Highway era ends in France, but how green is the high-speed train?

The Grenelle has officially sounded the end of the all-highway, all-car, all-lorry era in France and transport policy is going to undergo a radical paradigm shift towards high-speed trains, rail freight, river transport and lorries transported on high-speed trains. Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo put it thus: “For 30 years we have built lots of roads and highways…It’s finished. We are not going to add to the road capacity.” He also said that there will be no new airports, burying at one stroke a controversial plan for a third airport to extend saturated capacity in the Paris region.
According to the official text of the Grenelle, “new road and highway infrastructure will be limited to cases where there are issues of security, congestion or local interest.” That leaves the door open to the 2500-kilometers of planned new highways currently on the backburner. But each project will be submitted a committee (yet to be established) which will examine the environmental and carbon emissions impact on a case-by-case basis. Another key element of the new “back to rail” strategy is combined lorry and rail transportation, or “ferroutage” in French. A new line was unveiled in September linking Luxemburg and Perpignan, and Sarkozy announced that a second one will be developed between the north and south of France.

The centerpiece of the “back to rail” paradigm is the plan to construct 2000 kilometers of high-speed train lines by 2020, followed by additional 2500 kilometers by 2030. It’s an article of faith here in France that high-speed trains are the greenest way to travel, but nonetheless it is still worth asking how green they truly are? A study conducted in 2003 by life-cycle researchers at Martin Luther University in Germany showed that it takes 48 kilograms of solid primary resources for one passenger to travel 100 kilometers by a high-speed train. The study measured everything: the running costs of train retrofitting factories, the gasoline used by passengers getting to the station, even the provision of drinking water. They added these to the numbers for carbon dioxide emissions, cumulative energy demand, and so on to derive a “material input per service unit” for train service. The most onerous part of the process is actually moving the train, but the construction of tunnels and heating rail track points during winter also impose a signficant cost.

On the subject of a massive shift back to rail freight, it is ironic that the national railway company SNCF announced only this year that it would be shutting down 262 regional freight platforms (ie 262 stations that will not longer accept to load and unload merchandise) and laying off thousands of employees. It’s not clear whether the Grenelle will result in a reversal of that decision. Earlier shutdowns of SNCF freight capacity between 2004-2006 as part of a cost-cutting plan sent an additional million and a half lorries back onto France’s highways per year.

via Le Monde, Actu-environnement


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