Is train a feasible alternative to flying?

 

As I write this I’m sitting on a train headed back to Sweden, pondering the result of a year’s experimentation with travelling by train instead of flying. Is this an effective way to reduce my carbon footprint? The jury is in! Read on.

One common rallying cry among climate advocates is to fly less (or ideally not at all). I consider myself a climate advocate (here’s my entry ticket), but I’m also a pragmatist. I’ve worked enough with behavioural change to know that it’s unrealistic to expect many people to change their habits unless there is a convenient and compelling alternative. For example, Spotify killed music pirating, not by attacking pirate sites, but by providing a better and more convenient alternative.

So what are the alternatives to flying, if you want to get from A to B?

  • Option A: Don’t go. Stay at A. This option won’t fly (pun intended) with most people. There’s a reason why they want to go from A to B, and only a small number of people will be willing to sacrifice that (kudos to those people though!).
  • Option B: Walk or bicycle. Not feasible. A distance that is long enough to take a flight is usually waaay too long for a walk or bicycle ride, unless you are an enthusiast with LOTS of time on your hands.
  • Option C: Car. This makes sense only if you travel in a group, or if you drive an electric car. If you drive alone in a fuel car, the climate impact is about the same as flying, just takes longer and is more dangerous and clogs up the road.
  • Option D: Bus. I haven’t found any long-distance bus options  to the places I go. Might be more feasible in other countries than mine.
  • Option E: Train. Is train a feasible alternative? Definitely climate friendly, but what about price, convenience, reliability, and time? Read on!

I live in Stockholm. The past 3 years I’ve been travelling on a regular basis to Billund in Denmark, because of a long-term engagement with LEGO. I’ve also travelled to Paris a few times to do conference keynotes, and Gothenburg to work with Trine. The past year I’ve replaced almost all flying with train – I’ve spent about 150 hours on trains in Europe (in fact, I’m sitting in one right now as I write).

Billund, Denmark. My second home. LEGO conveniently provides bikes to get around their different facilities 🙂

So is train a feasible alternative to flying?

My conclusion so far: Not really. Darn.

My hypothesis was that train travel would take longer than flying (obviously), would cost the same or less, be more convenient and comfortable, and significantly reduce my climate footprint.

I was right about travel time and climate impact, but wrong about price and convenience. And considering other ways to make a climate impact, long-distance train travel is just a bad deal in comparison (scroll down for details).

Now don’t get me wrong. Long-distance train travel is a fun exciting adventure, it is a much cooler and more fun way of travelling than flying, especially with kids!

But now I’m talking about how feasible it is for regular travel, once the novelty has worn off.

The only time train makes sense is if you happen to be travelling between two cities that are within 600 km and happen to have a high-speed direct rail connection (in my case Stockholm – Gothenburg). In those cases, train is great! But other than that, not so great.

I’m sad about this conclusion, because I really was hoping train would win out, because it seemed like the only realistic contender against flying.

This is obviously not a conclusive study, just 3 routes. But it’s a pretty representative sample set – 3 pretty different types of trips that I’ve done multiple times. I’m pretty sure trying more routes won’t change my mind on this.

OK let’s look at the data:

Example 1: Stockholm – Paris

Train, one way Plane, one way
Travel time 24 hours, 3 changes 4 hours, no changes (includes airport time)
Price €280 €130
Climate footprint 30 kg CO2eq 750 kg CO2eq
Reliability Low (train delays, missed connections, etc) High

The prices are just a typical example, the exact prices vary A LOT for both train and plane. But in most cases flying is a lot cheaper.

Sources:

So let’s look at the cost/benefit comparison of train vs plane in this case:

  • Cost: €150 higher cost, 20 hours longer time, higher likelihood of delays and hassle.
  • Benefit: 720kg reduction of climate footprint
  • Climate footprint reduction price:  €208 per ton

Train travel is more comfortable, but if we factor in the 3 changes and the risk of delays and missed connections, the comfort isn’t that great after all. Plus for long train rides you’re gonna sleep on the train, and good routes with sleeper coaches are hard to find (I didn’t manage even once). I’m lucky though, I sleep pretty OK sitting in a regular train chair. But I don’t expect that to be true for most people.

But more importantly – the price tag of €208 per ton CO2 reduction is insane! There’s MUCH better ways to spend that money for the climate, scroll to the end for a graph.

