How train travel can be good for the environment

Aug 19, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.


Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September 2019 at the age of 16, 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 Thunberg raises interesting issues for frequent travelers.

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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. In particular, urban and high-speed rail hold “major promise to unlock substantial benefits,” according to the report, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and air pollution.

Chart courtesy of the International Energy Agency
(Image courtesy of the International Energy Agency)

Related: 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, less reliable on longer-haul routes, not available everywhere and badly 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.

In This Post

Trains use less energy

According to the IEA, trains make up 8% of the world’s motorized passenger movements yet use only 2% of the world’s transport-energy demand. If services performed by rail were instead carried out by planes, cars and trucks, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to the carbon dioxide 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
* Land use sinks and U.S. territories are excluded from this figure. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

And trains are getting even better.

High-speed rail travel has even lower greenhouse gas emissions 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. In contrast, this option does not exist with the fuel needed for aircraft, as biodiesel still emits (greenhouse gases) when burned,” said a report by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s better than driving

Silver car driving down Kaikoura Highway
(Photo by C Levers/Shutterstock)

Rail travel allows you to kick back, relax, enjoy the scenery or even get work done, making trains more energy- and time-efficient. To put it in perspective, trains — with 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.

According to Save A Train, a typical train line can carry 50,000 people an hour, while a freeway lane can only handle 2,500 people an hour. 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 makeup or even catch a pre- or post-work nap during your train ride.

Trains can be faster than flying

While train rides can undoubtedly 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, 2019, although it’s on hold due to the pandemic. This cuts the travel time between those two cities to just two hours and 35 minutes, which is much faster than a flight when you factor in a ride to and from the airport — as opposed to stepping on and off the train right in the middle of the city — along with security checkpoint lines.

Brightline currently connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and plans to expand to Orlando and Tampa. It shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic but announced on Aug. 10 that service will resume in early November. Taking the train from Miami to Orlando in just three hours while speeding along at approximately 80 mph isn’t bad at all.

Image courtesy of Brightline
(Photo courtesy of Brightline)

Planes may hit far higher absolute speeds (during a race from New York to the capital, TPG staffers who flew were in the air for just under an hour). Still, you have to consider 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 avoiding airports, trains start to make a lot of sense if your start and endpoint 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 only to 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 imagined what a fully integrated, multilayered national rail system would look like by 2030. (Image courtesy of the US 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.

Thanks to the Aug. 10 passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, even Amtrak is looking toward the future.

The Amtrak Gateway Program, a significant project to improve rail service in New York and New Jersey, including the construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, is already underway. The Moynihan Train Hall, an expansion of Penn Station in New York City, opened on Jan. 1.

The US High Speed Rail Association 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 air routes — 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.

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 mph train connecting Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes — is tied up in the courts. The issue is whether the project can get the land it needs using eminent domain. A state appeals court ruled in favor of the project, but 11 Texas lawmakers sent an amicus curiae letter to the Texas Supreme Court claiming the project doesn’t have the right to claim eminent domain.

Other routes under serious consideration include Las Vegas to Southern California as well as Vancouver, Canada, to Portland, Oregon.

Conceptual rendering of a California high-speed train passing through the Pacheco Pass. (Image courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Related: The best credit cards for train tickets

Bottom line

While we’re waiting for the move toward more rail travel, there are steps you can take once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided 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. Hopefully, high-speed train travel will quickly become more prevalent in the U.S. in the coming years.

In its top 10 reasons to bring high-speed rail to America, the US High Speed Rail Association noted that trains outperform both flying and driving combined in every measure. “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.”

Featured photo by Focused Adventures/Shutterstock.

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