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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Crosswell

Why Train Travel is Good for the Environment

Find out exactly why train travel is more sustainable and better for the environment than any other form of transport.

There’s something indescribably romantic about the idea of train travel, and it’s becoming an ever more popular option as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the environmental impacts of travelling. But why are trains better than cars and planes when it comes to the environment?

The answer isn’t completely straightforward. The eco-friendliness of different modes of travel can vary greatly based on a huge range of factors - whether something runs on traditional fuel or electricity, where the fuel or electricity is sourced from, the length of the journey, and how many passengers there are.

But although there isare many nuances, experts broadly agree on one thing. Trains are nearly always the greenest mode of transport, and often by a wide margin. Read on for a breakdown of why.

In This Article


The Environmental Impact of Travel

Almost all travel has some kind of adverse impact on the environment, and sadly there is no quick fix. Similar to other high-impact industries like fashion, a shift in attitude can truly make the biggest difference on an individual level.

‘Fast fashion’ and its counterpart ‘slow fashion’ are terms fast entering the mainstream vernacular; whilst the term ‘slow travel’ is some way behind, it’s a similar concept and a useful way to think about it. When it comes to reducing the overall environmental impact of travel, the best thing we can do is to take the slower and more mindful path.

Trains Emit Less CO2 Than Other Transport Methods

It’s all about the carbon, and in general train travel emits around 66 to 80 percent less carbon than planes and cars. For some context, according to EcoPassenger, getting on a plane from London to Paris will emit around 122 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger, compared with 48 kilograms by car and only 8.3 kilograms by train.

How much CO2 your train journey emits will depend on whether the train is fueled by diesel or electricity, and whether the electricity is coal-powered or renewables-powered.

Recently developed hydrogen-powered trains are the most eco-friendly trains in the world, emitting nothing except steam as a by-product and creating very little noise. The Coradia iLint is the world’s first passenger train service powered by hydrogen fuel cell, now running in Salzgitter, Germany, and Żmigród in Poland.

Trains Use Less Energy

One of the biggest environmental benefits of trains is that they consume far less energy than other types of transport. It takes a huge amount of fuel to get a plane carrying hundreds of people airborne, whereas trains are streamlined, require much less energy to move, and are increasingly able to run on electricity.

Around 50 percent of trains in Europe are now run on electricity according to Statista. Switzerland comes out on top, with 100 percent electric-powered trains, whereas Ireland comes last with only 5.3 percent of trains running on electricity.

Trains Use Less Space and Transport More People

The number of people being transported makes a big difference when it comes to the overall energy-efficiency of different modes of travel, and trains unsurprisingly come out on top here as well. Being streamlined and compact, a single train can transport up to 50,000 people per hour, whereas the average plane carries 85 to 100 passengers per flight. An average motorway moves only around 2,500 people per hour, with many cars carrying just a single passenger.

There’s Less Noise Pollution

Noise pollution is not only unpleasant but has an adverse effect on the wellbeing of humans and animals alike, causing high stress levels, sleep disturbance, hypertension, and tinnitus. It has even been linked to adverse learning capability and memory in children. It is thought that around a third of Europeans and Americans are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of noise.

Whilst train lines can definitely produce noise pollution for those closest, they usually create a less damaging level of noise and affect fewer people than flight paths. Whilst planes can reach around 120 decibels of noise, trains are estimated at around 85 decibels at close proximity. For context, a normal conversation is typically about 60 decibels.

It Encourages More Mindful Travel

Imagine if the journey wasn’t just something tedious to endure before your adventure really began? Whilst train travel is often the slower and usually more expensive route, it’s also a fast-track ticket to a more mindful, enriching travel experience.

Travelling by rail lets you soak up the changing landscapes, see towns and villages where real people go about their lives, and generally get a richer experience than if you pop up in your destination. Train travel helps us take more time to slow down and notice the world around us, a benefit both to travellers and the planet.

Are Trains Better for the Environment Than Planes?

Are trains better for the environment than planes? Put simply, yes. Besides emitting far more carbon and being far less efficient, there are other factors at play making planes worse for the environment than trains. A large number of travellers get both to and from the airport by car, increasing the overall environmental impact of each journey.

There are also lesser-known emissions, such as nitrogen oxide, that have a far worse impact when released into the atmosphere during plane travel. Shorter, domestic flights are averagely worse than long-haul flights - due to the fact more fuel is needed for take-off and landing than cruising - but overall, plane travel is by far the worst mode of transport when it comes to the environment.

Are Trains Better for the Environment Than Cars?

If your car is powered by renewable electricity, it is certainly possible to have a greener journey by car than by train. But, although the adoption of green cars is getting increasingly common, it’s not happening nearly quickly enough. It is also nowhere near affordable or accessible enough for most of the world, meaning cars are still miles worse for the environment than train travel overall.

There are other drawbacks to travelling by car too. Cars cause densely populated cities to become noisy, polluted, and congested, and also create far more infrastructure deterioration than trains. Add to all this the increased danger of driving (cars produce 3 fatalities per billion passengers for every kilometre of travel, whereas trains are practically none), and the stress factor of arriving in a strange city by car and battling with road and parking restrictions, and train travel comes out the clear winner.

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