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Is train travel as eco-friendly as we’d like to believe?

February 16, 2010

All aboard for a sustainable ride!

You asked, and I answered! Sort of.

In a recent post, I sang the praises of train travel. I called it glorious and pontificated about the dining and photographic opportunities aboard.

But my readers were skeptical.

Some of my most faithful readers commented with astute inquiries:

  • Is train travel the most environmentally sustainable option?
  • Is train travel efficient enough to be a viable option for the masses?
  • Does train food contain any actual edible organic matter?

So, I set out to find some answers.

First, I found this information:

  • Actual train consumption depends on gradients, maximum speeds, and stopping patterns. (This might take more than one post.)
  • Efficiency can be expressed in terms of consumption per unit distance per vehicle, consumption per unit distance per passenger, or consumption per unit distance per unit mass of cargo transported. (High school physics is feeling like a really long time ago.)
  • A BTU (British thermal unit) is defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water by one degree from 60 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit at a constant pressure of one atmosphere. (My head hurts.)

Then, I found a chart constructed by the U.S. Department of Energy, giving comparative figures for various modes of transportation. According to the DOE:

  • Passenger trains use 2,650 to 2,996 BTU per passenger mile. (A 2005 report showed Amtrak’s energy use to be 2,935 BTU per passenger-mile.)
  • Cars use 3,512 BTU per passenger mile.
  • Efficient hybrid cars use 1,659 BTU per passenger mile.

Then, I found another chart—less scientific but more fun. According to the alternative media platform GOOD, the only mode of non-self-propelled transportation that uses less fuel than trains is motor coach.

Then, I found this statement:

“Systems that re-use vehicles like trains and buses can’t be directly compared to vehicles that get parked at their destination.”

What’s a car-free girl to do?

This car-free girl hopes to do more research, and she hopes her readers will help her out with that.

Perhaps, we could start here.

In the mean time, my thinking is to follow the rule of causing the least harm. I have the choice to add a car’s pollution and energy use to our world. But a train—with however much pollution and energy use it effects—is going to run no matter what. So, I might as well get on it.


P.S. Question number three, while valid, may have to take a backseat to the other more pressing questions for the time being, but I do hope we get to it one day!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    February 16, 2010 2:14 pm

    I am a big fan of your last thought: public transporation (whether it’s a bus, subway, regional train, or whatever) will run anyway and the more people it carries, the better. Then, the more demand for public transportaion there is, the more research and development there will be for better, more efficient modes to serve more areas. It’s all so exciting! Too bad my job here in Germany still necessitates a car on a daily basis. Schade!

  2. avaerewyck permalink
    February 17, 2010 3:21 pm

    I share your excitement, Wendy! Thanks for commenting.

    Now, who wants to help me dig into that research??

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