Abstract: Railways for passengers and freight offer strategic advantages in terms of energy efficiency and the ease of adaptation to electric mobility. The relatively small infrastructure footprint of modern rail also facilitates integration into densely developed spaces like city centers. These advantages and other benefits—such as the economic revival of regions left behind by globalization—fit well with current imperatives to lower carbon emissions while advancing sustainable mobility.

Citation: [AUTHOR (2021). “TITLE”] in Anderson et al. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Sustainability, 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

https://doi.org/10.47462/625053768

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

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Railways and Sustainability

Rail is perhaps the mode of transport most compatible with sustainable urban design and efficient mobility. It is widely applicable in urban and rural contexts, for both passenger and freight transport. And in the era of climate change and energy uncertainty, the energy efficiency delivered by trains, continually improved upon since their invention, offers unrivaled advantages in low-carbon and post-carbon mobility. Railways are characterized by their comparatively low negative externalities on the urban, social, and natural environments. (Noise pollution is one such externality with negative health consequences. Rail is Europe’s second-largest offender, but tangible countermeasures are being executed, such as Germany’s noise-reduction program which has spent nearly €2 billion since 1999 towards the goal of reducing rail’s noise level by half.)

Railways: Yesterday and Today

No longer enjoying the same prominence in many countries as in the first half of the twentieth century, railways have been stigmatized by some as an obsolete technology that was too slow to adapt to modern needs. Yet railways have made essential contributions to economic development and human mobility in much of the world since the mid-nineteenth century—sometimes quietly and sometimes not. Railways have also often adopted new technologies in order to provide leading-edge mobility options.

While many may associate rail transport mainly with countries in Europe and Asia because of their highly regarded passenger railway operations, freight rail continues to provide essential services in places like North America, where one finds trains longer than four kilometers. The extent of rail networks within countries varies widely because, unlike more globally integrated modes like aviation and marine infrastructure, rail infrastructure remains largely a domestic planning and policy domain. Table 1 shows the large variation in the density of rail infrastructure for various countries. Europe has the highest concentration, while countries where the rail market share is growing fastest occupy the two-lowest infrastructure density tiers. (Readers should note that all data and data trends presented in this chapter predate the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Table 1. Density of Rail Infrastructure (route-km/land sq km)

Extremely Low (0.020 km of route per sq/km or less)Low (0.021–0.04)Average (0.04–0.09)High (> 0.091)
FinlandIndiaJapan

Korea, South

CanadaFranceGermany
RussiaIrelandDenmarkBelgium
ChinaItalyCzech Rep.
Australia

US

Poland

Switzerland

UK
Austria
Hungary
Netherlands

Data obtained from the World Bank (2019, or most recently available by country).

Overall, the twentieth century saw railways scaling back and abandoning lightly used and redundant infrastructure. Yet since 2004, rail infrastructure has grown dramatically, mostly in China. While high-speed rail (HSR) dates back to the 1960s in Japan, China’s embrace of HSR has resulted in many thousands of new track-kilometers. The financial investment that China has made in constructing freight rail and HSR globally is helping to reinvigorate appreciation of rail’s role in transport.

Most countries for which the World Bank collects data expanded their rail network length between 2007 and 2018. These countries are as diverse as Algeria, Belgium, Cameroon, China, Finland, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Turkey. With most of these countries continuing their expansion between 2014 and 2018, railways around the globe are likely to be extending their rail networks well into the middle of this century.

Railway infrastructure density in Africa is growing significantly. Thousands of kilometers of new tracks are being created, with billions of dollars of the necessary financing coming from China (Morlin-Yron 2016). China is a major contributor to African rail expansion, building upon its leadership dating back to the 1970s, when it built a 1,870-kilometer railway line to link Zambia to a Tanzanian port. China is also leading development of a new conventional railway linking six East African countries (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda), at a cost of over $13 billion. In return for financing African rail development on favorable terms, such as long-term loans that can be repaid through in-kind resource exports or from future railway revenues, the Chinese government has gained considerable influence over Africa’s railway development, which is not without controversy (Ojambo 2014; Cannon 2019; Muller 2019). Russia is also seeking influence in African rail expansion (Burroughs 2019). High-speed rail is also coming online on the continent in countries such as Ghana and Morocco.

