The Impact of Rail on the American Environment

Most environmental agencies see rail as a preferred means of transportation when compared to road. The transportation of freight in America is primarily done by both trucks and trains, and environmentalists, generally, see rail as a lower air polluter and a positive contributor to reducing traffic from highways and cities. Passenger rail is likewise seen as a smart way to move large numbers of people around energy efficiently. Rail in America has a great history and was one of the key elements in the industrial expansion of the nation during the nineteenth century.

The railway moguls of the nineteenth century made huge amounts of money and contributed to high employment levels in the US, with rail being the largest employer outside of the agriculture industry. Names like Vanderbilt and JP Morgan became well known around the country as giants of American industry and wealth. The American rail business employed over two million people at one point early in the twentieth century. This number had fallen to two hundred thousand by the twenty first century due to the computerisation of rail throughout the country.

High speed rail as an idea has become popular in the US, but not as a reality, as in many other countries around the globe. There has been a strong backlash against these trains based on the noise and vibration pollution they produce. In America the EPA has developed noise/vibration measures to limit the unrestrained expansion of high speed rail into affected high density residential areas. In some European countries high speed trains can only run during daylight hours and not in the hours when most people would be sleeping.

Trains, which are carrying large amounts of crude oil as freight, and then crashing, have become hot topics with environmental groups recently in the US. Eco-groups on social media are calling these trains rolling bombs and are calling for them to be banned and/or much tighter controls placed on their movements. The amount of oil freight on rail has increased substantially in the last six years and so the dangers posed have also increased. A tanker freight train carries much more oil than a road tanker and when it derails it can damage huge areas; half a town in one case in Canada in 2013.

Rail has waned over the last century as a means of long distance passenger transportation, being replaced by aeroplanes. It is still seen as an energy efficient means of short distance transport in cities and it can reduce gridlock on the roads. The high speed train was seen as a new answer to long distance passenger travel but noise/vibration pollution concerns in residential areas have been vociferously raised to block expansion. The movement of freight on rail is seen as a preferred method by environmental agencies, but with potentially dangerous substances like crude oil being involved much greater safety precautions must be strenuously enforced on the industry.

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  • Written by Claire Furthers