Traveling by train
Average carbon rank: 3 out of 5
Once the primary mode of transportation in the U.S., train travel has significantly diminished in popularity over time – from a high of 1.3 billion passengers annually in the 1920s to 26 million in 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service.
With few exceptions, American train travel can be divided into two categories: electric and diesel. Some trains, most notably those traveling in the Northeast Corridor on the Amtrak network (running from Washington, D.C. to Boston), are powered by electricity. But diesel-powered trains still make up the majority of rail travel in the U.S.
Electric trains produce an average of 0.37 pounds of carbon emissions per passenger mile, while their diesel-powered counterparts average 0.45 pounds – about 20 percent more, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Both of these emissions rates represent significant savings over a typical car, which produces 1.08 pounds of carbon emissions per mile. Another element to weigh in is the fact that trains will travel their routes regardless of how many passengers hop on board. Since train travel is underused in many parts of the country, taking up an empty seat on a train becomes a veritable “free ride” when it comes to carbon emissions, UCS researchers explain.
Typically, carpooling with three or more passengers or opting for motor coach travel will beat out the train with respect to carbon impact. But in some cases, rail travel may be your most efficient option. Enter some information about your trip into a carbon calculator and factor in how many people tend to use the train in your area to find the best fit for you.