In terms of railway route-kilometers, China, Spain, and the United States saw the greatest absolute growth between 2007 and 2013. Yet if we look at the percentage change, Jordan (73 percent), Saudi Arabia (38 percent), Malaysia (35 percent), Algeria (31 percent), Israel (20 percent), and Thailand (20 percent) all stand out. China’s rail route-km growth was only 4 percent, while Spain’s was 14 percent, and the United States’ was 0.7 percent—but these nations already boast large and extensive rail networks. Apart from rapid growth in the Middle East, there is no obvious pattern in these global growth trends, suggesting that domestic factors may be the most important drivers in decisions to expand or contract rail infrastructure.

Countries that have decreased their route kilometers during the same years include Argentina (30 percent decrease); Sudan (21 percent decrease); South Africa, Austria, and Greece (10 to 20 percent decrease each); Canada (8 percent decrease); and Poland and Switzerland (3 percent decrease each). Slight decreases of less than 1 percent occurred in Bangladesh, Hungary, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Tunisia, Germany, and the Ukraine.

Rail transport moves a good deal of freight across the world’s largest and most sparsely populated countries. These four countries, noted in Table 2, are also those with the fewest rail route-kilometers per square-kilometer, and among those where passenger rail is the least developed compared to freight operations. Road transport has taken a significantly greater market share over rail freight in some of the world’s most densely populated countries. The European Union has a stated goal that would triple rail freight demand by 2050, and some researchers have validated that such a goal is plausible (Islam et al. 2013).

Table 2. Freight Mobility Mode Share (in ton-kilometers)

Rail > RoadRoad is up to 2x >RailRoad is 2x to 10x >RailRoad is over 10x > Rail
RussiaIndiaFinlandJapan
CanadaChinaGermanyKorea
AustraliaUSHungaryIreland
AustriaSwitzerlandCzech Rep.
Belgium
Denmark
Poland
France
Netherlands
UK

Data obtained from the OECD (2013, or most recently available by country)

The popularity of passenger rail is fairly evenly distributed geographically and across population densities. In the six countries with the highest per-capita ridership, noted as “High” and “Very High” in Table 3, a majority of trains are operated by publicly owned railway companies. On the other end of the spectrum, in the United States and Canada, tracks and freight operations alike are predominantly privately owned (passenger trains tend to be state-owned). In many countries mid-spectrum, rail infrastructure is publicly owned and trains might be under either state or private ownership, as is the case with most bus services.

Table 3. Passenger-kilometers per Capita (2013)

Very Low (under 50)Low (51–700)Moderate (701–1,200)High (1,201–2,000)Very High (over 2,000)
USAustraliaChinaKoreaJapan
CanadaPolandIndiaDenmarkSwitzerland
IrelandRussiaFrance
HungaryAustria
Italy
UK
Belgium
Czech Rep.
Netherlands
Finland
Germany

Data obtained from the World Bank and the OECD (2019, or most recently available by country)

Despite the overall growth trend worldwide, many countries are seeing specific declines in rail use, particularly for freight transport. Air freight has shown more robust growth over this period (World Bank 2019). Road freight mobility shows uneven results in the same time period, with growth in India, recent decline in China, and minimal change in Europe (OECD 2013). The recent growth in mobility by rail is largely attributable to a few countries, particularly India and China. China was the only country to see a significant drop in road freight between 2012 and 2013. Even American freight rail, widely hailed as the most efficient in the world, saw ton-kilometers decrease slightly between 2002 and 2019 (Statista GmbH 2020). One factor that should not be understated is the shift away from coal, which has long accounted for a notable share of US rail freight volumes (see “Rail and Sustainable Development” section below).

