Marsha Low’s Eco Tip in the March Shuttle talked about the high carbon cost of airplane travel, and she inspired me to look further into the environmental differences between traveling by train versus plane.
Planes get you where you want to go fast, but when you go fast, there is little time to smell the roses. There is something special about being suspended in time, as happens on a long train ride. You aren’t crowded into a postage stamp-sized seat that prevents relaxation. You have time to think and notice the world as it passes by your window. It is a gift not to be in a hurry, not to have to deal with security and lines at the airport, and to be able to change your plans at no cost, even to get a refund if needed.
Trains also use far less carbon — at least 90 percent less energy than traveling by plane. Additionally, planes emit carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, where it causes more damage.
While it’s easy to criticize the U.S. rail system, few realize that we have the longest freight rail service in the world, extending more than 140,000 miles. Freight trains moving cargo can travel 479 miles on a gallon of fuel, which is 11 times more energy-efficient than trucks. The reason rail travel in Europe is more popular is that it is owned and subsidized by the government, which makes it cheaper and more efficient. Amtrak and the two freight rail carriers in the U.S. are operated to make a profit.
About five years ago, my partner and I took a train from Philadelphia to the Grand Canyon and loved it. We paid a total of $1,478 one way, and while that may sound expensive for a roomette, consider that all your meals for three days are included and you have a bed for two nights. If you consider the cost of restaurants and hotels, the price isn’t bad. You can also travel coach for the same distance for $347 each. Aside from the scenery and the slow passage of time, I most enjoyed the diverse people we met, including an elderly Civil Rights attorney from the South and an Amish couple.
We also have taken the train to Montreal. We left early in the morning and arrived by dinnertime. The cost was $152 for two adults one way, which was a bargain. A guide on the train pointed out places of interest along the way, and once we were in Montreal we had no trouble getting around the city.