Ken Drew Ramona Mendis
© Good Travel Guide, July 2022 8 min to read
Question: Which creates the least amount of C02 per passenger? A train or a plane?
There are a lot of variables to consider, so, let’s take, for example, Ron going from London to Paris by train and Danita going the same route by plane.
Answer: the train.
Even if it’s a diesel-powered non-high-speed train, it’s still greener than taking a plane which II’ll explain in detail later. The fact of the matter is that all passenger trains are immensely better for the planet. And some are faster (and more comfortable) than you think!
Quick Facts On Travel Duration: Trains vs. Planes
Going from London to Paris by High-Speed Train (HST) is only one-hour longer (2 hours and 20 mins) in contrast to British Airline’s duration of 1 hour and 20 mins.
Airliners take longer due to check-ins, security checkpoints (nude x-ray scans anyone?), lines, and waiting at the luggage carousel.
On a train, there’s no weight or size limit on luggage or x-rays. Bring anything you like. Did I mention the London – Paris HST comes with power outlets and Wi-Fi? You can binge-watch two episodes on Netflix before arriving at your destination.
While planes will be needed to reach some locations, like islands, they are a significant and unnecessary source of greenhouse gases. Our reliance on planes could be drastically reduced with revolutionary HST technology, like Hyperloop, which is said to move faster (760 mph) than a commercial passenger jet (460 – 575 mph)!
Read on to learn about some quick science on why trains are the least carbon-emitting form of transportation, Europe’s expanding railway coverage, what regular train goer’s like and dislike about train travel and, finally, the future of trains in Europe.
Why Trains Are The Least Carbon-Emitting Form of Transportation
On our small industrialized planet,16.2 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) can be attributed to transport of which 15.8 per cent is caused by burning fossil fuels to power transport activities. In the EU, about 25 per cent of GHG emissions are attributed to the transport sector. This means that an average person living in the European Union emits about 1.82 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2e) per year in transport emissions. To make this more visual, this equates to about 900 CO2 fire extinguishers. Needless to say, it is important to have a look at how these transport emissions can be reduced, and a shift from air to rail travel can play a huge role in doing so. Let’s now take a closer look at the differences between the emissions of these modes of transport.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) provides insight into these differences in their publication entitled “Transport and Environment Report 2020 – Train or Plane”?
They compared the “five most frequently used types of transportation: aircraft, electric intercity trains (ICe), a high-speed trains (HSR) and three types of cars with an occupancy rate of one person and four people for each type” covering a distance of 500 kilometres.
This is what they found out:
- The emission costs of one person travelling in a diesel or petrol car are the highest of all.
- The most environmentally friendly and best option is Electric HSR because it has the highest occupancy rate: The more people that travel on the train on that specific route, the more efficient and environmentally friendly it is. Also given that the electricity produced for this train is not from coal but an environmentally friendly option.
- Although the CO2 emissions are lower in HSR, the noise emissions (which are also damaging to the environment) are higher than in air travel. This is because the noise generated in air travel is concentrated in the take-off and landing regardless of the distance, but in train travel, there is continuous noise emission throughout the journey.
- The occupancy rate of the modes of transport is the most important factor in determining whether it is the “best or worst choice for the environment”.
EEA’s Main Takeaway
The higher the occupancy the lower the emissions per person. Therefore, travelling during peak hours is best. This can sometimes mean that there may be instances where it is better to take then plane than travel by car on a certain journey only because the plane would have a higher occupancy rate!
Additional Requirements for Rail To Be Eco-Friendly
The EEA mentioned a tipping point to the benefits in the shift to rail. If trains become increasingly popular, it may mean that there is a higher demand for more trains and train infrastructure which might undo some of the environmental gains from switching to rail. Therefore, it’s important that when shifting towards additional railway infrastructure, the long term reduction in GHG must outweigh the environmental impact in the production and maintenance of it (emissions from the production of “cement and steel, and the fuel for construction” and habitat loss & effects on biodiversity and ecosystems).
