Carbon constrained travel


in The environment, Travel

Jennifer Ellan and a yellow wall

Pondering the era of post-air travel tourism, I have been thinking about places to visit by train. There are actually quite a lot of appealing prospects:

  • Halifax: see the Maritimes for the first time, and perhaps Caity Sackeroff as well
  • Boston: visit Iason, Sheena, Loretta, and perhaps Claire
  • New York: re-visit the city five years after my first foray
  • Bennington, Vermont: visit family

Have any readers undertaken the exploration of North America’s east coast using ground-based means? Are trains generally much more expensive than buses? How do they compare, in terms of speed?

The moral unacceptability of air travel has also left me thinking more seriously about the kind of grand backpacking tours that were more common when long-haul flights were ruinously expensive. The most ambitious possibility – flitting around at the edges of imagination – is to travel by ground all the way from London to Hong Kong, seeing as much as possible between the two. Emitting a couple of tonnes of carbon, in the form of flights across the Atlantic, would be a lot more ethically acceptable than undertaking multiple hops. Of course, a truly conscientous traveler would emulate a friend of a friend of mine and book passage across on a container ship.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 11, 2008 at 11:53 am

This page has a lot of useful information:

Travelling by train in Canada…

R.K. January 12, 2008 at 6:36 pm

For the middle class people with the education to understand the climate change problem, abandoning air travel is a bridge too far.

It needs to be the last sacrifice, not the first. Otherwise, you will learn the support of their heads into bitter opposition from their hearts.

Litty January 12, 2008 at 10:18 pm

Trains are pretty good. I sleep much better on them than on buses.

Tristan Laing January 13, 2008 at 12:04 am

Trains emit far more particulate emmisions per passenger mile than air travel.

I think climate change is paradoxically making people care much less about pollution, or at least all pollution other than CO2 or CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. Global darkening is also well documented, and yet there seems to be no comparable call on the reduction of particulate emissions.

Also, it is insane to say air travel is morally forbidden. Morality isn’t a series of laws, other than the law to act rightly. The hard part of morality is determining which principle is the one to act on in any given situation. For example – if contingencies mean the only way to be with your partner during childbirth or sickness, or some other important event, is air travel, the air travel is an obviously moral choice inasmuch as duties to people that are close to us trump duties to people we havn’t and can’t meet.

Milan January 13, 2008 at 12:15 pm


Particulates do have problematic characteristics, but they are also useful insofar as they have a mitigating effect on global warming. Some people are even talking about the intentional mass injection of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere as a way of reducing the degree of warming.

Traditional pollution is certainly a problem, but it doesn’t have the same catastrophic possibilities associated with it as climate change does.

Regarding air travel, if we accept that 750kg is a person’s fair share of the world carbon budget, it is impossible for them to take a long flight without exceeding their fair allotment. Using more than your share implies either that you think the science is wrong and we can ethically use more or that someone else should have to use less to cover your excessive use (a post about this is coming up on Tuesday).

Milan January 13, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Also, are all of Canada’s intercity trains diesel powered? A high speed electric train corridor in the east coast region could be really excellent for minimizing short haul flights. At the very least, a Montreal-Toronto line could be built.

Milan January 13, 2008 at 12:39 pm

I bumped the fairness post up to today:

Per capita emissions and fairness
January 13th, 2008

tristan January 13, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Just because a train is electrically powered doesn’t mean the energy is clean – much electricity in our corner of the world comes from burning coal. Since coal produces more than twice the CO2 per unit of heat released compared to diesel, it is altogether unclear whether an electric train would be cleaner.

Milan January 13, 2008 at 3:08 pm

An electric train would be replacing car and plane journeys, not train journeys.

Compared to a car engine, even coal-driven electric motors are a less carbon intensive option.

tristan January 13, 2008 at 4:54 pm

An electric train would be replacing car and plane journeys – not train journeys?

Am I missing something here? Electric trains are not defacto faster than diesel trains. If speed is what you are after, then the question is difficult and interesting:

In Europe, they have very high quality rail corridors, here we do not. Building a line from Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal up to European high speed standards would be ruinously expensive. The obvious alternative is to use “tilting trains”, which we already did up until 1982 powered by gas turbine-electric hybrid engines. These trains rain regularly at 160km/h, and did the montreal-toronto trip a full hour faster than conventional diesel express trains.

The next logical possibility is to outfit these lines with electric overhead wires, or third rails, so that the trains can run either on petrol or off the grid (since the engines weigh only 150 kilograms (yes, insanely light), there is no weight advantage to foregoing them , as not having conventional engines would cripple the trains where electricity was not available.

This is certainly something the railways could do, but since they are privately owned, and this exact kind of high speed service has failed to draw enough consumer dollars in the past, there is no obvious reason as to why it would happen again.

On the other hand, since the implementation could be gradual – i.e., first buy the trains, start the service, and then begin to “Green” the line by putting in overhead wires or a third rail (third rails are problematic because snow can cause short-circuits, and because it requires the line to be fenced, and makes level crossings more difficult), it could perhaps not be too expensive. Since the trains could run at the same speed without the electric wires, they could be installed at a rate proportional to the desire to reduce carbon emissions.

Also, gas turbine engines are a very efficient way of producing constant thrust, although I don’t know how they compare with diesel. One advantage is the engines weigh a tiny fraction as much as the equivalently powered diesel, but since trains are very heavy, this is perhaps not a large overall advantage in the weight of the train.