Example 2: Stockholm – Billund

Train (one way) Plane (one way)
Travel time 8 hours, 2 changes (bus the last leg) 2.5 hours, no changes (includes airport time)
Price €120 €60
Climate footprint 10 kg CO2eq 380 kg CO2eq
Reliability Medium High

 

Cost/benefit comparison

  • Cost: €60 higher cost, 5.5 hours longer time, slightly higher likelihood of delays and hassle.
  • Benefit: 370kg reduction of climate footprint
  • Climate footprint reduction price:  €162 per ton

Not quite as bad as Stockholm – Paris. But still a pretty bad deal. Twice as expensive, 3 times longer travel time, and again, a ridiculously high price tag for the rather small CO2 reduction.

The time itself is not a problem though. I can make good use of those 8 hours, sitting in a comfortable seat with a decent internet connection (in fact, I’m being really productive right now, sitting in a train writing this article).

Example 3: Stockholm – Gothenburg

Train (one way) Plane (one way)
Travel time 3.5 hours 2 hours (includes airport time)
Price €24 €24
Climate footprint 10 kg CO2eq 250 kg CO2eq
Reliability Medium High

Cost/benefit comparison:

    • Cost: Same cost (roughly), 1.5 hours longer time
    • Benefit: 240kg reduction of climate footprint. More comfortable journey.
    • Climate footprint reduction price: 0!

This is where train shines. Same price as flying. Slightly longer trip, but MUCH more comfortable and less hassle (more leg room, internet connection all the way, no security gates, etc). I’ve done the trip a few times with no hassle, but some friends report that it’s actually quite unreliable and they often run into delays. So I guess I’ve just been lucky so far. 

Conclusion – long-distance train sucks, but it shouldn’t!

I hate to say it, but from now on when I travel outside Sweden I’m back to flying, and offsetting the climate impact.

I know some climate advocates don’t believe in carbon offsets, but the math is pretty clear. We’ve spent lots of time exploring this at GoClimateNeutral.org, and concluded that 1 ton of effective, certified carbon offset costs about €4 (for example, we recently purchased 1000 tons for €2622, a hydro project in Vietnam). Compare that with €160-200 for 1 ton of carbon reduction via long-distance train travel. That’s 40-50x more expensive! And even if our offset pricing is wrong by a factor 10, it’s still 4-5x more effective than long-distance train!

Here’s a graph comparing the price of carbon offset/reduction using various services.  Long-distance train is clearly the worst.

Price of carbon offsetting
Price of carbon offsetting

(note that the prices for JoinTrine.com and GoldStandard.org vary from project to project, I picked their best projects for this graph)

So if you really need to travel longer than 600 km, then flight + offset is the least crappy way to do it from a climate perspective, at least as long as train travel is twice as expensive as flying.

Let’s take the Stockholm-Paris example for comparison.

  • Option 1: travel by train and pay €280.
  • Option 2: travel by plane and pay €130, plus an additional €4 to offset the carbon footprint (= pay for corresponding carbon reduction somewhere else). Just a 3% increase in price! And hey, why not add another €10 and make a positive impact on the climate instead of just neutral! Still way cheaper than train.

From a systemic perspective though, this is still broken! It would be MUCH better if people were incentivized to not pollute the climate in the first place (= take train instead of plane), instead of polluting the climate and paying to offset it somewhere else.

So politicians, engineers, policymakers, listen up!

  • Make long-distance train cheaper than flying! Either by subsidizing train more, or by taxing flights more. It makes no sense that people should pay extra when doing the right thing for the climate.
  • Invest heavily in improving long-distance train infrastructure. Train is great, when it works! But the reliability of cross-Europe train travel is too low. Last minute changes and delays on a multi-leg journey means you need to have a ridiculous amount of safety margin when making, say, a business trip.
  • Support research on electric planes. Fully-electric passenger flight is a huge technical challenge, but plenty of efforts are ongoing and the more support they get, the better. Check out this on hybrid and electric planes.
  • Support efforts that lower the climate footprint of flying. For example aviation biofuel. Because we’re going to be stuck with flying for a long time, so let’s at least reduce the impact as much as possible.

Fortunately, aviation accounts for only about 2% of global carbon emissions (source). So even if everyone stops flying now, that will only slow down global warming by 2%. Cars and energy production (coal & oil power plants) account for almost half of global carbon emissions, so that’s where the big change needs to happen. And it is happening! We’re currently seeing an exponential growth in affordable solar panels and electric cars.

PS – if you (despite this article) are gonna do long-distance train travel in Europe, I can strongly recommend loco2.com for finding the routes.

