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High-Speed Rail: Making Intercity Travel More Accessible & Sustainable

Today, I want to talk about trains, and especially high-speed rail (HSR). Why? Above all, transportation is inextricably linked to both climate and disability and thus deserves our focus if we want to build an accessible, sustainable future. Modes of transportation produce varying rates of pollution, from nearly-clean electric trains to highly-polluting trucks and planes; transportation-based pollution and injuries from crashes contribute to and exacerbate disability; and different types of transportation have different accessibility profiles, ranging from good to horrendous.

In the US, we’ve improved transportation options within cities to have more accessibility and connectivity – and just as the disability community keeps pushing for better accessibility, the climate and urbanism movements are aggressively advocating for even better and more sustainable bus, bike, pedestrian, and rail systems within cities. But our intercity transportation networks are far from sustainable and severely limit the freedom and comfort of people with disabilities. A better train network, though, would go a long way toward making intercity transportation more sustainable, accessible, inclusive, and convenient for people with disabilities to use as we travel between cities. The Broken Status Quo Our current intercity travel options – driving, intercity bus, conventional rail, and flying – are far from ideal. Driving demands hours or even days, causes carbon pollution, releases toxic particulates from tires and brake dust, forces people with disabilities to either own or rent a vehicle (sometimes an expensive wheelchair-accessible van), and may also require them to secure a driver if they can’t drive themselves. Auto crashes also kill 40,000 people per year and injure hundreds of thousands of others, thus contributing to disability; indeed, crashes are the #1 cause of spinal cord injury in the US, with more than 4,000 injuries per year. Intercity buses like Greyhound are far more efficient per passenger than cars are; have reasonable coverage in terms of routes and frequency but have limited overall capacity (seats per bus times trips per day); and have wheelchair lifts but mostly-inaccessible on-board restrooms, which can be a limiting factor for long trips. Our existing passenger rail network has limited coverage (especially outside the Northeast) and often lacks frequency and speed, while some full journeys on Amtrak may require bus transfers. On the bright side, trains are arguably the most accessible intercity option, with spacious wheelchair parking spots and accessible restrooms; overnight trains even have accessible sleeper cars, though they have limited space and might not work for everyone with a disability, especially people who use larger power wheelchairs. And then there are planes, which serve as the US’s main form of “convenient” travel between cities. Jet travel – both commercial airlines and large business jets – contribute 10% of US transportation emissions, making up roughly 3% of our national emissions total. Air travel also consistently lets down people with disabilities. In 2019, airlines admitted to damaging or misplacing an astounding 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters, harming some travelers' ability to earn a living, making others swear off flying altogether and, in one tragic case, leading to a pressure sore and related complications that took a life. This problem – plus the discomfort and inconvenience of transferring out of a wheelchair, rolling down an airplane aisle in a narrow and uncomfortable aisle chair, and transferring to a conventional airline seat – is unfair and demeaning to travelers with disabilities. Luckily, and thanks to the advocacy of disability leaders, most passenger planes are likely to have designated wheelchair parking spaces on-board within a decade or so. It won’t make planes more sustainable, but it will address the inaccessibility and inconvenience of flying. A More Sustainable, Accessible Alternative So, that’s the status quo. But imagine a cutting-edge rail network combining conventional and high-speed rail – a system where trains connect even more cities with speed and efficiency, offering frequent departures to boot. The California High-Speed Rail project, admittedly overdue but still set to be completed in the coming decade, gives just a hint of what this could look like. It will travel from Los Angeles north through California’s Central Valley and up to San Francisco at more than 200 mph, making the full journey in under 3 hours – without arduous TSA checkpoints and other airport delays. CA HSR will also be fully electric and will have its own dedicated solar farm for power. Compare that to the current choices of a tedious six-hour drive, a 1.5-hour flight (not counting airport wait times), a slow 12-hour train ride, or a cumbersome 9-hour train-bus combo – each option with its own accessibility issues and environmental footprint. So, HSR isn't a mere alternative to flying; it's a superior choice, offering comfort, accessibility, reliability, and a greener footprint. I for one am looking forward to taking the California High-Speed Rail and know that it will be worth the wait, and I cannot wait to see more high-speed rail projects pop up around the country. On the West Coast alone, we have a couple other HSR projects in the planning stages – the Brightline West connecting LA to Las Vegas that’s scheduled to break ground soon, and a recent push by Washington State leaders to study options for HSR connecting Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC. (Of course, I hope other rail projects get built faster than California's, but that’s another story…). The potential of high-speed rail is limitless, especially when starting from scratch like we are in the US. By connecting more cities at rapid speeds, we're not just improving travel; we're making it more accessible, especially for people with disabilities without cars, who can't fit in accessible sleeper rooms, or who want to avoid traumatic experiences with airlines. And a robust rail network shouldn’t just include high-speed rail. More conventional rail stops with greater frequency between trains can greatly benefit people with disabilities and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. For example, there’s only one train connecting my home of Oakland, CA to Portland, OR daily – an overnight trek that leaves at 9 PM (a rougher ride if you can’t secure or fit in a sleeper room). I’m confident that more people would consider that train ride if there were also a 9 AM option, or even several departures per day. Meanwhile, a well-funded rail network could add new lines to connect even more cities, families, and communities. These are things we can accomplish if the government commits to the right policies and invests the right way; other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, show that building out a robust rail network with copious HSR is plenty possible. Pushing for Change In the end, change doesn’t happen easily without advocates and allies. The airline seating saga is a great example: advocates saw inequities and harm to travelers with disabilities, pushed for change, and are now just a few years away from safer, more comfortable, more accessible flying. But when it comes to intercity transportation, we need more than accessible airplanes. Robust rail networks with plenty of HSR hold the key to enhancing independence and quality-of-life for people with disabilities AND to drastically reducing transportation-related pollution. As advocates, let's push hard for rail, championing a cause that connects disability rights with environmental stewardship.

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