Re-pondering a low-carbon cross country voyage


in Canada, Daily updates, Economics, The environment, Travel

I am delighted to say that I will be able to take the time from Saturday December 19th through Sunday January 10th off work. Naturally, the thing to do is go to Vancouver, as I was unable to do over the summer.



  • Comfortable, can walk around
  • Reasonable chance of getting some reading and other sorts of work done
  • Probably access to an electrical outlet
  • Probably half to 1/3 the greenhouse gas emissions of flying
  • Takes four days
  • Leaves three times a week: Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday from Toronto and Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday from Vancouver
  • Expensive: $1,100 for a non-refundable ticket
  • Note, if the Sierra Youth Coalition still has a 40% discount, that is a more reasonable $660.


  • Pretty uncomfortable
  • Not much chance of getting anything done – little space for books and/or laptop
  • Probably no access to an electrical outlet
  • Even fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • Takes three days
  • Seems to leave every day
  • Cheap: $224 for a ticket that can be changed for a small fee

The train would certainly be much more comfortable and romantic, but is it worth paying nearly five times as much (and two extra days) for?

As a follow-up question, why are our trains so slow and expensive?

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 12, 2009 at 10:53 am

Matt previously calculated the probable CO2 associated with flying:

Westbound, probably about 0.3 tonnes (not taking into account any additional warming effects associated with plane travel as opposed to other kinds of fuel use); Eastbound, about 0.3 tonnes also.

“In its 1999 Special Report on Aviation in the Global Atmosphere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the RFI from air travel in 1990 to be between 2 and 4, averaging 2.7 times the carbon impact alone.”

If so, the total emissions associated with flying are probably around 1.62 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Through Canada, Ottawa to Vancouver is about 4,465km by road.

NativeEnergy estimates that the emissions associated with going round-trip by rail would be about 1.2 tonnes (25% less than flying) and those associated with going by bus would be 0.5 tonnes (nearly 70% less than flying). These numbers suggest that taking the train rather than flying is barely worth it. The 400kg difference is equivalent to the emissions the average Canadian produces in six days.

I would rather have estimates based on real fuel use of Greyhound buses and Via Rail trains. That said, it does seem the issue is more how far you travel, and less by what means.

Matt previously calculated that a car with four people in it would emit about 0.5 tonnes per person for the round trip. This seems to support the idea that going by road may be worthwhile from a carbon perspective, but the train doesn’t seem to be.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 11:15 am

This 2004 Locomotive Emissions Monitoring Program report explains that, when six GHGs are taken into account, emissions from burning diesel fuel in locomotives are 3.07415 kg of CO2 equivalent per litre.

alena November 12, 2009 at 11:26 am

That is wonderful news. Have you thought of putting an add somewhere to share a ride? I know that people sometimes drive across , but is less likely in the winter. Candy took the train to visit Chelsea in Montreal and she enjoyed the trip. You must take a lot of provisions with you because the food is poor for a vegetarian.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 11:28 am

Also according to that report, here are some Via Rail figures for passenger travel:

Passenger Operations – VIA Rail Canada Fuel Rate: 10.8 litres per 1,000 GTK (Gross Tonne Kilometers)

Passenger Operations – VIA Rail Canada fuel rate: 10.8 litres per 1,000 GTK

Gross Tonne-Kilometres (GTK): This term refers to the product of the total weight of the trailing tonnage (both loaded and empty railcars) and the distance the train travelled. It excludes the weight of locomotives pulling the trains.

The question, then, is to work out how many tonnes of cargo I would really represent, once the mass of the train was taken into consideration. Each tonne making the round trip journey represents 8930 GTK. Since fuel use is 10.8L per 1000 GTK, that means each tonne takes about 96L of fuel to make the distance, and produces emissions of about 0.296 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

Have you thought of putting an add somewhere to share a ride?

A rideshare would probably take even longer than the train, with no guarantee about when I would arrive. Such things, I think, are luxuries for those without full-time jobs to return to.

