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Is Train Travel Greener Than Flying? Maybe Not

oaklandTaking a train ride must be more environmentally sound than getting flung into the sky on a plane, right? Maybe not, according to researchers at U.C. Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Arpad Horpath and Mikhael V. Chester compared the entire lifecycle (from infrastructure to train, plane, bus or car ride) of the four major forms of travel and found that light rail is often more energy and greenhouse gas-intensive than flying. That's because flying requires minimal infrastructure, while light rail uses plentiful resources for laying down tracks and building stations.

This doesn't mean we should give up on light rail systems. Horpath and Chester suggest that less energy-intensive methods should be used to construct train systems—i.e. the replacement of concrete with lower-impact materials and cleaner fuels used for infrastructure operation.

While the study doesn't take into account the impact of high-speed rail, it's safe to assume that infrastructure operations are just as energy-intensive. But since high-speed trains are still a pipe dream in most parts of the U.S., we have the chance to begin the construction process with emissions and energy use in mind. Before embarking on the construction of a trans-continental rail system, the government should consider the lifecycle impact.

[Via Greenbiz]

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  • Jerry Roxas

    They must perform much detailed research before pushing through their plan. Still, there are so many things that they must consider before starting this plan.


  • Ariel Schwartz

    True -- but I still think we should do extensive research into less energy-intensive construction methods before going forward with Obama's high-speed rail plan. Even if high-speed trains emit fewer greenhouse gases over the long term, we should mitigate the upfront carbon cost as much as possible.

  • Cliff Kuang

    One thing that the study, in its long form, makes clear which the graphs do not is that the trains they looked at aren't actually fairly compared to airplanes--you're not going to take the Caltrain or the Muni to between LA and Dallas. Trains still come out far ahead of cars, which is really the natural comparison. The fact is that we don't have the sort of workable long-distance train network to create a fair train/plane comparison. Europe does, and the comparisons, from a carbon standpoint, favor trains. Especially high speed trains. There's a ton of up front carbon cost in setting them up, but the operating cost is far lower.