New Routes, More Rails

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, air travel faced a massive disruption. In early April 2020, global emissions were down by a stunning 17% due to worldwide transportation shutdowns. But even as we all return to travel, we know we can’t go back to business-as-usual. So we wondered: can we reclaim the sweeping decline in emissions we experienced two years ago?

In May, TROA traveled to the EBACE in Geneva, Switzerland. Yes, we took a plane across the ocean to Paris, a major international hub. But from there, we decided to take a train to Geneva. When we calculated the difference in emissions, we were stunned: 1.4kg of CO2e by train, in contrast to 90.8kg of CO2e produced by a flight! It took little more than 3 hours to make the train journey, and we were hooked on emissions savings.

So when we returned to Miami, we wondered: should we start ditching our wings for rails in the US, too?

According to a 2019 International Energy Agency report, rail accounts for 7% of passenger transport and 8% of cargo worldwide, but uses just 2% of global energy demand. That means, as more passengers and freight are transported by rail – especially high-speed, electric rail – both air and highway transport decrease, and overall emissions along with it. In China, 23,500 miles of high-speed rail connect the vast country, which has decreased air travel and highway freight on some routes by up to 80%. However, China’s reliance on coal to fuel these electric lines limits their overall emissions reduction. If cleaner energy sources began to power electric rail lines, emissions would decline even more.

How does this relate to Amtrak, the US’s more antiquated, diesel-powered rail network? Although diesel emits more carbon than clean electricity, the rail’s overall efficiency still produces fewer emissions. In fact, we calculated a rail journey from Miami to New York, assuming diesel emissions, and found that the 1,100-mile air journey emits 155.2 kgs CO2e per economy ticket; the same journey by Amtrak’s Silver Service, a 1,400-mile route, uses only 55 kgs CO2e. This squares with the US Department of Energy’s findings that Amtrak is, on average, 34% more efficient than flying

But the gains of Amtrak’s energy efficiency cost some very sweet time: 31 hours and 30 minutes, to be exact. That’s nearly 28 hours longer than the average 2-hour and 45-minute flight between Miami and New York. By contrast, Paris-Geneva was an hour flight and took a little over three hours by train.

The Journal of Air and Waste Management Association published a report in November 2020 to compare carbon emissions between air and rail travel in the northeast corridor of the United States, where the Amtrak rail network is most densely concentrated. The report found that CO2 savings from rail travel were highest when comparing air and rail travel routes for distances of around 400 miles. An aircraft’s take-off and landing, which burn significantly more fuel than cruising, account for some of the increased efficiency of rail travel over shorter distances. 

And although the journal report concluded that Amtrak travel cut carbon emissions for journeys of up to 1,100 miles, the difference between air travel and diesel rail was far less significant at that distance. Our trip from Paris to Geneva, which was 255 air miles, was the perfect distance to save the most on CO2 emissions. When we got back to Miami, we decided to try cutting our emissions closer to home to replicate that result.

Frequent travelers in the northeast could make Amtrak a habit and significantly cut carbon emissions without spending too much extra time; business travelers in Europe and Asia already think this way. But here at TROA, we’ll start with those 400-mile or less trips between major cities in Florida on Amtrak and Brightline routes. And you can bet we’ll be using Miami’s light-rail more often, too.