This is the wikipedia article on the high speed rail service that stopped operation before we were born:

While searching around writing this, I came across a Bombardier production which would fit the bill of what I’m talking about exactly, and it looks like it almost happened five years ago, minus the electrified part:

Milan January 14, 2008 at 12:36 am

Also, it is insane to say air travel is morally forbidden. Morality isn’t a series of laws, other than the law to act rightly.

I am not arguing that air travel is morally unacceptable in all circumstances. Flying to receive vital medical treatment, for instance, is pretty defensible.

My curiosity about Australia and desire to see wombats is a much less defensible reason for imposing ecological costs upon others.

It’s a lot like factory farmed meat. It’s not that all meat is morally unacceptable; it is that the vast majority of meat consumed by people alive today is.

. January 14, 2008 at 9:48 am

High-speed rail
Posted by David Roberts at 5:04 PM on 12 Jan 2008
Read more about: placemaking | public transportation
Tools: print | email | + digg | + | + reddit | + stumbleupon

High-speed rail, already kicking ass (in Europe), is set to kick much more ass (in Europe)

Steve January 15, 2008 at 2:53 am

“Governments revive plans for high-speed trains between Quebec, Ontario”

. January 15, 2008 at 10:43 am

Denis Diderot

“There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it.”

Sarah January 17, 2008 at 9:51 pm

Hmmmn, does one really need to ‘travel’ at all? To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there are some good grounds to regard global tourism as self-indulgent neo-colonialism. In that case, finding the least bad mode of transport for one’s tourism is a little like looking for the least painful way to murder people – a marginally better means to an end that you should probably reject in its own right.

Milan January 18, 2008 at 12:31 pm


You are right to suggest the possibility that all travel is simply wrong. I am certainly seriously questioning whether it would ever be ethical for me to fly again, simply for purposes of tourism.

Things are a bit different when it comes to family and friends. Can it ever be ethical for me to fly back from Ottawa to Vancouver? That’s not “self-indulgent neo-colonialism,” but rather part of the important business of maintaining friendships and familial relationships. The best alternative to flying – taking the train – simply takes too long to be feasible for someone with a normal job.

. January 23, 2008 at 9:56 am

77 per cent of adult Edmontonians made all their trips by car on the day the survey was done. It topped the eight major Canadian cities studied in 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available. The other cities were:

– Calgary, 75%

– Quebec, 74%

– Winnipeg, 72%

– Ottawa-Gatineau, 71%

– Vancouver, 69%

– Toronto, 66%

– Montreal, 65%

And the proportion of Canadians who made at least one trip under their own power by bicycle or on foot appears to have declined between 1998 and 2005, the new report states. In 2005, 19 per cent of adults walked or biked somewhere, down from 26 per cent in 1998.

. February 7, 2008 at 11:44 am

Airbus predicts air travel boom

European plane maker Airbus expects global passenger traffic to grow at an average of 4.9% a year, almost trebling over the next two decades.

It forecasts that 24,300 passenger and freight aircraft worth $2.8 trillion will be ordered between now and 2026.

Anonymous February 13, 2008 at 3:19 pm

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many path and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say

. May 9, 2008 at 11:55 am


“Half of the work done by a plane goes into staying up; the other half goes into keeping going. The fuel efficiency at the optimal speed, expressed as an energy-per-distance-travelled, was found in the force (C.18), and it was simply proportional to the weight of the plane; the constant of proportionality is the drag-to-lift ratio, which is determined by the shape of the plane. So whereas lowering speed-limits for cars would reduce the energy consumed per distance travelled, there is no point in considering speedlimits for planes. Planes that are up in the air have optimal speeds, different for each plane, depending on its weight, and they already go at their optimal speeds. The only way to make a plane consume less fuel is to put it on the ground and stop it. Planes have been fantastically optimized, and there is no prospect of significant improvements in plane efficiency.”

Possible areas for improvement of plane efficiency

‘Laminar flow control’ (cunning trick for reducing drag a little). Flying wings: said to be 25% more fuel efficient. Propfans instead of turbofans? Said to be 12% more efficient for short journeys (less than 3000 km), but not for long journeys. They’re more efficient because the engine efficiency is greater.

Formation flying in the style of geese could give a 10% improvement in fuel efficiency (because the lift-to-drag ratio of the formation is higher than that of a single aircraft), but this trick relies, of course, on the geese wanting to migrate to the same destination at the same time.

Optimizing the hop lengths: long-range planes (designed for a range of say 15 000 km) are not quite as fuel-efficient as shorter-range planes, because they have to carry extra fuel, which makes less space for cargo and passengers. It would be more energy efficient to fly shorter hops in shorter-range planes. The sweet spot is when the hops are about 5000 km long, so typical long-distance journeys would have one or two refuelling stops. Multi-stage long distance flying might be abou”

“Earlier in this chapter, however, our cartoon made the assertion that the transport efficiency of any plane is about

0.3 kWh/tonne-km.

According to the cartoon, the only ways in which a plane could significantly improve on this figure are to reduce air resistance (perhaps by some newfangled vacuum-cleaners-in-the-wings trick) or to change the geometry of the plane (making it look more like a glider, with immensely wide wings compared.”

. August 26, 2009 at 11:11 am

New high-speed rail plan unveiled

Network Rail has proposed a new £34bn ($55bn) high-speed railway line linking Scotland and London by 2030.

The line would serve Birmingham and Manchester, getting passengers from Glasgow to London in just two hours and 16 minutes, the rail firm said.

It rejected several alternative routes, including the east of England.
The government said assessments of the costs and environmental issues involved needed to be carried out before it could approve any plans.

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