Trains, Planes, and Bar Cars

Riding the rails is easier on the earth than flying, and should be way more fun

| November-December 2008

“The journey is the destination.” You will hear this a lot if you take a long trip by train, because it is how passengers explain rail travel to themselves. The trouble is, I had a destination, a specific one: Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I write this, I am still on the train, because that is what happens when you travel 7,870 kilometers round-trip by rail. In the world beyond the windows of the lounge car, people fall in and out of love, empires rise and fall, the great cycles of nature are ever renewed, and you are still on the train.

I had decided to travel by locomotive in order to see the future, which I can now report is gleaming steel and chugs up the Santa Lucia Mountains in Southern California with all the verve of a reluctant camel. At times it seemed like I was actually going backward in time, like when the train was hissing and farting at some midnight platform while a conductor shouted “All aboard!” But it only seemed like the past—in fact, it was the future. That is the difference.

A typical flight to Albuquerque from my starting point in Vancouver would have taken a dozen hours, home to hotel. In that same span of time, my futuristic journey via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Southern Chief railways got me as far as central Oregon. Flying to Albuquerque and back, though, would make me responsible for the equivalent of 1,380 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions—as much polluting punch as a typical North American will deliver from behind the wheel of his or her car between New Year’s Day and September 9. My train ride kicked in just 30 percent of the impact of going by plane. That’s a saving of 966 kilograms of carbon. Picture 55 bags of charcoal briquettes.

Seeing the world: For some of us—for me—it feels like something close to a necessity. Every culture and era has its wanderers, people for whom being far from home is as important as the deep roots of family or religion are for others. Without it, we do not feel whole. Yet if we wish to continue to see the further reaches of the globe, then trains and ships are the future, and planes are not, because air travel is indefensible.


As my lady friend and I climbed aboard (she would join me for the first leg of the journey, to Los Angeles), we were lost in daydreams of the Trans-Siberian howling through the Russian taiga; the Orient Express threading the capitals of Europe; the narrow-gauge Old Patagonian Express inching up the Andean foothills—each calling to mind the meditative shukka-shuk of steel wheels and the zoetrope flash of exotic scenery.

gail semer
5/21/2012 3:00:13 PM

Bravo! Marketing ploys that claim you can make your trip to Europe carbon-free by planting a few sapling trees are rampant. Push for rails!

Gordon Shephard
12/6/2008 12:01:15 PM

Nice to have a job for which travelling expenses can be written off. That way all of us readers can share in the reduction of the writer's carbon emissions.

Gábor Bánóczi
12/5/2008 3:17:16 PM

Nicely wtitten article. I found the numbers presented in the article odd, however. Charcoal bags: 966 kg (the supposed amount of CO2 saved in pollution taking the train ride) is about 2147 lb, so each of those 55 bags should be about 40 lb. I do not know, but would like to where those 40 lb charcoal bags can be bought. The ones that I usually come across are around 20 lb, so according to that there should be about 100 of them burnt away for one trip. I thought that the average American car is driven about 12,000 to 15,000 miles each year. Based on that in the first eight months the average car would be driven at least 8000 miles. Counting 25 mpg this would take 8000/25 = 320 G of gasoline. Given that each gallon produces about 8.788 kg CO2, the pollution up until September 1 is going to be 320*8.788 = 2812.16 kg, which is more than twice as much as was supposed in the article. The 1,380 kg of CO2 emissions (one person's share during a flight from Vancouver to Albuquerque and back) would be equaled in between New Years and May day. Whether it makes driving look way more polluting or flying somewhat less polluting is a different question...