Haley November 12, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Overnight trips on the bus are pretty miserable. I was surrounded by a lot of smokers on an overnight trip on a bus, something which you can walk away from on a train. I’ve also done the Vancouver-Quebec trip on the train several times. I assume you’re probably not quoting the price for a sleeper car, but even still, economy is much more comfortable on the train than on a bus. If it doesn’t put too much of a dent in your wallet, I would definitely go with the train! I do understand that there are other issues other than finances that you are considering though.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 12:33 pm


The issues under consideration are greenhouse gas emissions, cost, time, comfort, and ability to do anything useful while traveling.

The train scores much better on comfort and work, and much worse on time and cost. On GHG emissions, I am still trying to sort it out. All told, the train is an unappealing option for those pressed for time. If the train really is only a bit better than flying, I don’t see much reason to endure a long train ride, rather than fly and try to cut emissions somewhere else.

R.K. November 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Please, not this again. These ‘should I travel and if so how’ discussions have gone on too long.

That said, it is annoying that it is so hard to get credible numbers on how the options compare.

Haley November 12, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Perhaps trains are so expensive due to lack of competition in Canada. I’ve also been stuck on a train because something is wrong with a portion of upcoming track and since trains aren’t able to take alternative routes, the problem is amplified compared to other forms of travel.

I agree – due to your time limitations and the numbers that Matt calculated, flying doesn’t seem to be that much worse than train and you would be able to spend so more time in Vancouver.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 4:23 pm

I will try to get better figures for the train and the bus, then make a decision soon. Waiting longer to book would make a train ticket even more expensive.

Matt November 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm

I was reading about the original Honda Insight a while ago. It was the first commercially available hybrid, and so far the one that still returns the best fuel economy. It was originally rated at an astonishing 68MPG highway.

It compromised a lot for fuel economy: it seats only 2, and has low rolling resistance tires not known for their ride quality. It has side skirts that give it a funky look and make changing a flat slightly more involved.

If you could get your hands on one of these, a one-way journey would only expend ~331kg of CO2. It would also only cost you $160 in fuel. I’ve noticed a few on the used market. While I realize a car doesn’t fit into your low carbon lifestyle, if you used it only for travel that is not easily accomplished by lower carbon alternatives, or for which there isn’t a lower carbon alternative, you would be ahead.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 7:04 pm

I don’t even have a valid learner’s license, and haven’t driven a car since I was in high school.

Milan November 12, 2009 at 7:06 pm

It is awfully frustrating not to have good data on how the air / bus / train options compare, in terms of greenhouse gasses.

I really appreciate Matt’s efforts to address that.

Milan November 13, 2009 at 9:46 am

For the sake of comparison, WestJet would cost about $800 with taxes, and take about six hours each way.

Tristan November 13, 2009 at 10:40 am

How many tons of respectable carbon offsets can be purchased for 500$?

Milan November 13, 2009 at 10:56 am

A survey of offset quality was discussed here before.

The top-ranked provider ( charges C$47.25 per tonne, including GST.

. November 13, 2009 at 10:58 am

“Less has chosen to exclusively sell Gold Standard-certified offsets. These offsets are sourced from renewable energy projects which reduce greenhouse gas emissions by displacing fossil fuel-based (coal, oil and natural gas-based) electricity generation.

The Gold Standard is an internationally recognized carbon offset standard for quality, endorsed by leading environmental groups including WWF International, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Pembina Institute. Gold Standard-certified projects are international projects which are additional and independently validated by accredited third party Verifiers (known as Designated Operational Entities)to ensure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions have occurred according to the approved Kyoto methodologies. Verification of projects that meet Gold Standard certification confirms that the emission reductions not only create positive impacts on the environment, but also on the social networks and the local economy in which they operate.