Freight rail in Europe is not growing, as revenues earned from goods transport are insufficient to cover new infrastructure investments that would be needed to deliver more competitive railway service (Girardet et al. 2014). Europe and the United States also have considerable internal goods movement over inland waterways and short sea-shipping for bulk and container freight. Inland waterway transport offers a 50 percent or more energy efficiency advantage over rail transport. The scale of both the EU’s and the United States’ inland waterway network is impressive, extending to roughly one-fifth the length of their rail networks.

Passenger mobility by rail in Europe is growing with increases of over 1 percent annually between 2013 and 2018 (Eurostat n.d.). Trains account for over 10 percent of domestic passenger transport in Austria, Denmark, France, Hungary, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Luxembourg and France are the only EU member-states to report rail travel of over 100 passenger-kilometers per capita.

Railway performance analysis highlights just how difficult, and thus rare, it is for national railway networks to succeed in delivering both effective passenger and freight mobility. China and India are outliers from the dichotomy between those nations that have succeeded in optimizing their railway networks for effective freight mobility versus those that have optimized around effective passenger mobility. Most countries are able to maximize effectiveness in either passenger transport or freight transport, but not both (Beck et al. 2013).

Rail and Society

Like other forms of transport, rail transport is simultaneously a business and a political project—one with numerous ramifications on society, not the least of which is human geography. The type and design of a network plays a significant role in determining the location of human settlement and economic activities. Whereas highway networks foster sprawl all along their routes, a high-speed railway offering nonstop service over a 500-kilometer corridor will stimulate zero economic development or settlement in between points A and B (see Squires 2002). Likewise, urban and commuter rail has been shown to promote high-density development concentrated around stations (Andersson, Shyr, and Fu 2010). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, railway planners held significant power in determining where tracks were laid, as rail access brought not only people but also money and industry. Towns that happened to be along a rail corridor fared much better, thanks to passenger and freight connectivity, than communities lacking rail access.

Such effects can still be observed today. Investors are increasingly seeking out Chinese cities with current or future rail connections to Europe—not surprising when the EU is China’s second-largest trading partner. Guided along an exclusive right-of-way by modern signaling and communications technology, railways’ potential for schedule reliability surpasses that of aviation and road transport. Japanese and Swiss railways have built longstanding reputations for punctuality and innovation.

The effects of rail services on human geography can also help determine the potential for sustainability in human society: sprawl or density, private vehicle ownership or shared mobility options, and greater demand for clean electricity to power electric trains or for fossil fuels required by most road vehicles, trucks, aircraft, and ships.

By virtue of having evolved into an industry dominated by large-scale industrial organizations, rail can have sizable economic influence. Railways account for a sizeable share of economic activity within the global transport sector. Nine out of the world’s twenty-five largest transportation companies in 2016 were railways, according to Forbes (see Jurney 2016). The world’s second- and third-largest construction contractors by revenue in 2018 were China Railway Group and China Railway Construction Corporation, and six of the sixteen largest logistics companies by revenue in the world are affiliated with railways (Statista GmbH).

Energy and Emissions

In terms of energy consumption and carbon footprint, railways are the most economical and flexible mode of land transport. Whereas rail fulfills about 7 percent of transport demand worldwide, this mode accounts for only 4.2 percent of transport sector CO2 emissions (UIC 2017). The fuel efficiency of freight rail improved by 38 percent between 1990 and 2009, whereas road freight’s energy efficiency has increased by only 11 percent. Heavy freight transported by rail contributes 76 percent fewer carbon emissions than if transported by road (Joseph 2019).

