Train Travel Not So Green

Over here on the European continent we perhaps a bit self-righteously presume that we’re in a somewhat better position to act against global warning – and to deal with the inevitable coming gasoline price-hikes, whether there is a war with Iran or no – than, say, North America due to a transport network that is not so predicated on the personal automobile. But then the German newspaper-of-record, the FAZ, comes out like it did today with an article entitled Train Travel Does Not Protect the Environment.

Turns out, that headline gives an impression that is rather too black-and-white. Reality, once you get into the article’s details, is rather more subtle – which does not rule out a surprise or two, however. A bit of investigative journalism from the FAZ‘s sister publication – namely the FAS, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine – reveals that figures wielded by the German railways company (Deutsche Bahn AG) to tout their services’ eco-friendliness are somewhat overstated. A train-traveler uses the equivalent of 3.9 liters of gasoline per 100k, and not the 2.3 liters per 100k that Deutsche Bahn claims, for in that latter figure they do not include the energy required to maintain the rail infrastructure, nor the “energy-consuming detours” train-travelers must take.

(Are you having a hard time, too, figuring out what that last bit about “detours” (GE: Umwege) is about? My guess is that that refers to the energy needed by train travelers to get themselves to the station via whatever other means, which must usually involve a “detour” to the station which does not lie along the straight-line route they would follow were they to proceed directly to their destination by automobile.)

Point taken. The train-travel figures still look pretty good compared with on-average 5.2 liters of gasoline per 100k consumed by that auto travel. (As for CO2 emissions: 110 grams per km-passenger for train – not the 52 grams claimed, for the same reasons – versus 122 grams per km-passenger for auto: not so much of a difference there.) What it all seems to come down to in the end is what you could call the “sardine factor” (note: this is not the FAZ‘s coinage, it’s mine): trains do score better than autos in their enviro-friendliness, but not so much more, because of all that nice space-per-passenger you usually find on the Deutsche Bahn (remember to include the dining cars and suchlike). According to this article, the means of transportation that do even better in this respect are, yes, low-cost-carrier intra-Europe airline flights and, best of all, the long-range bus lines. Both will pack you in like sardines.

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