Long-term Reducation in GHG can be achieved if:
- The infrastructure is not too complex (i.e. fewer tunnels and bridges)
- A transition of getting most people into trains instead of cars
- Maintaining a high occupancy rate in trains
Let’s ditch the science to talk about the feasibility of these three requirements.
Covering Europe in Railroads
Due to the increase in growth of short-haul flights in Europe in the last year, about 149 of the 365 cross border ail links become non-operational by 2018. Now we are seeing a revival of train networks to stimulate travellers to fly less. Especially on shorter routes (less than 1000 km) which are frequented the most (17 of the 20 busiest air routes in Europe are less than 700 kilometres), train travel can easily replace air travel and lower carbon emissions: A flight from Paris to Berlin creates 6 times the CO2 emissions of a train journey.
Infographic: one-third (about 43 %) of short-haul flights in the EU have train alternatives under six hours. Would save 3.5 million tons of CO2e per year = CO2 emissions from
129,656,256 propane cylinders used for home barbeques
A proposal from the German Transport Minister, Andreas Scheuer, to the EU transport ministers wants a revival of the Trans Europe Express (TEE) 2.0. It will follow its predecessor in connecting 13 European destinations and will also be a step toward the future of having high-speed trains replacing short-haul flights within Europe.
The first phase will be to build on existing networks and link those. The following new night lines will be operational by 2025:
- December 2021:
- Zurich →Cologne→Amsterdam
- December 2023:
- Vienna → Berlin
- Brussels → Paris
- December 2024:
- Zurich → Barcelona
In the second phase additional infrastructure will be built to help link networks that cannot be easily linked through existing networks. This second phase will be the building blocks for allowing high-speed daytime trains to operate on more routes. Two such initiatives are
- The Brenner Base Tunnel: About a 60 km tunnel which will run through the Tyrol Alps and reduce travel time on the route Munich→Verona→ Rome to only 50 minutes instead of 2 hours.
- The Fehmarn Belt (2028): underwater rail tunnel in the Baltic Se which will reduce the current journey between Hamburg to Copenhagen by 2 hours and remove more than 160 km from the journey.
The praise (and complaints) by travelers who travel by train in Europe. What’s it like?
Travelling by train in Europe has mixed reviews, but a lot of support. If you are travelling across the continent, you’ll have to plan a bit more than if you were on a single country trip because, unlike planes, “Each European country has its own national train operator with its own ticketing system and its own website” according to Seat61.com. Simply put – there’s no single-ticketing system.
It’s recommended by some travellers that you consider sacrificing affordability with peace of mind by purchasing a rail pass. New Zealand’s Stuff Magazine covered this topic and in their April 2022 article, a traveller who goes by @boltsss recommended:
The absolute best way to get to all of these places is to purchase an EU Rail global pass. Me and my wife visited Europe a couple of years ago and the pass made the journey so much easier..
However, the EU Rail has been denounced on Quora as selling tickets at rip-off prices. I don’t know if that’s true, but you can compare their prices online to that of another agency like EuroRail. Regardless of the price, you’ll be getting all the benefits of rail: faster door-to-door checkpoints, no baggage weight limits, ample legroom, rare ground-level countryside views, free Wi-Fi, and even private rooms are available!
While you might be able to afford that, most locals can’t. So enjoy the experience! When Europeans need to travel far distances, high-speed trains are out of their budget which is why many take to planes. It wasn’t always like that according to Spaniard publisher, Kris De Decker, who runs Low-Tech Magazine. Kris rolls out the tapestry of European train travel to point out that before the 1990s, most Europeans travelled by train. During the ’90s, high-speed trains were introduced but only the wealthy could afford them. As a result, most Europeans booked flights for fast multi-country travel. Therefore, high-speed trains cannot help the European continent achieve climate goals until high-speed rail becomes more affordable.
