Arpad Horpath and Mikhael V. Chester compared the entire lifecycle (from infrastructure to train, plane, bus or car ride) of the four major forms of travel and found that light rail is often more energy and greenhouse gas-intensive than flying. That’s because flying requires minimal infrastructure, while light rail uses plentiful resources for laying down tracks and building stations.
This doesn’t mean we should give up on light rail systems. Horpath and Chester suggest that less energy-intensive methods should be used to construct train systems–i.e. the replacement of concrete with lower-impact materials and cleaner fuels used for infrastructure operation.
While the study doesn’t take into account the impact of high-speed rail, it’s safe to assume that infrastructure operations are just as energy-intensive. But since high-speed trains are still a pipe dream in most parts of the U.S., we have the chance to begin the construction process with emissions and energy use in mind. Before embarking on the construction of a trans-continental rail system, the government should consider the lifecycle impact.