Why trains are great for travelers who want to reduce their carbon footprint

Oct 9, 2019

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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who gave an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September, is so dedicated to her cause she only travels around Europe by rail. And her trip to New York City for the summit? She got there on an emissions-free sailboat.

We may not all be at that point in our climate-impact journey, but she raises interesting points for frequent travelers.

When it comes to travel, trains are among the most efficient and lowest-emitting modes of transport, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In particular, urban and high-speed rail hold “major promise to unlock substantial benefits,” said the report, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and air pollution.

Chart courtesy of the International Energy Agency
Chart courtesy of the International Energy Agency

Related reading: 11 mistakes people make when taking a cross-country Amtrak

Passenger rail networks are more developed and comfortable in other parts of the world, including Europe and Japan, than in the U.S., where the Amtrak system is pretty much all there is. And to be sure, it’s slower, not available everywhere and in need of upgrades. Still, it’s a more environmentally-friendly way to travel than air, and sometimes faster, too. Here are some reasons to consider riding the iron horse instead of flying.

Trains use less energy

Trains make up 8% of the world’s motorized passenger movements, yet use only 2% of the world’s transport-energy demand, according to the IEA. If services performed by rail were instead carried out by planes, cars and trucks, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to the CO2 emissions from the entire continent of Africa (that’s as much as the annual carbon dioxide output from 200 million cars).


Chart courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

And they’re getting even better.

High-speed rail [HSR] travel has even lower greenhouse than diesel locomotives. “HSR is powered by electricity, not fuel. The promise seen in HSR is that the potential exists for it to be completely powered by renewable energy, while this option does not exist with the fuel needed for aircraft, as biodiesel still emits [greenhouse gases] when burned,” said a report by Wharton University of Pennsylvania’s public policy initiative.

It’s better than driving

Rail travel allows you to kick back, relax and enjoy the scenery or even get work done, making trains both more energy- and time- efficient. To put in perspective, trains — with their lower energy consumption per person — are nearly three times more efficient than a car. In some cases, you can even load your car on the train and take it with you, for the best of both worlds. 

Trains can also beat driving because of capacity. A typical train line can carry 50,000 people an hour, while a freeway lane can only handle 2,500 people an hour, according to Save A Train. With all that road congestion, especially during rush hour, you can sit on a train and fly by traffic. And because your hands aren’t gripping a steering wheel, you can read, get work done, book that next trip, put on make-up or even catch a pre- or post-work nap during your train ride. 

Trains can be faster than flying

While train rides can certainly be slower than flying, especially over longer distances, that isn’t always the case. For example, Amtrak started Acela express, nonstop service between Washington, D.C., and New York City on Sept. 23. This cuts the travel time between those two cities to just two hours and 35 minutes.

There’s also Brightline, which is evolving into Virgin Trains U.S., that currently connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand into to Orlando and Tampa. Taking the train from Miami to Orlando in just three hours while speeding along at approximately 80 miles per hour isn’t bad at all.

Planes may hit far higher absolute speeds (during a race to the capital, TPG staffers who flew were in the air for just under an hour) but you have to take into consideration airport security, weather delays, taxiing to and from the runway and other factors. Bottom line? Flying may not always be faster in the end, and it’s often a lot more stressful. No one ever asks you to take your shoes and belt off before boarding a train, after all.

When you factor in not having to deal with heading out to an airport and going through security, trains start to make a lot of sense if your start and end points are separated by just a few hundred miles, as is common in the Northeast or even California. When you consider destinations that aren’t far apart but have no nonstop connections (think: Anaheim to San Diego), the train starts to make a lot of sense.

Trains are likely to only improve

This map shows what a fully integrated, multi-layered national rail system would look like by 2030. Map courtesy of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association
This map shows what a fully integrated, multi-layered national rail system would look like by 2030. Map courtesy of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association

With increased concern over the state of the climate and a push to increase the number of people who can get between popular cities, trains within the U.S. are likely to improve in the coming decade. A bill introduced on Feb. 7, 2019, by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) includes a provision to cut carbon emissions by converting domestic air travel to intercity, high-speed rail in the lower 48 states.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) imagines connecting cities including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio; Los Angeles and Las Vegas; Chicago and St. Louis; even Montreal and New York City — all cities with plenty of airlift — with speedy trains by 2030. Under this plan, high-speed rail would be part of a network that would include regional and commuter rail, metro systems, light rail, streetcars and trams, helping move the U.S. away from its dependence on cars.

Image courtesy of Brightline
Image courtesy of Brightline

Construction on California’s 119-mile Merced-Bakersfield segment of the state’s $9 billion, high-speed rail project is underway. In the South, construction of the $16 billion Texas High Speed Rail project — a 200 miles-per-hour train connecting Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes — may begin within the coming year, pending some additional hurdles. Other routes under serious consideration include Las Vegas to Southern California and Vancouver, Canada to Portland, Oregon. 

Even Amtrak is looking toward the future. The Amtrak Gateway Program is a major project to improve rail service in New York and New Jersey, including construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to the bottleneck between Newark, New Jersey and Penn Station in New York City.

Related reading: The best credit cards for train tickets

What to do now

While we’re waiting for the move toward more rail travel, there are steps you can take right now to reduce your carbon footprint. You can start by calculating your carbon footprint, here. If you fly regularly, check out TPG’s guide to airline carbon offset programs.

And hopefully, high-speed train travel will quickly become more prevalent in the U.S.

In its top 10 reasons to bring high-speed rail to America, USHSRA noted that trains outperform both flying and driving combined in every measure — capacity, mobility, convenience, speed, safety, efficiency, energy consumption, cost, profitability, national security, carbon footprint, physical footprint, economic development, smart growth and more. “High-speed rail,” it added, “is the only viable transport solution capable of reducing carbon, congestion, costs, accidents and energy consumption all at the same time.”

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