All of that is changing for the better now thanks to environment-saving legislation and public support. The Green Deal pushed the European Commission to adopt four proposals that will modernise the EU’s transport system -making it more financially accessible to the masses. When it comes to planes vs trains, the European Commissioner for Transport says “Our future mobility needs to be sustainable, safe, comfortable and affordable. Rail offers all of that and much more! This isn’t just lip service: Short-haul trips in France and Austria have already been banned, midnight trains are operating at full force, and the chaotic ticketing system is being overhauled into a fully seamless system by 2030. Presumably, buying a multi-country train ticket should be as easy as booking a flight.
Europe’s Future Is Looking Rail Good!
As mentioned briefly before, there are currently initiatives making rail more attractive. One of these is a French start-up called “Midnight Trains” which will launch in 2024. It is offering travellers in Europe a greener, cheaper, and unique experience described as a “hotel on rails”. You’ll have your own beautiful bedroom on your way from Paris to twelve other European destinations. They offer a more luxurious but affordable way of travelling longer distances (800 km to 1500 km) with private rooms, a bar and a restaurant. They aim to offer medium-distance travel which rivals flights and improve train experiences by making it as comfortable and affordable as possible.
There are plans to build a hyperloop technology in Europe which will decrease travel time drastically on longer distances within Europe. This technology will be beneficial if it is used on long journeys because faster speeds mean higher energy consumption as compared to the High-speed trains. This exciting technology is still in the developmental phase and further research is required to understand and improve its efficiency so that the high speeds do indeed result in lower CO2 emissions.
Good Travellers' Balance Planes and Trains
What can you do to lower your carbon footprint when travelling?
The best option is taking a (high-speed) electric train which is ideally at full capacity to the destination it is going to. Ideally, you would take the train during the peak times so that capacity is at its highest. The train always wins out over air travel, especially on shorter routes.
Although train networks are expanding in Europe, not all islands are accessible by train at present, so it is understandable that a combination of train & plane might be necessary on certain journeys. But the more the good travel guide opts for the (electric) train, the more it stimulates the government and transport sector to invest in greener travel alternatives.
- Boffey, Daniel. “Revival of Trans Europe Express ‘key to EU’s carbon neutrality.’” The Guardian, 20 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/20/revival-of-trans-europe-express-key-to-eu-carbon-neutrality. Accessed 20 April 2022.
- EU2020. “TransEuropExpress 2.0: A night train through Europe – EU2020 – EN.” EU2020 – DE, 8 December 2020, https://www.eu2020.de/eu2020-en/news/article/transeuropexpress-2-0-a-night-train-through-europe/2440568. Accessed 20 April 2022.
- European Environment Agency. “Transport and environment report 2020 Train or Plane?” EEA Report, vol. 0, no. No 19, 2021, p. 112. European Environment Agency, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/transport-and-environment-report-2020/download#page=11&zoom=160,-59,664.
- Ferrari, Lorenzo, and Gianluca De Feo. “Train alternatives to short-haul flights in Europe.” OBC Transeuropa for Greenpeace, vol. 0, no. 0, 2021, p. 74. Green Peace, https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-eu-unit-stateless/2021/10/4bf6f8d5-obct-report-trains-final-oct2021.pdf.
- Janić, Milan. “Estimation of direct energy consumption and CO2 emission by high speed rail, transrapid maglev and hyperloop passenger transport systems.” International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, vol. 15, no. 9, 2021, pp. 696-717. Science Direct, https://doi.org/10.1080/15568318.2020.1789780.
- Jones, Ben. “How Trans Europe Express trains could be making a comeback.” CNN, 23 December 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/trans-europe-express-trains/index.html. Accessed 20 April 2022.
- Kennedy, Catherine. “EU backs hyperloop in sustainability strategy.” New Civil Engineer, 11 December 2020, https://www.newcivilengineer.com/latest/eu-backs-hyperloop-in-sustainability-strategy-11-12-2020/. Accessed 27 April 2022.
- United States Envionmental Protection Agency. “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency, 28 March 2022, https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator#results. Accessed 20 April 2022.
- Willsher, Kim. “New network of European sleeper trains planned | Rail travel.” The Guardian, 22 June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/jun/22/new-network-of-european-sleeper-overnight-trains-planned. Accessed 20 April 2022.