Oh, and if you are a frequent long-distance train traveller and you have another view on this, maybe you live in an area where long-distance train travel is perfectly feasible, then please add a comment. Show us the numbers. I’d love to be wrong about this whole thing.

 

 

 

10 Replies to “Is train a feasible alternative to flying?”

  1. I guess your conclusion is valid for Europe and especially Germany, where trains are notoriously unreliable and flight is available, or Nordic countries, where trains are just expensive.

    In Russia plane wins when you consider time as a value, with two exceptions. Yet, flights can be delayed or canceled on very short notice, trains not (if you want to make an appointment for precise time in Vladivostok while being in St.Petersburg, train is your option… 6 days 2 hours of ride in sleeper instead of 9 hours of flight in cramped economy will be your price). At distances longer than 1000 kilometers trains are slightly more convenient and often cheaper than flight (you can carry more by rail and security isn’t nearly as tight), as well as night in sleeper isn’t too bad (very few long-distance trains are non-sleeper here). Also, there are really few places closer to Moscow than 1000 km where you can choose between flight and rail (St. Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod, Belgorod, Pskov, Voronezh… that’s all), as well as there are no regional aconnections (like, these days you can’t fly directly from Yaroslavl or Murmansk to Arkhangelsk or Vologda, from Kotlas to Yekaterinburg, from Chelyabinsk to Saransk, etc.), and even in that case changing in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or even Novosibirsk (if you go from, say, Blagoveshchensk to Yakutsk) is faster than going by rail.

    Also, in Russia carbon footprint isn’t something really bothersome.

  2. Here in the US, there is really only a couple of trains that make any sense what so ever. The Acela line is probably the only viable line other than the commuter trains into major downtown’s.

    Take a common route, New York City to Fort Lauderdale, FL. About 1500 miles. 30 hours by train at a one way cost of around $300 in a coach seat, $700 and up for a sleeper car. $100 for a one way flight that takes two hours.
    I’ve often wanted to take the train, but just can’t swallow the more expensive and 10x time difference….

  3. Looks to me like your conclusions are pretty accurate. Possibly the sad conclusion is that train travel makes less sense in a large and sparsely populated country like Sweden (seems to be similar in Canada and even the US, although train travel should logically make sense in the more densely populated areas). In continental Europe train travel makes a lot more sense – the higher density population and shorter distances mean that there are better connections and “regular trains” are usually cheap, high-speed trains are relatively cheap (flying is still often cheaper though, which is a shame). Apparently even high-speed rail champion France is stopping the development of new TGV routes because the economics don’t make sense: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21724412-and-swaps-label-tgv-something-sounds-ennui-france-launches-its-last-high-speed

  4. Here in the Provence (southern France) we have quite à lot of people, living here, but with regular travel to Paris.
    Thanks to the TGV these 800 km are equaly distance in time forv plane and train.
    Prices depend a lot on date and time (both use lean-management for pricing), advantage for train is the lower taxi-ride for final destination.

  5. I think your conclusions are valid for Stockholm but not for other parts of Europe. If you live for example in Germany train travel times to many European cities are much shorter.

    From my experience reliability of planes is low to medium. Planes are often delayed or cancelled due to weather condition (or airlines in trouble, think Ryanair, Air Berlin, …). Connections are frequently missed. Personally I had much longer delays travelling with planes than with trains.

    The problem that remains is: cost. At least in Germany there are many direct and indirect subsidies for airport. (And I doubt that a plane ticket of 24€ from Stockholm to Gothenburg is possible without subsidies). Stopping these subsidies would be a first step…

  6. You would have to factor the time/cost for the routes to/from the airport in order to have a more fair comparison. This addition wont brake your initial findings but it will improve the attractiveness of short distance train rides.

    1. Yes, good point. In my case the distance is about the same (I live outside Stockholm), but for someone who lives close to the train station and far from the airport, that will of course make a difference.

      1. Re the comment above about counting travel time to the airport – there is also the fact that you usually need to be at the airport much earlier than you need to be at the train station. So for someone like me, living in Brussels, flying to London or Paris or Amsterdam (and many more cities) takes longer than taking the train. But obviously flying from Brussels to Stockholm is much faster than the train to Stockholm… 🙂 So again the distance-thing is significant as well as the fact that Stockholm is a fairly isolated city in a large sparsely populated country. Your conclusions are valid for Stockholm but not for much of mainland Europe. Now how do we get policy-makers to change the incentives by making train travel cheaper than flying (for the places where train travel makes sense).

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