The future of long-distance travel

Shanghai maglev train

We regularly look at the future of shorter range personal transport options, but what about long-range and public transport options? Lance Turner takes a look at where long-distance and public travel is headed.

TRAVELLING locally is already becoming more environmentally friendly, with the introduction of electric cars and public transport running from renewables. But what about long-range transport: what’s happening there? There is a global push towards reducing emissions in long-range transport options, be they rail, air transport or shipping, but there are significant challenges. Let’s look at what’s happening around the world, and how we may be getting around in the not too distant future.


According to the European Environment Agency (, emissions from all passenger rail (with an average of 156 passengers per train) in Europe are around 14 g of CO2 per passenger kilometre. Compare that to a large car (four passengers) of 55 g, a regular bus (12.7 passengers) of 68 g and aircraft (88 passengers) of 285 g. These figures will vary depending on the type of trains, cars and buses, as well as the source of generation for the electricity used (Europe has lots of renewables and nuclear compared to other regions such as the USA and Australia), but the indicators are clear—we need fewer planes and more trains.


High speed rail (HSR), where trains run at speeds above 200 km/h (for existing lines, or 250 km/h for new lines) between major population centres without stopping, is common in countries such as China (which has some 22,000 km of HSR network) and Japan, and throughout much of Europe. However, Australia has never managed to get a high speed rail network off the ground, despite many concepts and plans being put forward. One problem here has been a lack of political will for such long-term projects. Another problem, specific to Australia, is the huge distances between cities and our smaller population. In short, the cost per taxpayer for a high speed rail network is much higher in Australia than in most other countries, making it a difficult sell (see

Central to the lower environmental cost in HSR systems is the use of electric trains. Being able to derive power from renewable energy sources rather than on-board diesel engines means that high speed rail becomes an even cleaner transport option as the percentage of renewables in the grid mix increases—just like any EV. Further, the cost of transport is no longer tied to that of fossil fuels so, as renewables become cheaper, the cost per kilometre travelled can fall.

The majority of high speed rail networks still use steel wheels on steel rails, but some of the fastest HSR projects use a more recent technology—maglev, or magnetic levitation, where strong magnets are used to lift the train just above the track, eliminating most sources of friction and allowing for higher speeds. Indeed, the fastest HSR train in regular service is the Shanghai Maglev Train, which runs on a 30.5 km track from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the outskirts of central Pudong.

Read the full article in ReNew 139.