Unlike offsets from projects located in Canada, Gold Standard offsets are recognized by the international community as being additional to Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. “

Milan November 13, 2009 at 11:07 am also endorses the 2.7 multiplier for emissions from planes:

Air travel has a high positive radiative forcing component and it is for this reason that air travel is viewed as having a large impact on global warming. Specifically, the emissions released from an airplane occur high in the atmosphere (stratosphere) compared to other sources that are emitted in the lower atmosphere (troposphere). High altitude GHG emissions, along with contrails from the plane (which contain water vapour – a GHG in itself), have a large positive radiative factor, which greatly inhibits infrared radiation and heat from leaving the earth’s atmosphere.

Although the science is not conclusive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends that a radiative forcing factor of 2.7 be applied against all air travel.

Of course, it is very much in their economic interest to do so.

Milan November 13, 2009 at 11:12 am

According to the Less Flight Calculator:

Itinerary: Ottawa – YOW to Vancouver – YVR: 3,555.2 km
Total Distance: 7,110.3 km
Total Emissions: 2,609.0 kg*
Program Cost: $ 123.27 CAD (including $ 5.87 GST)
*High altitude impact applied

It isn’t entirely clear to me why their figure is more than one tonne more than Matt’s fuel-based estimate, multiplied by 2.7.

My guess is that the calculator incorporates emissions of other gasses, such as nitrous oxide.

Adding in WestJet’s stopovers in Toronto (on the way to Vancouver) and Calgary (on the way back) increases the estimate to 2,671.4 kg with high altitude impacts.

Milan November 13, 2009 at 11:34 am

Here is a table summarizing the options.

Note that I am using the calculator to estimate air emissions, and the NativeEnergy figures for the bus and train.

Matt November 13, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Would not the water vapour added by contrails be a temporary addition to the atmosphere? And, while I realize that planes are constantly drawing new contrails thus replacing those that return to rain, there’s also a dimming effect by which the contrails reflect a very significant amount of sunlight back into space. I don’t know how much energy is retained vs how much is reflected, but it seems that two very temporary phenomena shouldn’t be considered to have nearly the effect of the much more permanent phenomenon of CO2 addition.

. November 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Aviation and the Global Atmosphere >> Contrail and Ice Particle Formation

“Contrails cause a positive mean radiative forcing at the top of the atmosphere. They reduce both the solar radiation reaching the surface and the amount of longwave radiation leaving the Earth to space. Contrails reduce the daily temperature range at the surface and cause a heating of the troposphere, especially over warm and bright surfaces. The radiative effects of contrails depend mainly on their coverage and optical depth.

For an estimated mean global linear-contrail cover of 0.1% of the Earth’s surface and contrail optical depth of 0.3, radiative forcing is computed to be 0.02 W m-2, with a maximum value of 0.7 W m-2 over parts of Europe and the United States of America. Radiative forcing by linear contrails is uncertain by a factor of about 3 to 4 (range from 0.005 to 0.06 W m-2), reflecting uncertainties in contrail cover (x 2) and contrail mean optical depth (x 3). “

R.K. November 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Based on the above, I would either fly and buy offsets or take the bus and do the same.

The train seems to be the loser option in all areas other than comfort and ‘romance.’

Tristan November 14, 2009 at 1:55 am

Hey – don’t be knocking romance!

Matt November 15, 2009 at 4:54 am

It isn’t entirely clear to me why their figure is more than one tonne more than Matt’s fuel-based estimate, multiplied by 2.7.

I’d like to reiterate that I feel very comfortable with the numbers I provided, as the fuel burn data was provided to me by an Air Canada employee with direct access to the statistics. It may be that the less flight people are using a “generic” airplane, of an older type, or with a less than average occupancy.

Milan November 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm


Your calculation only considers CO2, correct?

Airplanes also emit other greenhouse gasses (as well as things like soot).