A greater diversity of energy sources are used to power trains than any other transport mode. These sources include oil distillates (primarily diesel), coal, electricity, and biofuels. In 2017, oil remained the most common fuel, representing over half of total railway energy consumption worldwide (UIC 2017). Electricity is an increasingly important energy source (39 percent of total energy used by railways). Coal and biofuels are in minimal use by railways globally. New energy sources are also being explored. The French rolling stock manufacturer Alstom developed a hydrogen-powered passenger train that has already carried passengers in Germany and Austria. Germany has ordered forty-one such trains. Switzerland’s Stadler has a contract to produce its own version of a hydrogen-powered passenger train for implementation in California in 2024.

Switzerland is currently the only country to have all of its rail network electrified, but across Europe, 80 percent of rail traffic is powered by electricity (UIC 2017). In the United States and Canada, the vast majority of trains are powered by locomotives that burn diesel fuel, although a very small share of rail traffic in the Americas continue to rely on coal. In 2015, 22 percent of Chinese rail traffic was still powered by coal (down from 47 percent in 2000).

Rail consistently demonstrates superior fuel-efficiency and lowest pollution outputs among land transport modes (UIC/CER 2015). Rail’s improving energy efficiency has been a global trend since the 1970s in both freight and passenger traffic operated in a variety of regulatory and ownership contexts. Overall, kilojoules of energy expended per ton-kilometer and per passenger-kilometer in the rail mode fell by about half between 1975 and 2012 (UIC 2017). These improvements can be attributed to, among other advancements, more fuel-efficient locomotives, better logistics management, more advanced signaling leading to more fluid operations, and longer trains.

Reliable sources of energy in the twenty-first century will likely be less carbon-intensive and more locally sourced than oil is today. Rail achieved political acceptance in the cities of the nineteenth century thanks in part to the noise and exhaust advantages of electrification—an established infrastructure that was partially abandoned in the twentieth century as people and goods were shifted from rails to roads (but is regaining traction thanks to ambitious climate targets and the inherent efficiencies and benefits it offers). In order to avoid a scenario where resource shortages spell the end of most motorized mobility, transport systems should be planned to maximize electric mobility (Hülsmann and Fornahl 2014; Gilbert and Perl 2008). The world’s electricity supply is currently produced from a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Globally, 40 percent is generated by burning coal, 23 percent comes from natural gas, and 21 percent is produced from renewable energy sources. But in those countries where the majority of railways are electrified, renewable sources make an above-average contribution to electricity generation. Even where electricity sources are non-renewable, electric trains on average are four times more energy efficient than road haulage (Gilbert and Perl 2008). On the path towards achieving 100 percent renewable energy in rail, electric trains offer the valuable advantage of supporting incremental adjustment to renewable energy. Unlike biofuels or hydrogen, which are all-or-nothing technologies, renewably generated electrons can be added incrementally as they are made available.

Connecting all modes of land-based travel to the electric grid should be preferred over the limitations and uncertainties that remain surrounding batteries. Instead of waiting on perfection of the battery, grid-connected rail and buses (and by extension, other vehicles) can be implemented today. Across sparsely populated regions, railway rights-of-way could be used as electric mobility corridors to move electricity at the same time as utilizing it for traction.

Making optimal use of today’s “off-the-shelf” technology and strategies is the surest way of achieving energy targets, compared to counting on technologies that are yet to be perfected. As a mature technology, rail has one advantage over developing technologies: it has had time to develop, refine, and incorporate innovations from other technologies (e.g., the aerospace designs that informed high-speed rail in the 1960s). Railways will still have a number of years to deploy new practices before autonomous vehicles become the norm on roads and drones are widespread airborne delivery vehicles. Systems planning takes into account that established infrastructure benefits from the incumbent’s advantage. Rail will proactively rely on synergies with other modes, including those relying on new technologies.

