Tesla is great, but what about trains?

There's been a lot of hype about how we can make car travel more environmentally-friendly. But we already have an environmentally-friendly alternative, trains, which can be made even more effective and sustainable with the right attention and resources.

Tesla is sexy: as a car, as a company – there’s not a lot of us disagreeing with that. Investing in the improvement of electric vehicles and decreasing America’s dependence on harmful energy sources is an important initiative. But, Tesla is only one aspect of that initiative: we need mass transportation too. Plane travel is one of the most environmentally harmful modes of travel available. Train travel is an excellent alternative with enormous potential to be improved. We need Amtrak to do for trains what Tesla has done for cars: we need trains to be sexy too.


Trains can be more environmentally friendly than almost any other form of transportation



Source: The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), 2015 Annual Sustainability Report. Washington, D.C.: 2015, https://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/400/323/2015-Amtrak-Sustainability-Report.pdf, accessed November 2016.


As it now stands, America is the world leader in urban passenger transport emissions.1 Our transport sector contributes a third of America’s greenhouse gas emissions – of these, cars and trucks contribute more than 75%, while trains contribute less than 3%.2 While many companies are focused on improving the energy efficiency of cars, there is only one company focused on improving the efficiency of regional trains and getting more Americans to ride them: Amtrak. Improving Amtrak can help America significantly reduce its transport emissions by both improving the energy efficiency of America’s trains and by getting more people to ride them.


America’s Trains: The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (A.K.A. Amtrak)


Amtrak is America’s only high-speed, cross-country passenger rail network and it is partially funded by the US Government. Its performance has been spotty, to say the least, and it has not historically been a fan-favorite for intercity travel.3,4 Airline travel is the preferred method of intercity transportation, but is also the fastest-growing contributor to global warming.5 Taking the train instead of flying can cut CO2 emissions per passenger by more than 90%.6


Granted, Amtrak doesn’t always offer a great alternative to airplanes – yet. Amtrak is not effective over long distances (cross country, for example), but as more Americans move to more heavily concentrated “mega-centers,” this is likely to improve Amtrak’s appeal to a greater portion of the population.7 In addition, while taking the train is more environmentally friendly than flying, Amtrak still has a long way to go before catching up to the sustainability achievements of European train service providers, like Eurostar. Eurostar trains can go eight times further than Amtrak for the same amount of climate pollution (see chart below as well).8

Source: Barry Saxifrage, “Essential Infographics For The Climate-Conscious Traveler,” National Observer, February 25, 2016,http://www.nationalobserver.com/2016/02/25/analysis/essential-infographics-climate-conscious-traveller, accessed November 2016.



Amtrak Chugging Along


In the past few years, Amtrak has made some promising strides towards improving access to train travel and increasing its energy efficiency. First, they are taking it seriously. In November 2015, Amtrak signed the International Union of Railway’s Climate Responsibility Pledge, a pledge undertaken by governments and government funded train service providers to put rail travel at the center of any master transport plan.9 Second, they are looking to Europe’s example. Amtrak is partnering with the designers behind Europe’s high speed trains to invest $2.5 billion in lighter, cheaper and more energy-efficient locomotives.10 Amtrak expects to complete America’s first high speed rail system in California by 2029.11 Third, they are asking for more support from the Government. The Federal Government has allocated $9 billion to Amtrak from 2015 through 2019 with the Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act.12 More recent government rail initiatives, such as this one, treat Amtrak as a public service provider: putting the emphasis on service and efficiency improvement, rather than financial self-sustainability.13


The Tesla of Trains?


These are all steps in the right direction for Amtrak, but I think it can go further. Amtrak needs to ask for help from the millennials – and earn it. Millennials actually enjoy riding trains more than our parents and we are also more concerned about the impacts of climate change.14   However, Amtrak has made few strides in appealing to millennial passengers – keeping up an old-fashioned corporate image, targeting advertisements to empty-nesters, and negating the importance of social media in its online presence. While the push for millennial buy-in may seem cliché, it can actually help Amtrak in a number of ways. First, millennials are already more inclined to take the train, if and when it is viable. Second, we can help with Amtrak’s political problems. Funding for Amtrak from the US government is currently highly politicized.15 Funding for Amtrak moving forward can be pushed through with increased climate change legislation, which millennials are more inclined to support than older generations.16   All we need is for Amtrak to do for trains what Tesla has done for cars. The only question is… can train travel be sexy again? (Word Count: 750)