. November 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Detailed Estimates of Modal GHGs Per Passenger for Canadian City Pairs

CO2: 2550 grams per litre of aviation turbo-fuel
CH4: 0.08 g/L
N20: 0.25 g/L

Global warming potentials:

CO2: 1
CH4: 21
N2O: 310

Total CO2 equivalent per litre: 2,629.2 g/L

Motor Gasoline Computation

CO2: 2330 grams per litre of motor gasoline
CH4: 0.12 g/L
N20: 0.16 g/L

Total CO2 equivalent per litre: 2,382.1 g/L

Railway Diesel Computation

CO2: 2730 grams per litre of railway diesel
CH4: 0.15 g/L
N20: 1.1 g/L

Total CO2 equivalent per litre: 3,074.2 g/L

Milan November 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm

The literature review linked above also does detailed comparisons for some specific intercity trips. These take into account the type of aircraft used, fuel burned on the ground, and other factors.


Average litres per passenger: 61.83
CO2e emissions per passenger (in Kg): 162.6
Distance (in Km): 1286
CO2e emissions per revenue passenger kilometre: 0.126

By car

425kg of CO2 emissions with one passenger, 212kg with two

By rail

Fuel Consumption: 0.042 Litres of Diesel/Revenue Passenger Revenue Kilometre (Environment Canada, Locomotive Emissions Monitoring Program, 2005)
CO2e per litre of diesel: 3.074
CO2e per Passenger Revenue Kilometre: 0.129

Toronto-Ottawa (Pearson airport)

Average litres per passenger: 25.83
CO2e emissions per passenger (in Kg): 67.9
Distance (in Km): 363
CO2e emissions per revenue passenger kilometre: 0.187

By car

108kg of CO2 emissions with one passenger, 54kg with two

By rail

Fuel Consumption: 0.042 Litres of Diesel/Revenue Passenger Revenue Kilometre (Environment Canada, Locomotive Emissions Monitoring Program, 2005)
CO2e per litre of diesel: 3.074
CO2e per Passenger Revenue Kilometre: 0.129


Average litres per passenger: 84.06
CO2e emissions per passenger (in Kg): 221
Distance (in Km): 2684
CO2e emissions per revenue passenger kilometre: 0.082

By car

817kg of CO2 emissions with one passenger, 409kg with two

By rail

Fuel Consumption: 0.042 Litres of Diesel/Revenue Passenger Revenue Kilometre (Environment Canada, Locomotive Emissions Monitoring Program, 2005)
CO2e per litre of diesel: 3.074
CO2e per Passenger Revenue Kilometre: 0.129

Milan November 15, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Focusing on just emissions per passenger kilometre, here’s what we get from the Toronto-Calgary data (the flight most similar to Ottawa-Vancouver):

Air (no 2.7 multiplier): 0.082 kg CO2e per passenger km
Air (2.7X multiplier): 0.2214
Car (2 people): 0.1523
Train: 0.129

In chart form

A lot seems to depend on the validity of that multiplier, though it does seem to be the best estimate of the IPCC.

I wish this study had included the bus option, for comparison.

It is perhaps also notable that the major conclusions of the study are all highly positive towards air travel:

  • Aviation is a very small contributor to greenhouse gases (GHGs)
  • Aviation is a major contributor to the economic and social well being of Canadians
  • The aviation industry is achieving continuous improvements in energy intensity
  • Canadian aviation will continue to be a small GHG contributor
  • Price-based charges such as fuel taxes will increase the costs of air travel to Canadian families and business; thereby reducing air transport and the benefits there-of… Visiting families
  • To ensure continuation of these benefits, aviation in Canada needs to play a role in balancing environmental protection with continued economic growth

To me, it seems like they are going out of their way to endorse the air travel industry.

. November 20, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Trains vs. Planes vs. Automobiles
What’s the greenest way to get home for Thanksgiving?
By Jacob Leibenluft
Posted Friday, Nov. 20, 2009, at 11:23 AM ET

To answer the question of how to best make your trip home, the Lantern calls your attention to a recent study conducted by Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. When we typically think of the environmental impact of driving, we focus on the energy and emissions associated with moving a car, say, 30 miles. In reality, that sort of analysis is incomplete: How the car is made, how the road is built, and even whether the roads have been salted because of ice all have some effect, too. And while those effects are spread out over many cars and many different trips, they still take a toll. When we start thinking about train travel, the infrastructure matters even more, since getting a rail line up and running requires enormous amounts of construction and manufacturing.