Technology

Contrary to what can be viewed as a monoculture of standardization in aviation technology, the rail sector reflects a diverse ecology of both operations and techniques, which both contributes to its resilience and provides fertile ground for innovation. The railway remains one of the most revolutionary technological catalysts of social and economic change. Rail has also been a “means of integration” of geographies (Schiefelbusch and Dienel 2014). If one had to reduce its influence to one factor, it would be speed. Even the speed of the first railways was a frightening shock for many parts of society, but society’s eventual acceptance of speed and technical advances paved the way for subsequent generations of technology. The ability to travel great distances in record times had structural implications; for example, the standardization of time and time zones was made necessary by the speed at which rail could deliver people to faraway places. As a mature technology, it continues to have consequential formative impact by improving the accessibility of regions vis-à-vis key economic centers (Wang et al. 2016). An important example of this is high-speed rail’s enabling the development of Chinese supercities and the spatial influence on economic growth (Wu, Perl, and Sun 2016).

The development of high-speed rail has accelerated railways’ technological progress and investment in the twenty-first century. As the world’s first purpose-built passenger rail infrastructure, Japan’s Shinkansen gains a unique advantage because of its uniform operating profile. The Shinkansen operates at a narrow speed differential between stopping and express services, attaining urban transit-like headways of as low as 90 seconds between trains. Japan’s outstanding high-speed rail safety record is more achievable when all trains have the same operating characteristics and rarely have to pass one another. Freight rail operations, on the other hand, are characterized by extended headways (low train frequency) and longer, slower trains that do not operate on a precise schedule. Countries that prioritize having both reliable freight and passenger service are separating freight and passenger service onto dedicated tracks to circumvent the challenge of coordinating operations of different speeds.

HSR, generally understood as trains that average speeds of over 250 km/h (with Japanese trains recently having exceeded 600 km/h), has very quickly revived the race towards ever-increasing speeds and spatial distribution of speed across ever-larger geographies. Although HSR is a mature technology, it is not a homogeneous one, with countries tailoring each other’s technological discoveries to fit varied geography and topography (Chen and Haynes 2015). HSR is normally passenger-oriented, and with the acceleration of passenger rail comes a diverging freight-side trend of slower speeds. Freight rail, to improve efficiency, is moving to increasingly longer, heavier, and slower trains spanning nearly 6 km.

In November 2016, there were 35,000 kilometers of HSR routes in operation worldwide in at least sixteen countries; an additional 4,264 kilometers were already under construction (UIC 2016 data). By early 2018, there were some 49,145 kilometers of HSR routes in twenty-two countries and over 16,000 kilometers under construction (EESI 2018). While representing less than 3 percent of total route-kilometers worldwide, HSR is attracting disproportionate travel volumes, and generating outsized revenues compared to standard passenger trains. Many more HSR projects are being planned and built in countries such as the United States, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Brazil. China has more projects in development, as well, such as a line to Inner Mongolia, as well proposing plans to construct HSR on all continents except for Australia. China is planning for a 41 percent increase in rail lines between 2020 and 2035 to connect all cities of over 200,000 residents to the network (Bangkok Post 2020).

China has also eclipsed the norms of speed in construction and implementation for this technology. Chinese HSR development has been accomplished at costs one-third lower than the systems developed in other countries (World Bank 2014). China’s cost advantages in railway supply could help to increase the attractiveness of its exports in this sector, in a way similar to other sectors ranging from consumer electronics to footwear. In 2017, over 56 percent of China’s rail passenger trips were made on HSR trains (as compared to 45 percent two years earlier), suggesting that the majority of passenger travel by rail in China will be made using the world’s largest high-speed network, which is fully electric.

The pursuit of speed is just one driver of change in railway transportation. Going forward into an era where climate and energy resilience could have increasing value, speed will not always be the factor driving railway development. Some analysts see an advantage in pursuing cost reduction over speed. An example of such total cost savings can be seen in one forecast that predicts transport sector greenhouse gas emissions could decrease 40 percent by 2050, with no new technology and a modal shift to electrified rail with a 50 percent market share of medium-to-long distance intercity travel in Europe (Doll et al. 2015).

