Canadian trains worse for the climate than flying?

I last flew in 2007, avoiding the practice since because of its unsustainability and the damage it does to the climate.

Nonetheless, my objection is to the unsustainable fossil fuel use and not to flying per se. I just think flying makes people travel more frequently and farther than they would otherwise be willing to go, and thus the damage from flying comes when people come to feel entitled to it and build lifestyles that depend on it.

Over the years I have seen a lot of inconsistent numbers on CO2 emissions from flying versus the train or other options. Today, the CBC posted some figures from Ryan Katz-Rosene, “a University of Ottawa professor who studies sustainable transportation”:

Taking VIA’s “Canadian” service from Toronto to Vancouver would generate 724 to 4,287 kilograms of CO2 per person. In comparison, an economy flight between those two cities would generate 464 to 767 kilograms of CO2 per person.

VIA’s “Ocean” service between Montreal and Halifax generates 218 to 1,292 kilograms of CO2 per person, compared to 152 to 482 kilograms of CO2 per person for an economy flight.

Katz-Rosene published the findings in the journal The Canadian Geographer and wrote about them on the University of Ottawa website in 2020. He tried to confirm the numbers with VIA, but they did not confirm or deny the figures, despite multiple conversations with him.

Katz-Rosene blames “diesel-guzzling locomotives hauling fairly empty trains” — including sleeping and dining cars — on those lines.

English’s study found that just adding a snack car can increase a train’s greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 19 per cent, and that increasing seating density was one of the easiest ways to cut emissions and energy use.

Back in 2009, my friend Matt did some calculations of his own to estimate Toronto to Vancouver flights as around 330 kg of CO2 each way in an 80% full 767 or A320.

I have known all through the PhD that I would need to do at least one last trip to Vancouver, to clear things out of storage at my parents’ house and ship everything I want to keep back to Toronto. With my brother getting married in August, the plan is now to combine those purposes into one trip, along with seeing the old sights and friends who are still in town. Enduring a four day train voyage each way was broadly unappealing even before COVID, but now I would expect it to be a vexing mixture between feeling constrained by public health protection rules and feeling frustrated and worried about other passengers not following them. Four days in a rolling box, sharing the air with people who I can’t control, is not my idea of a nice break from work or great scenic way to see the country. If the climate impact is worse than flying, there seems no reason to do it.

7 thoughts on “Canadian trains worse for the climate than flying?”

  1. Not having the time or inclination that I used to have for calculating such things, my current gut feeling backed up by no actual data is that electric car would be the lowest emission practical crossing in Canada.

    A good portion of the Ontario power would be nuclear, with fossil fuels powering the prairie portion, going to hydro electric in BC. Understanding that hydro is a carbon emitter, it is none the less now a sunk cost. That carbon is released whether or not you consume the power.

    Maybe there’s an electric ride sharing option to make the journey. The convenience compared to flying is very low. I always held firm that trains gave no advantage (unless European style high speed electric).

  2. No current plans not to be around during that time. If I am we should visit.

  3. I did a coach trip once. After the first brutal night, during which it seemed as if some passengers were playing basketball in the aisle, my then husband and I stumbled off the train in Sioux Lookout and hit the nearby liquor store for some wine to anaesthetize ourselves that evening. Screw-top options were rare at the time, and what we picked was a bottle of still rosé—barely drinkable, even under the circumstances. On this trip I watch a couple of people from coach sprint not to the liquor store but a nearby grocery—if you’re in economy, you’re not welcome in the dining car.

    That’s a clue to the rigid class structure on the Canadian. Coach is a land-based version of steerage: in this section of the train, aside from one or two sixty-two-seat cars, there’s a combination modest cafe and dome car; that’s about it. Then, there are the “Sleeper Plus” options: in ascending order, upper and lower berths, cabins for one or two, and bigger configurations like “drawing rooms.” I can remember, on those long-ago family trips, peeking through open doors at these spaces, which seemed the epitome of opulence compared to our berths. There’s a shower on each Sleeper Plus car, and all these options include meals (prime rib, lake trout . . . ). By contrast, economy choices are described, ominously, as “wholesome and comforting,” code for packets of nuts and microwaved cheeseburgers. Fellow passengers can be even more alarming than the food: a few weeks after my trip, a young relative was travelling economy and there was a stabbing on her car. And as if to underscore their charmless utility, the showerless coach cars are just numbered, while the sleeping cars are named after historic figures like explorers or administrators of the early colonies: Laird Manor, Burton Manor, Chateau Varennes. (I can’t help but imagine that Via is bracing for the day when some of the people for whom the cars are named are called out, à la John A. Macdonald.)

  4. “Meanwhile, in the high season, tourists from the US, Britain, and elsewhere represent a significant proportion of all riders. Essentially, Canadians are underwriting their holidays. Pre-COVID, the per-passenger subsidy for the Canadian was around $650, ballooning to over $1,000 in 2022. That works out to more than $50 million—the 2022 ridership was 51,500, or about the same as the population of North Bay, Ontario. No one seems to have tallied the number of passengers who rode the Canadian in its inaugural year, but the total number of rail passengers in 1955 was 27.2 million, while by 2022 that figure had dropped to 3.3 million. In the same year, ten times as many people flew domestically.

    True, it’s not just the Canadian that’s a losing proposition: only 3 percent of Via passenger trips are long distance; almost all the rest are intercity in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. This service is also underwritten—2022’s total operating loss topped $350 million—but at a substantially lower level: in 2022, the per-passenger subsidy in the corridor was a little under $70, a figure that has likely dropped closer to the pre-pandemic $30 by now. It’s this intercity service that is more comparable to the European model than the transcontinental trains. The reason, of course, is geography. It takes far less time to travel from Paris to Brussels than it does to get from Montreal to Kingston; Amsterdam to Berlin isn’t much longer than Windsor to Toronto. Plus, when it comes to subsidies, it’s only fair to note that many more government dollars go to roads. For example, a couple of years ago, Ontario allocated roughly $3 billion for road and bridge construction and maintenance.”

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