The Return of Train Travel – Why It Matters to the Planet

As travelers try to balance a desire to explore the world with trying to battle the causes of climate change, could traveling by train be the answer?


A train travels through autumnal trees Photo © Getty Images / Jonathan Filskov Photography

The unsteady tempo of the train lurched back and forth, carving its way through steep emerald tea fields. Standing on the edge of the open doorway, I allowed the wind and rain to tickle my face as we made our ascent into Sri Lanka's vivid hill country. I had the best place on board, privy to the ever-changing climate and scenery, watching small towns, Buddhist relics, and plantations pass by. Behind me, the train car was flooded with chaotic and joyful music as a Sri Lankan family beat drums and sang to the rhythm of the train. I smiled to myself, reminded that the actual journey adds a level of depth and element of surprise to travel that the destination simply cannot. 

Train travel makes a comeback

Before traveling in the great blue sky became as common as taking the bus, there was a time when overland travel by train wasn’t just a trend, it was the norm. Train travel to destinations near and far was once a leading means to adventure across the globe (unless you had to cross an ocean, that is). During the mid-20th century, airplanes slowly started to become the standard rather than a luxury mode of transport and in 1955, for the first time, more people in the United States traveled by plane than train. The world hasn’t really looked back since, as an explosion of air travel shrunk the globe, turning once days-, if not weeks- or months-long travel into mere hours. The consequences on the environment have been dire, as aviation travel is responsible for 2.4% of global carbon emissions and road travel accounts for approximately 10% of these direct emissions.

In an age where slow, intentional travel is finding its place again and green living takes center stage, the allure of train travel is making a comeback. From commuter trains, sleeper trains to slow, scenic journeys reminiscent of travels from a bygone era, train travel in every sense is on the rise. Outdated rails are being replaced by high-speed, modern structures and as a whole, trains are becoming more efficient, and more alluring to the carbon-conscious traveler.

Breakdown of environmental benefits

Beyond simply immersing travelers in their surroundings, train travel also offers steep environmental benefits, particularly in comparison to plane and car travel. Since trains still burn a significant amount of fuel, what exactly makes trains so much more sustainable?

According to the formerly published National Geographic Green Guide, you roughly double your emissions if you drive across the country instead of fly. If you take the train, then you’ll cut carbon dioxide (CO2) by half compared to planes. Even though the train may be a big carbon emitter, it’s designed to carry a lot of passengers, so the per capita emissions are much lower. Train travel isn’t just a sustainable alternative to flying, it’s also vastly better for the environment than driving.

Based on research conducted by BEIS/Defra Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors in 2019, domestic flights are responsible for the highest carbon emissions, at 133g per capita, with long-haul flights coming in second at 102g. Cars with four passengers emit 43g/capita, however if cars only carry one person, they jump ahead of flights at 171g. Emissions from trains vary based on the type of train and route. Domestic rail came out to 41g/person, while the Eurostar experienced a significant drop with only 6g/person.

According to recent research, the Eurail is the greenest option to explore Europe. The CO2 emissions of an average Eurail trip are about three times less per person than traveling the same route by car – and four times less than traveling by plane.

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner travels through Southern California.
The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner travels through Southern California. Photo credit: Getty Images/Laser1987

Sustainable advances and the future of the train industry

The environmental benefits of trains may be outweighed by other factors at first glance when it comes to ease of travel. Trains have a reputation of being slower and more expensive, and often outdated. Thus, travelers are put in the position of choosing between affordable travel and environmental sustainability. This is setting out to change, though, with many countries jumping on the train, figuratively that is, to make train travel cheaper, faster, and more modern.

The rise of bullet trains, an experience once just associated with Japan, where they are known as the shinkansen, are setting out to make train travel more efficient. The fastest bullet trains can travel up to 200mph (320kph). New lines are currently underway in Japan, as well as Germany, Spain, France, India, and China. In the United Kingdom, the new High Speed 2 trains are underway and by the time they’re launched in the early 2030s, they’ll hold the title of the world’s fastest conventional trains.

Train systems are being revitalized to reduce their carbon emissions. Major train lines, especially in Europe, are run by electricity. When coupled with electricity generated by renewable energy sources, rails have the potential to be carbon-free. Other alternatives include trains running on hydrogen or batteries.

There are still great strides to be made, as many trains still run on diesel – 90% in the US and Canada. However, even many diesel trains are underdoing green modernization. Alstom, a UK-based sustainable travel company, for example, is helping renovate existing trains with tabletops made from recycled plastic bottles and biodegradable carpets, while recycling old parts to create a circular economy. 

Global train adventures

Shake the need to hop from point A to point B at high speed and look into booking a cross-country or cross-continental train trip instead. Needing to cross a body of water? Look into crossing by ferry and then hopping on a train once you’re on dry land.

Choose between scenic railways far and wide. You can traverse the vast terrain of North America by Amtrak on your next trip home to see family and along the way, glimpse national parks, cruise along the vast Pacific Coast, and admire the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains from your window.

Across the pond, small towns and historic sites of Europe can be journeyed to by train. While most travelers are no strangers to the expansive reaches of the Eurail, new additions are continuously being added. A new sleeper train from London to Berlin, Amsterdam, and Brussels starts in May 2023, for example. Other intriguing developments in European trail travel include Inntravel’s rail pilgrimage from Bilbao to Bordeaux, satiating the curiosity of food and wine lovers. Rail Baltica is starting new lines to connect the Polish border to Baltic cities.

And as for the rest of the world, your options are almost limitless. Head to Mombasa by train instead of plane. Reaching Kenya’s biggest port city by train doesn’t just reduce your carbon emissions, it takes you on an epic adventure through the wild terrain of Kenya. This scenic journey aboard the Madaraka Express winds its way through Tsavo National Park and if you’re lucky, you can spot grazing giraffes and zebra along the way.

In late 2023, Tren Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is set to launch. This new rail route will bring you from the Mayan ruins at Palenque to the dreamy beaches of Cancun, through spectacular scenery along the way. The most adventurous wanderers can hop aboard the Train du Desert, Mauritania’s 1960’s-era train that carries passengers for over 700km across the Sahara Desert. Noted as being one of the longest trains in the world, the Train du Desert consists of metal boxes traversing long stretches of hot desert, making stops at tiny towns along the way.

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