The UC-Berkeley analysis tries to get a more complete picture of how we travel by taking all these variables into account—down to the impact of planting grass on the side of the road. Chester and Horvath’s data suggest that riding in the average train is a significantly greener choice than the average car or plane. For example, they find that Caltrain (a system similar to Amtrak, averaging 155 passengers per train) produces less than half as many greenhouse-gas emissions or particulate matter per passenger mile compared with driving a sedan (average passengers: 1.58).* (The sedan comes out better when it comes to sulfur dioxide but much worse on volatile organic compounds.) And on Thanksgiving weekend, when trains are certain to be full and cars are likely to spend a long time idling in traffic, rail is easily a better option.

But you can come up with examples in which driving a car looks better. A train produces more emissions per trip than any car, bus, or truck; it makes up for that fact environmentally because it carries a lot more people. It stands to reason, then, that if you ride in a full sedan on a day when the train is pretty empty—and, in particular, if you are in a fuel-efficient car—the car could conceivably be greener per passenger mile. (The study says a car would need to have about three passengers—double the average—to break even environmentally with the typical train.) The numbers are even more striking for buses, which can experience extreme variability in ridership between peak and nonpeak hours. At peak hours—with 40 riders onboard—the Berkeley researchers find that buses often look like the greenest option, producing fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than even the average train per passenger mile. At off-peak hours, a bus looks a lot worse, performing even more poorly than a gas-guzzling pickup truck.

Air travel is much maligned as a source of CO2 emissions, and the Berkeley research confirms that airplanes do emit more than trains or buses per passenger mile. But the differences aren’t as large as you think, and the real reason air travel contributes so much to our collective carbon footprint is that we use planes for longer trips.

. December 18, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Transport Canada Unveils the Full Cost of Transport Study

Transport Canada, on November 30, 2009, unveiled its long anticipated “Full Cost Investigation of Transport in Canada” study. The study, in which ATAC and its members participated, aimed at analyzing not only the financial costs of transportation but also social costs such as accidents, air pollution, congestion and greenhouse gases. The full cost of intercity passengers of the air mode was $0.165 per passenger kilometre which ranked second in the study. The full cost of all modes was:

Mode Per passenger kilometre
Ferry $1.215
Rail $0.475
Light road vehicles $0.228
Air $0.165
Coach bus $0.100

Milan December 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

In that analysis, it is notable that taking the train is significantly worse than flying.

Milan December 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm

The summary says this:

“The social costs associated with the impacts of transportation activities in 2000 were in the order of between $ 24.4 billion and $ 39.5 billion. In terms of relative importance, the five social costs considered rank as: accidents, air pollution, congestion, GHG emissions and finally noise.”

That makes me think that they might not be assigning sufficient weight to GHG concerns.

. December 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm

GHG Emission Costs

A methodology was also required to assess the costs of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated from transportation activities. GHG emissions data came from the Office of Energy Efficiency of Natural Resources Canada and were converted in tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In the context of the FCI, GHG emissions needed to be converted into “costs” and there is more than one way of doing this: an approach based on abatement costs, one using carbon prices on carbon markets. The latter was adopted for the FCI.

Since Canada does not have a formal carbon market, the unit price of carbon on the European Carbon Exchange was used to assess the unit value of a tonne of GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent) from transportation activities in Canada. Such a unit value would correspond to the marginal unit cost of a tonne of CO2 under a target of emission reductions equal to the optimal level of emissions, i.e., the global marginal damage per tonne of CO2 equivalent would be equal to the marginal cost of abatement. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the creation of market mechanisms called the Kyoto Mechanisms identified the marginal cost of GHG abatement43.

A lower and upper limit to define the unit cost of a tonne of CO2 equivalent in Canada were deemed appropriate, rather than a single figure. This approach explicitly accounted for the risk associated to the instability of the carbon price on the European carbon market. Risk is a major determinant of price. The limits chosen to assess the GHG costs from transportation activities in Canada were 15 € and 30 € per tonne of CO2 equivalent.

