Back to top
Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi


High-speed Rail

A Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) Shinkansen bullet train arrives at Tokyo Station on January 19, 2016. Japanese rolling-stock manufacturers have been collaborating with the Japan Railways group to expand the business worldwide with its technology and standards used for the Shinkansen bullet train system. Texas Central Partners LLC plans to start construction of the Texas Central Railway High-Speed Rail Project between Houston and Dallas next year using the Shinkansen bullet train technology.

In 1964, Japan inaugurated the world’s first high-speed “bullet” train on the Osaka-Tokyo route, a distance of 247 miles. According to the International Union of Railways, there are more than 18,500 miles of high-speed rail (HSR) lines worldwide. That number will increase by 50 percent when current construction is completed; many more thousands of miles are planned and under consideration.

HSR is powered almost exclusively by electricity, not diesel. Compared to driving, flying, or riding conventional rail, it is the fastest way to travel between two points that are a few hundred miles apart and reduces carbon emissions up to 90 percent. Over time, its energy source is likely to get cleaner as renewables generate a greater share of electricity.

HSR is expensive and requires high ridership to break even. That is why only certain places in the world have sufficient population density to support HSR. China has by far the most HSR lines—more than 50 percent of the total—with Japan and Western Europe not far behind. Where adequate density exists, HSR can be an important component of a sustainable transportation system and bring vitality to city centers.


1964…Osaka-Tokyo route: Brasor, Philip, and Masako Tsubuku. “How the Shinkansen Bullet Train Made Tokyo into the Monster It is Today.” The Guardian. September 30, 2014.

miles of high-speed rails worldwide: UIC. High Speed Rail: Fast Track to Sustainable Mobility. Paris: International Union of Railways, 2015.

maglev train…between Shanghai and…airport: James, Randy. “A Brief History of High-Speed Rail.” TIME. April 20, 2009.

medium-distance (four-hour) [trips]: Chester, Mikhail, and Megan Smirti Ryerson. Environmental Assessment of Air and High-Speed Rail Corridors. Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board, 2013.

[share in] popular markets: Chester and Ryerson. Assessment.

Amtrak’s Acela service: Freemark, Yonah. “Why Can’t the United States Build a High-Speed Rail System?” CityLab. August 13, 2014.

California HSR system: Kelly, Brian P., and Mary D. Nichols. “Taking California’s Bullet Train to a Greener Future.” Los Angeles Times. January 29, 2014; Vartabedian, Ralph. “$68-billion California Bullet Train Project Likely to Overshoot Budget and Deadline Targets.” Los Angeles Times. October 24, 2015.

one of the major hurdles: cost: Ollivier, G., J. Sondhi, and N. Zhou. High-Speed Railways in China: A Look at Construction Costs. Beijing: The World Bank, 2014.

Northeast Corridor…high-speed rail system: Nixon, Ron. “$11 Billion Later, High-Speed Rail Is Inching Along.” New York Times. August 6, 2014.

traffic jams…public costs: Schrank, David, Bill Eisele, Tim Lomax, and Jim Bak. 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard. Texas A&M Transportation Institute, 2015.

view all book references


p. 138

In 1964, Japan celebrated the Olympics by inaugurating the world’s first high-speed “bullet” train on the Osaka–Tokyo route, a distance of 320 miles.

China has by far the most high-speed rail lines—more than 50 percent of the total— followed by Western Europe and Japan.

Compared to driving or flying, it is the fastest way to travel between two points a few hundred miles apart […].

Cost estimates have doubled from $33 billion to $68 billion.

The tracks typically range from $15 million to $80 million per mile; and then there are bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak estimates that creating a high-speed rail system rated at 220 miles per hour would cost roughly $150 billion.

High-speed rail requires many passenger trips to break even.

The carbon footprint of an up-and-running HSR is lower than that of planes and cars, but only when it replaces significant air and vehicle trips.

Correction: $1.05 TRILLION NET COST

view all errata

Technical Summary

High-Speed Rail

Project Drawdown defines high-speed rail as: track construction for increased use of high-speed rail for intercity travel. This solution replaces other forms of travel, such as by airplane and by internal combustion engine (ICE) car.

High-speed rail (HSR) has experienced significant growth in recent decades, especially in China, whose HSR network grew to almost 20,000 kilometers in a few years. Growth is expected to continue as China and the European Union add to their extensive networks and new countries build their first links. This report seeks to quantify the greenhouse gas emission reductions and costs associated with increased HSR travel.

Project Drawdown takes the definition of the International Railway Union (UIC) [1] for HSR as a railway system where tracks are “…new lines designed for speeds above 250 km/hr and in some cases, upgraded existing lines for speeds up to 220km/hr.” [2] HSR’s most noted competitor—airplanes—emit more greenhouse gases per passenger-kilometer than HSR. [3] Thus, while HSR is a solution to multiple high-emitting modes of transportation, this study focuses on the replacement of air travel specifically.


Total Addressable Market [4]

The total addressable market for HSR is defined as the total non-urban travel projected by key sources like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The current market share [5] of HSR is estimated from UIC and Amtrak data. The data shows that just over 2.4 percent of the global market is provided by HSR on the world’s existing 29,700 kilometers of HSR tracks.

Adoption Scenarios [6]

Projections of HSR adoption are based on announced plans for HSR track construction, which is chiefly done by governments. Using UIC data and other web searches, estimates were collected of total track length under construction and planned, along with estimated completion dates. Total track length estimates amount to 49,000 kilometers.