Railways and their technologies (e.g., gauges, signaling, communications systems) are not standardized to the degree found in other modes of travel. Rail is largely operated by national-level companies (both publicly and privately owned), resulting in significant operational, structural, and technological variation, even between railways operating in the same country. Although stories of successful cooperation are increasing, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative linking China and Western Europe seamlessly by rail, gauge transfers and incompatibilities continue to pose a constraint on contemporary international rail expansion and interconnectivity.

Rail and Sustainable Development

While a number of new mobility technologies are competing for the attention of the public, policymakers, and investors, railways have little chance of being written off in the event of significant breakthroughs in automated vehicles, drones, hyperloop, or other experiments. Trains cannot do what a drone or automated car does, but combining these technologies could extend a rail network’s reach by solving the “last-mile problem,” i.e., the challenges of moving passengers and freight between the train and their final destinations. Proponents of modern innovations often make the assumption that pre-existing transport infrastructure will simply be written off, which would be unsustainable and impractical from both an energy-efficiency and a land-use perspective given the massive existing value of rolling stock (train cars and locomotives) and rail infrastructure, let alone the development of land around rail stations.

Rail’s future could become closely synchronized with the emergence of a sustainable transport paradigm, which the United Nations defines as “the provision of services and infrastructure for the mobility of people and goods— advancing economic and social development to benefit today’s and future generations—in a manner that is safe, affordable, accessible, efficient, and resilient, while minimizing carbon and other emissions and environmental impacts” (United Nations 2016, 10).

As stated succinctly by the architect and urban designer Roxanne Warren, rail-focused mobility strives to overcome “the triple tyrannies of traffic congestion, dependency on petroleum, and an overwhelmingly paved environment” (Warren 2014, ix). To overcome these “tyrannies,” integrated planning will need to consider mobility as a means to enhancing access instead of enabling perpetual growth in the volume of motion. Such a strategy depends on land-use planning that can “ease access to rail.” To the degree that mobility by rail can align with such principles, railways will more likely gain the political capital and social relevancy needed to make future sustainable development contributions.

Forecasts of decreasing habitable land areas, increasing levels of pollution, and more extreme effects from climate change would challenge business-as-usual mode shares, particularly the dominant positions of the automobile and civil aviation. Society, the economy, and the environment would all benefit from the capacity of rail to meet mobility needs in a scenario of reduced travel demand, but this transition would be more effective with facilitative policy.

Sustainability advocates need to know that they share a common objective with railway executives—that of increasing efficiency and productivity. In stark contrast to its reputation for sustainable rail operations, Europe’s freight rail operation is justly criticized for its low productivity. Seven times more trains are operated to carry the same amount of freight in Europe (where rail carries a modal share of 10 percent in freight) than in the United States (35 percent modal share for rail), according to the Transportation Research Forum. The North American network has been optimized for moving freight, while the European network has been optimized for moving passengers. Increasing passenger rail in the United States, and freight in Europe, will require new strategies.

The paradox of rail’s role in efficiently transporting unsustainable materials must also be recognized. American rail cost efficiencies have been attributed to a specialization of coal as a number-one freight cargo by volume, although railways appear to have passed peak coal shipments: coal now accounts for about 31 percent of rail freight volume in the United States as of 2018 (down from about 45 percent a decade earlier; AAR 2018).

China is supporting some of the most ambitious railway building projects in the developing world through foreign aid and multilateral economic agreements. These include projects and bids across Southeast Asia to link those countries to China, as well as a rail link to Iran, India, and Central Asia. China’s investment strategy aims to challenge ocean shipping’s modal share for container movement (currently 90 percent worldwide) and initiate a shift to rail transport (Escobar 2014). The motivation is not only diplomacy, but a channel for China’s overproduction of goods and a source for the luxury goods and foods demanded by China’s growing middle class (Zhang 2016). It is certainly preferable from a sustainability perspective to have such goods transported by rail rather than by plane or road, but advocates should be aware of any transportation method’s role within the broader economy, what activities it facilitates (transportation is a means to an end, and not an end in itself), and its relationship to unsustainable forms of consumption.