These carbon prices were in nominal Euro (€) on the European Carbon Exchange for the year 2006. They had to be converted in Canadian dollars for the year 2000. In 2000 Canadian dollars, it gave a range of $18.67 to $37.38 per tonne of CO2 equivalent. Total costs of GHG emissions of each mode were then calculated by multiplying tonnes of modal GHG by this range of unit price of a tonne of CO2.

Tristan December 18, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I think concentrating on the existing costs is completely missing the point. What matters is what we can build, not what we have now. It’s much easier to make rail carbon neutral than coach.

Efficiency is irrelevant to carbon neutrality.

Tristan December 18, 2009 at 6:44 pm

There is another cost of taking any mode of transportation which is certainly not included here – the reduced economy of scale of the transportation modes you do not choose. For example, part of the cost of the trans-canada highway and the rise of air travel in the 60s is the sharp decline in rail travel.

And another externality ignored is the cost of making whichever transportation means you value into a carbon neutral option. The cost of making air travel, or personal car travel carbon neutral is not feasible. Whereas, rail travel can be made carbon neutral through electrification and fuel cell technology. Fuel cells are feasible for rail but not private vehicles because of the scale – CN rail is a massive rail company, but only has 1600 locomotives. Fuel cells are feasible for coach travel, but no with an alternative will take coach travel because it is too unpleasant.

R.K. December 18, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Cross-country electric rail isn’t even imaginable, at a time when not even the Windsor corridor has been electrified.

If the train really is worse than flying, probably nobody should take it cross-country. That said, using the EU ETS price to quantify the climate impact is deeply flawed. The EU price is far too low to represent all harm to all future generations.

Milan December 18, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Electric rail will probably be developed even more slowly if nobody takes the train.

Still, I think it is more ethically laudable to travel by bus than it is to go by train.

Milan December 18, 2009 at 7:05 pm

For now, the key thing is probably just to travel a lot less. It has been two years since I last made a long journey.

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 6:01 am

Electric rail is practical for the corridor, and fuel cell rail is practical for the rest of Canada. It might turn out fuel cell makes more sense than electric even in the corridor.

The main issue, either with canaries or hydrogen, is how to get the electricity. The central problem for creating a zero carbon economy is making zero carbon energy, not worrying about what is the most efficient way to consume it. If we make enough of it, efficiency becomes less and less relevant. Efficiency is a value only insofar as it very slightly reduces the need for more zero carbon supply.

I think it is right to support the industries that are the right choice in the future, rather than the ones that do the least damage today. I’ve written about this here:

Any serious solution to global warming requires massive state subsidy, and probably a return to a strictly centralized economy. The question that remains is whether this economy with be corperatist (Italian model) or socialist (British welfare state model).

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 6:04 am

“For now, the key thing is probably just to travel a lot less.”


Milan December 19, 2009 at 6:17 am

fuel cell rail is practical for the rest of Canada

You cannot just assert that a non-existent technology is practical.

The enduring problems of cost, functionality, and lifetime associated with fuel cells are not trivial. Scientific American listed some objections back in 2004. Partly on account of expensive catalysts, fuel cells remain too expensive to be viable. Platinum may also not be sufficiently available for mass use in fuel cells.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu saw fuel cells as so unpromising he cut their budget, though only after the DOE had spent $15M on them. Congress did later restore the funding.

Robert Rapier calls hydrogen fuel “the poster child for the pretenders:”

Proponents ignored practical realities in many different areas, including fuel cell vehicles that cost a million dollars, the fact that most hydrogen is produced from natural gas, the fact that the energy density of hydrogen is very low, and the fact that there are multiple issues with hydrogen storage and transport. Technical breakthroughs were being counted on to solve these challenges. After all, we put a man on the moon. Surely we could solve these challenges.

