One of the most interesting parts of working in ESG is when you stumble across opportunities that are poster children for why the E and the S and the G are together, an ESG Trifecta! The innovation opportunities that demonstrate the incredible intersectionality of environmental sustainability, social equity and economic prosperity. Innovations that might require significant investment, but are transformational for entire regions, thousands of businesses and millions of people. Here in the US, I believe one such opportunity is trains. Supporting rapid development of better, faster regional and national train systems should be in every community and every business's ESG agenda.
Let’s just start with the basic facts. Anyone who has traveled internationally knows our train system, whether it’s subway, commuter rail, or Amtrak is way behind the times. We used to have an outstanding railroad and streetcar system. But then cars came along, we became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of autos, we built an incredible Interstate highway system, and a complicated mix of issues, from personal preference to policy and planning, and yes, some corporate lobbying, killed most trains.
It wasn’t just in the 1950s. Boston has a notoriously messed up train system where you can’t connect from the entire north infrastructure to the entire south infrastructure. The trains pile up at two terminus stations occupying expensive downtown Boston real estate. It means a lot of people still have to drive if they live south and work north -- or vice versa. Fixing it was supposed to be part of the “big dig”. President Reagan threatened to veto federal funding for the entire project until they removed the rail link.
Proponents for the project are pressing on to this day, showing it would improve economic equity by connecting lower cost housing areas to manufacturing and urban jobs, improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, and save millions of dollars per year. And that’s just the link. Imagine upgrading the entire commuter rail system to high speed. If our trains ran like Japan’s system, I would be able to get to our office in 6 minutes, not the 35 minutes it takes right now. That would certainly make going downtown way more appealing. For many people choosing to stay remote, it’s the thought of getting back in the car for an hour or more each day that sounds awful, not the thought of spending time with their colleagues.
There are numerous projects trying to get off the ground all over the US. In Seattle, the Cascadia rail project, a high speed rail between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, got funding this year for the planning. If implemented, you could get to either city from Seattle in under an hour. I’d advocate looking at a Spokane branch, to better connect the two largest cities in the state and really open up low cost housing options from the center and east of the state. California is further along with connecting cities via high speed rail and this week approved construction. But massive cost overruns are plaguing the credibility and scope of the project. Entire cities are being cut, including San Diego.
We can and should be better at this. We did an incredible job with the infrastructure for trucks and automobiles, which unfortunately brought the terrible side consequences of air pollution, carbon emissions, fueling petro dictatorships, and traffic deaths. Ultimately, people just want to get to where they want to get to as fast as possible, as affordably as possible, as safely as possible. We could do this all over again, just with trains.
A nationwide high speed rail system, with corresponding high speed commuter rails in urban areas, could catalyze connecting more suburban and rural areas to cities and vice versa, closing that growing economic divide. According to Project Drawdown, transportation is the largest source of emissions in the US and high speed rail can cut carbon emissions by 90% versus flying, driving and conventional rail. A modern train system for the 21st century would boost America’s competitiveness on a global level and bring greater economic prosperity to companies and communities, both rural and urban. It is the ultimate ESG trifecta supporting people, planet and profit. Now we just need everyone to come aboard.