The external costs for road and air transport have been shown to be significantly higher than for railways. In Europe, air and road modes of travel have been shown to generate external costs that are four times higher than rail’s (Essen et al. 2011). External costs account for impacts including accidents, noise, climate change-induced costs, air pollution, and congestion and delay, among others. Many of these costs have been ignored in transport planning and policy to date. A shift away from this trajectory by applying stronger environmental policies would open new opportunities for passenger and freight rail (Strale 2016).

European Commission rules enacted in 2014 restrict governments from subsidizing airports and airlines serving routes that are also accessible by high-speed rail. Between 2006 and 2010 in Germany, where rail freight accounts for slightly more than one-third the number of ton-kilometers of road freight, federal infrastructure spending on highways was proportionally three times more than on rail (Renner and Gardner 2010).

In the United States, approximately thirty times more government money is spent on automobility and aviation as compared to the public expenditure on passenger rail (US DOT 2016). Over four times more federal funds were spent in 2014 on aviation research and development than on similar efforts for rail. Conversely, Ireland increased its investment in rail by 40 percent between the 2010s and 2020s (The Journal 2019), while Germany increased investment by 54 percent (Railway Gazette International 2020).

The Outlook for Rail

Twenty-first century railway development has the potential to make great contributions to future mobility in an urbanizing landscape by reducing energy and environmental risks and by expanding opportunities for the diversification of mobilities. Louis Armand, a chairman of the International Union of Railways in the 1970s, once said that “the 21st century belongs to the railways, if they can survive the 20th century.” The conditions that have underpinned rail’s “survival” in the previous century, such as urbanization and mitigating environmental and energy risks, appear likely to intensify during the coming decades. While not all railway development initiatives have succeeded, the recent past has provided multiple examples of successful innovations in different socio-economic contexts. These accomplishments demonstrated that value remains in a transportation mode that is less anarchic than automobility and slower than aviation. Efforts to link railways with emerging technologies, from autonomous road vehicles to flying drones, could benefit from the rich ecosystem of past experience to guide further innovations.

It is harder to foresee the year 2050 without trains than it is to imagine the lack of private automobiles or aviation for short-distance flights. But just as the automobile and aviation were nurtured by government planning and policies, railways could benefit from a future policy framework that assesses mobility in a more holistic manner. Rooted in evidence-based planning, such assessment could highlight the potential efficiencies that rail offers. In the years to come, the most resilient mobility networks will be those that reconcile access to mobility with the vulnerabilities that confront society. Such networks would be more likely to embrace a bigger role for the railways in delivering future mobilities.

Rail transport could thrive in the twenty-first century by continuing the resilience it has exhibited during considerable changes over the past two centuries. We live in a century of urbanization, and mobility’s track record offers ample evidence of railways being more adaptable and complementary to the urban fabric than either the automobile or aviation. Automobiles are approaching their limits in providing mobility across the sprawling urban geographies that they have facilitated. Aviation’s fossil fuel requirements are likely to increase subject to political conflict and supply vulnerabilities, in addition to aviation’s difficulty in building capacity to keep up with demand (Eno Center for Transportation 2013). Rail will thrive if it can be integrated into a multimodal system that eclipses private vehicle ownership and reduces auto-dependence. It can be expected that rail will have a greater impact on the urban spatial structure in the twenty-first century than in the second half of the preceding century (Rodrigue 2015). Given the energy and climate vulnerabilities currently facing human civilization, it is far more conceivable to imagine the years between 2050 and 2100 experiencing significant reductions in road travel and aviation than demonstrating a decline in the use of rail transport. If railways can continue to move people and goods with fewer negative impacts than other modes of travel, the future looks promising.

Anthony PERL, Simon Fraser University

Alex Jürgen THUMM, Independent Scholar

See also railroads; high-speed railways; One Belt, One Road Initiative; transportation; urbanization; sustainable development; auto-dependence

Further Reading