As HSR has very different travel densities, or usage rates, in different parts of the world, the travel densities for countries with existing HSR were collected, and these values were used to predict the passenger-kilometers for new tracks. [7] For countries without any existing tracks, travel densities of the most similar country or region with HSR tracks were used.

Impacts of increased adoption of high-speed rail from 2020-2050 were generated based on three growth scenarios, which were assessed in comparison to a Reference Scenario where total HSR travel remains fixed at the current levels (2.4 percent of the annual market).

  • Plausible Scenario: The potential adoption was determined based on the total announced track construction with the expected completion dates, and the travel densities of each country with an additional 1 percent annual growth rate applied to HSR usage.
  • Drawdown Scenario: The same inputs were used as in the Plausible Scenario above, but a 2.5 percent annual growth in the travel density of each country was applied.
  • Optimum Scenario: The maximum current travel density on a national network was used to estimate the maximum travel possible worldwide. Japan’s density, highest in the world, was used for the entire world.

Emissions Model

For operating emissions, increased grid electricity use from HSR adoption was included, along with jet fuel emissions for the conventional alternative. Indirect emissions were also included for infrastructure operations.

Financial Model

First costs for HSR were considered as track construction costs. A conservative value of US$36 million per track-kilometer was used, [8] corresponding to one standard deviation above the global average to account for cost overruns of such major public works. [9] For the conventional alternative, runway construction was used as a proxy for the first cost of air travel. This infrastructure cost was estimated to be US$311 million per runway, based on data from different regions around the world. [10] A single runway generates many more passenger-kilometers per year on average than 1 kilometer of HSR track. [11]

Operating costs for HSR and the conventional alternative include operations and maintenance costs of the infrastructure and energy for train motion (grid electricity) and aircraft (jet A1 fuel).


The Plausible Scenario estimates an emissions reduction of 1.52 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases over the 2020-2050 period. Most emissions reductions will come from Asia due to the extensive HSR growth planned in China. Globally, this is expected to result in an additional US$1.04 trillion in construction costs compared to the conventional alternative, but should save US$368 billion in operating costs. In the Drawdown Scenario, the avoided emissions could be as high as 3.4 gigatons. As a result of the higher usage of the tracks, fewer tracks may need to be built. The Optimum Scenario results in a reduction of 4.8 gigatons of emissions over 2020-2050.


Other benefits of HSR not calculated in this model include: reduced road congestion, lower local pollution and noise, and easier and more comfortable travel. As indicated in our results, however, HSR is expensive to build, with higher expenses for higher speeds. Some research points to positive economic effects of HSR, but it is unclear whether these are actually generated by HSR or merely re-distributed to other regions.

A policy of encouraging more usage of existing HSR tracks does make sense, as that improves the solution’s climate and financial impacts, and as the marginal cost of adding more trains is very low. The EU has this policy, and we see many more countries following suit. We also expect increased travel on Chinese lines.

Often transport impact analyses use some sort of choice model, but this is not possible at the global level because of sparse data. Our approach is reasonable since it is grounded in firm construction announcements and existing travel. Due to the high quality of HSR travel, it tends to attract many air travelers on reasonable-length routes, [12] but it also attracts people who would have used cars or conventional rail, or who would not have traveled at all before HSR. We did not model this diversity of alternatives due to the inherent complexity in combining data.

The positive effects of HSR can be maximized by building HSR lines in travel corridors where the train will compete for travelers with higher-polluting travel modes such as airlines and automobiles, and where traffic is already high.


In the first printing of the book, there was a sign error: the net cost of HSR was “-$1.04 trillion”; this should have been a cost of “$1.04 trillion”.

[1] UIC means “International Railway Union” in French (Union Internationale de Chemins–de-fer).

[2] 250 km/h = 155 mph, 220 km/h = 136 mph

[3] This is generally the case even when infrastructure emissions are included, but depends heavily on the number of people in the HSR train and in the aircraft. Emissions per passenger-kilometer for a full aircraft can be lower than that of an almost empty train. Therefore, increasing travel on existing train services can reduce unit emissions.

[4] For more on the Total Addressable Market for the Transport Sector, click the Sector Summary: Transport link below.

[5] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.

[6] For more on Project Drawdown’s three growth scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Transport Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Transport link.

[7] This omits numerous factors that affect demand for new HSR lines, but as a first approximation at the global level, it is very useful.

[8] All monetary values are presented in US2014$.

[9] This number includes tracks in China, the USA, Japan, and Europe.

[10] Data from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North America, and Latin America was used.

[11] The passenger-kilometers per runway were estimated using an estimated commercial airport count from the Airports Council International, assuming 2 runways per airport. Total air passenger-kilometers were obtained from IEA (2016), Energy Technology Perspectives 2016: Towards Sustainable Urban Energy Systems, available at

[12] The typical distance where HSR can capture a lot of the traveling market is where it can complete the journey in around 3 hours (at an average speed of 220 kilometers per hour, this is just under 660 kilometers, or 410 miles).

Research Inquiry Form

Want more information on Project Drawdown’s research methodology and models? Complete this form to contact the Drawdown Research team.

Which Drawdown solution sector most interests you? * (choose one)
Do you have a copy of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming? *
What would you like to know about Drawdown’s research methodology and models? * Please note that, due to time and resource constraints, we may not be able to provide extensive information or data.
Other questions, comments, or suggestions:
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
4 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Back to top

Join Us