The real problem is that the potential for success falls rapidly as the number of needed breakthroughs pile up. Imagine for instance that the following – cost of production, cost effective storage, and cost effective transport – each have a 25% chance of achieving commercial viability in the next 20 years. The total chance for success of all three in that case falls to 1.5% – so this is overall probability of success. Thus, the vast majority of technologies that require multiple technical breakthroughs will fail to materialize commercially except perhaps over a much longer period of time.

But he does think hydrogen may have a role in storing excess energy produced by things like wind farms at times of low demand.

The Economist also concluded that fuel cells are not suitable for ground transport applications:

Leaving aside the problems of transporting and storing a light and leaky gas, what no one was very clear about was where the hydrogen itself would come from. You would have to make it from something else. That something would either be a mixture of fossil fuel and water (fuels can be reacted with steam to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide, but you still have to get rid of the carbon dioxide), or just water itself, via electrolysis.

But why bother? Why not cut out the middleman and plug your car directly into the electricity mains instead?

A report from the World Wildlife Fund drew attention to the low energy density of hydrogen per unit volume, and the difficulties associated with transport.

I am not saying fuel cell trains will never exist; rather, that we cannot take for granted the fact that they will be viable from an engineering or economic perspective soon.

Milan December 19, 2009 at 6:17 am

“For now, the key thing is probably just to travel a lot less.”

One long trip after two years is a much lower tempo of travel than I had before.

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 4:57 pm

“You cannot just assert that a non-existent technology is practical.”

It isn’t non existent. The US military current operates two switching locomotives running on fuel cell power, and BNSF has a demonstrator which has just come into operation.

If fuel cells are practical, it makes a lot more sense to use them in locomotives, since there are hardly any of them compared to vehicles or heavy trucks. CN – a massive railway company, only has 1600 locomotives.

It might turn out that there are better ways of storing electricity in portable ways, i.e. batteries or flywheels. Both of these options are also better suited to rail than private vehicles.

So, either way, the thing we need to do now is figure out how to make a lot more carbon neutral energy.

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Either way, I wish you a pleasant voyage. While the seating may not be too comfortable, the view should be great – and there’s a neat feeling that comes from seeing more Canada than you’ve probably ever seen before.

Milan December 19, 2009 at 5:11 pm

You should put up some information on those locomotives. Are they hugely expensive one-off prototypes, like the BMW hydrogen car?

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Here’s a short article –

This information is a bit out of date. Apparently it went into service in the summer, but I can’t find more recent reports on how well its functioned in service.

It doesn’t say how much it cost. But it isn’t like the BMW hydrogen car – that car burns hydrogen in an internal combustion engine.

Milan December 19, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Do these locomotives work in freezing conditions?

That entry suggests that below zero temperatures are a problem for existing fuel cell vehicles.

Tristan December 19, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Heat the hydrogen tanks with electricity? It’s not rocket science.

Milan January 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

The cold problem isn’t with the hydrogen in the tanks. It is with the water being formed in the fuel cell. If it freezes, it blocks everything up.

Tristan January 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm

I see. This is really the same problem as all efficient vehicles have in low temperature conditions – the “by product” of heat produced by internal combustion engines was actually required to keep things working properly – now that a much greater amount of the stored energy is translated into mechanical force, there is less extra heat around to keep the thing working. This just means that at cold temperatures the maximum efficiency of machines is lower since some energy must be used to heat the machine for it to operate properly.

In this case, the solution is simply to heat the fuel cell with electric heaters, and also heat whatever other other parts of the machine require heating. This of course means using more fuel – so transportation in the winter will be more energy intensive than transportation in the summer.

Tristan January 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm

“As a follow-up question, why are our trains so slow and expensive?”

The trains are slow because freights have priority. Passenger trains pull over and wait for freights to go by rather than the other way around. In the summer this is because the freights are too long to fit on sidings. In the winter, the freights are short enough to fit on the sidings (increased mechanical failures in winter mean the benefit of running longer trains is eclipsed by the cost of dealing with trains which don’t fit on sidings when a problem occurs), but they still get priority.

The Canadian’s original schedule was 67 hours, and the less expensive Dominion was closer to the 89 hours which the Canadian now takes.

