At the end of October, both New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and, believe it or not, Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, passed their cosponsored bill in the Senate to allocate $1.9 billion per year for six years to expand passenger rail in the U.S. According to Parade magazine (yes, the one that’s inserted into Sunday newspapers), the main goal is “to develop high-speed, short-haul rail corridors modeled on the European city-to-city routes. They could run between Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.; Portland and Seattle; Chicago and Detroit; Miami and Jacksonville, Fla.” In addition, the Senate wants to give Amtrak a solid long-term financial foundation. (Imagine!)

The same Parade article, entitled “A better way to travel,” extols the benefits of rail:

Many transportation experts insist that the best answer to transportation gridlock is efficient intercity rail travel. Trains use one-fifth less energy than cars or planes … Amtrak ridership was up for the fifth year in a row, reaching record levels — despite the fact that a third of trains arrived late last year … Severe weather will further add to the transportation turmoil, leading travelers to look for alternatives to air travel.

And what about global warming? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a report in September 2007, “Public Transportation’s Contribution to Greenhouse Gas Reduction” which directly addresses the issue. According to their calculations, public transit, use saves 37 percent of the CO2 that would have been emitted had private transportation been used (19.2 million metric tons, including traffic congestion) instead of public transit ( 12.3 million metric tons). And that’s including a lot of diesel-powered trains and buses.

Furthermore:

U.S. CAFE standards alone do not adequately deal with the rising emissions from the rising levels of VMT [vehicle miles traveled]. If the growth rate of VMT continues at historical growth rates, the transportation share of GHG emissions will not decline …

According to APTA data, emissions from mobile sources rose from 1,523 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 1,960 million metric tons in 2004. That’s a 22 percent increase, about 80 percent of which came from light trucks, SUVs, and trucks.

The APTA study also finds, not surprisingly, that:

… to optimize mass transit’s competitive advantages in terms of speed, convenience, and desirability, urban and suburban planning and design are required to encourage greater use of public transportation. There are a number of examples and case studies in public transportation of recent initiatives that have been successful in accomplishing this …

They go on to list efforts in the Seattle and Grand Rapids area, as well as the continued increase in energy efficiency of the NYC metropolitan region. Since “the carbon footprint of a typical U.S. household is about 22 metric tonnes per year … reducing the daily use of one low occupancy vehicle and using public transit can reduce a household’s carbon footprint between 25-30%.”

Running below the radar, even conservative Trent Lott has jumped on board (pun intended) the movement to increase rail use. Unless public transit is increased along with more stringent CAFE standards, better fuel efficiency won’t have much of an effect because of the constant increase in vehicle-miles-traveled. Solving the greenhouse-gas emission problem in transportation must be a two-pronged approach — more efficient cars and trucks and more rail.