aspect of the Green New Deal was also one of the most ridiculed. Here's why.

Trains over planes?

Much of the discussion around the Green New Deal's high-speed rail proposals revolves around one line: "...build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary." If you think this is a ridiculous concept, you're not alone. Countless media outlets across the political spectrum found much amusement with that line.

Except... the Green New Deal doesn't actually say that (see the full text in this PDF). The above quote is from an overview FAQ sent out by Ocasio-Cortez's office, not the proposal itself. This FAQ since been taken down.

High-speed trains in the US

See all photos

What the proposal says

Here's the actual text of the proposal: "...overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; clean, affordable and accessible public transit; and high-speed rail."

Since the actual GND proposal doesn't say we should do away with airplanes -- because of course we can't, nor should we -- I'll leave it to others to discuss the FAQ versus the actual Green New Deal. If you want to form your own opinion, read the text in the official PDF.

The case for high-speed rail

As someone who's covered the subject for a while, my opinion is simple: Expanding our high-speed rail network makes sense in some parts of the country.

Of course it has its share of problems in the US. We're a big country, and planes will likely always be a more popular option than trains when for traveling from New York to LA or, yes, to Alaska or Hawaii. And like most big government projects, high-speed rail has high costs -- the California High Speed Rail project, for example, is already well over budget and behind schedule. Rail systems in the US are traditionally run by governments rather than corporations, and so are inherently political. (The only private passenger train company in the US recently went public to cover costs.) And current rail systems in the US are plagued by limited routes and low-speed diesel locomotives

I still think high-speed rail in the US is a good idea for many reasons. The reduction in fossil fuel usage is certainly one of them. The California HSR project, for instance, aims to run on 100 percent renewable energy. In all the regions where high-speed rail is being seriously considered, the majority of power is generated by cleaner methods than the gasoline that's burned by cars or airplanes.

California High-Speed Rail Authority

Infrastructure improvements are generally something both sides of the aisle can get behind, and our aging rail network, not to mention bridges and rail crossings, is in desperate need of work. It pains me to say it, but if you visit countries like Japan, France, even China, our bridges, roads and rails seem archaic and shockingly dilapidated.

Studies have found that high-speed rail is an economic benefit overall, despite the initial costs. There are also benefits to cities themselves by reducing traffic and increasing growth to a region, not just the city itself. This has been found true in regions that already have significant high-speed rail, such as Europe and China.

Rails and runways

Say what you want about Ocasio-Cortez, but she certainly pushes the debate. It's been a long time since we've had a nationwide conversation about a sweeping environmental policy. Her popularity is in part due to her vocally standing up for liberal policies in a Democratic party that is, overall, not nearly as liberal as conservative pundits like to claim.

Which brings us back to the Green New Deal, at least the small part we're talking about here. This isn't law, merely a nonbinding resolution. That means that even if it were to pass -- which it probably won't because Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not a fan and the Republican-controlled Senate won't take it up -- it doesn't create any new laws or programs. 

What it does is start a conversation, one that many Democratic 2020 hopefuls are interesting in having. By starting the conversation from the left, whatever policy that results could be more centrist than if the policy started in the center, and got pulled more to the right.

And as far as trains go, many of the most likely areas for high-speed rail are either well into the planning stages, or in the case of California, already being built. High-speed rail between New York and Los Angeles will never make sense. But between New York and Chicago? Portland and Vancouver via Seattle? Houston and Dallas? There are many city pairs that do make sense for high-speed rail. 

China, Japan, France, Spain, Italy and more countries all have city pairs with similar populations and distances as these that are already served by high-speed rail. My guess is most people in the US would also appreciate the option of not having to go through the hassle of an airport to take shorter trips. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is an added bonus. It just comes down to a serious desire and push to do it, which is one thing the Green New Deal wants to create. 

At the very least, it has certainly enlivened the discussion.  

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does these tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.