The reason the train is slow is because a huge amount of money is made moving freight on rail, so the opportunity cost to running the passenger trains faster is simply too high. While Via is a crown corporation, all the rails are privately owned (and the tracks Via run on are owned by an American firm).

The solution is re-nationalizing the railway, and make rational infrastructure investments in the form of more tracks and more high speed switches. This will pay dividends after peak oil, when shipping things by truck becomes too expensive. Also, since there are only a few thousand locomotives in Canada, replacing the locomotive fleet is much cheaper and easier than replacing the automotive or trucking fleet.

Matt January 8, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Very interesting insights, Tristan.

Tristan January 8, 2010 at 11:41 pm

By the way, if people are wondering what kind of freight is being shipped, I can offer some help there. While locally in BC we see a lot of coal trains and sulfur trains, after the Rockies I saw mostly double decker container trains. There were some mixed freight, some tank cars, but the vast majority was container trains.

On the one hand – that’s good. One hundred carriage container train means 200 trucks off the road. On the other hand, you’ve got to wonder how much of those containers are full of pointless garbage. Also, the fact the trains are so long, and they are all highball trains, means that trucks must be used for anything other than long inter-city runs. The days of a boxcar being dropped off on a siding are over.

Tristan January 9, 2010 at 12:41 am

“Passenger Operations – VIA Rail Canada Fuel Rate: 10.8 litres per 1,000 GTK (Gross Tonne Kilometers)”

Can we just stop and think for a minute about how amazingly efficient this is? We calculate efficiency for cars in L/100km, so let’s alter the figure accordingly –

1.08 L per 100 GTK

Now, taking into account that a car weighs usually about 2 tons these days,

2.16L per 100 G(2T)K

No two ton car can dream of this kind of efficiency. However, it isn’t exactly a fair comparison because train cars are heavier than cars. How heavy are they?

Amtrak’s Superliner cars weigh about 67 tons, carry 99 passengers and are excellent. So, that’s about 2/3 of a ton each, and at Via’s fuel consumption figures, about 2/3 of a liter per 100km each.

Via’s LRC coaches weigh – this is actually very difficult to find out. I’ve found a source that says Amtrak’s Acela business coaches weigh about 60 tons, and since those are based on the LRC coaches I can only assume the weights are similar. Since the LRC coaches only carry 68 people this means they are worse than the Superliners – about a ton each, so about 1L/100km each.

Bombardier’s Bi-Level commuter rail cars weigh 60 tons and carry 160 passengers seated, and up to 360 if you included standing room. Ignoring standees, since it is not really possible to do a long distance trip standing up, 60 tons over 160 passengers means you are responsible for about 1/3 ton each, or about 0.3L/100km

On Bombardier’s website I’ve found numerous carriages for inter-city travel that carry many more than 68 people each. It seems that Via should really get some higher density cars so it can lower its fares and its per-person fuel costs. The Renaissance coach cars seem to be going in the wrong direction entirely – they only hold 48 people. I can’t get a weight on those, but I’d be surprised if it were less than 60 tons.

On the other hand, Via is also going in the right direction business-wise:

“In 2008, VIA safely transported 4.6 million passengers – the most since 1989 – and set an all-time record of $299 million in revenue.”

Keeping in mind that Via had many more routes in 1989 – the Canadian and Super Continental were still daily from Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal. There were more routes in the Quebec region as well. However, I’ve heard from riders that things were getting very ragged – paint was peeling, non-essential things were not being fixed, etc…

Milan October 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

If high speed rail is ever to become a mainstream cross-country transport option in Canada, there is going to need to be a cultural shift.

It is about 4300km from Toronto to Vancouver, via Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. Even with an electric train that goes 250km/h at all times (like those in the new Gotthard Base Tunnel will), that’s a 17 hour trip, not counting any stops.

It beats 78 hours on the Greyhound, but still seems like much more of an ordeal than a six-hour flight.

Milan November 8, 2010 at 9:49 am

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