Works Cited

  1. Eva Grey, “Can The US Rediscover Rail To Tackle Climate Change?” Railway Technology, April 27, 2016, http://www.railway-technology.com/features/featurecan-the-us-rediscover-rail-to-tackle-climate-change-4859982/, accessed November 2016.
  2. Boardman, J. 2010, “Fast-tracking the future,” Railway Gazette International, vol.166, no.7, pg.44-47, ABI/INFORM via ProQuest, accessed November 2016.
  3. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). 2015. Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), 2015.
  4. Data excerpted from Table 1-40: U.S. Passenger-Miles (Millions) (National Transportation Statistics: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2014), http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_40.html, accessed November 2016.
  5. Barry Saxifrage, “Essential Infographics For The Climate-Conscious Traveler,” National Observer, February 25, 2016,http://www.nationalobserver.com/2016/02/25/analysis/essential-infographics-climate-conscious-traveller, accessed November 2016.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Grey, “Can The US Rediscover Rail To Tackle Climate Change?”
  8. Saxifrage, “Essential Infographics For The Climate-Conscious Traveler.”
  9. Grey, “Can The US Rediscover Rail To Tackle Climate Change?”
  10. Heather Smith, “I Choo Choo Choose You,” Stuff That Matters (Blog), Org, August 30, 2016, http://grist.org/briefly/in-five-years-we-might-get-the-same-trains-that-europe-had-in-the-1980s/, accessed November 2016.
  11. Grey, “Can The US Rediscover Rail To Tackle Climate Change?”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Christopher Conkey and Daniel Machalaba, “Politics & Economics: For Amtrak, the Climate Changes; With Oil Soaring, Senate Approves Big Spending Boost,” The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2007, sec. A, pg. 8., ABI/INFORM via ProQuest, accessed November 2016.
  14. Boardman, “Fast-tracking the future.”
  15. Grey, “Can The US Rediscover Rail To Tackle Climate Change?”
  16. D. Boyd, “Amtrak Seeks Revolutionary Transport Bill”, Journal of Commerce, April 20, 2010, sec. Rail and Intermodal, ABI/INFORM via ProQuest, accessed November 2016.


Works Consulted


Paul Nastu, “Amtrak, REI, Timberland Join Climate Counts Industry Innovators,” Environmental Leader, February 24, 2010, http://www.environmentalleader.com/2010/02/24/amtrak-rei-timberland-join-climate-counts-industry-innovators/, accessed November 2016.


“Amtrak Partners with Carbonfund.Org to Offer Passengers Carbon Offsets For Rail Travel,” December 17, 2007, CSRwire.com, http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/19623-Amtrak-Partners-With-Carbonfund-Org-to-Offer-Passengers-Carbon-Offsets-for-Rail-Travel#, accessed November 2016.


The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), 2015 Annual Sustainability Report. Washington, D.C.: 2015, https://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/400/323/2015-Amtrak-Sustainability-Report.pdf, accessed November 2016.



AIG: Underwriting the Risk of Climate Change


Would you pay for the environmental impact of your jeans?

Student comments on Tesla is great, but what about trains?

  1. Thanks for the interesting analysis! I agree that there is significant untapped potential in trains as a more environmentally responsible mass transportation option.

    I was taking a closer look at the data behind the “Our 2C Travel Challenge” infographic and noted that, for any mode of transportation, the average passenger-kms per ton of emissions depends a great deal on (i) load factor (i.e. the percentage of seats occupied), and (ii) seating density (i.e. whether passengers travel in first class or coach).

    The infographic site suggests eliminating first class seating on airlines, reasoning that could presumably be extended to trains. Whether planes or trains, I wonder if, rather than eliminating first class products, pricing might (or should) just become substantially more expensive in the future to account for the incremental emissions credits that would need to be purchased to offset the higher per-passenger emissions in those classes of service.

  2. Really thought-provoking post. Given how highly politicized Amtrak’s funding can be, I think it’d be fascinating for the government to quantify how much Amtrak reduces the carbon footprint. The government could then compare this to tax credits the Tesla’s of the world receive – I wonder if that would help put a dent in the criticism of Amtrak’s yearly losses.
    Perhaps Amtrak needs to also do a better job of showing its commitment to sustainability to its customers. As a semi-frequent traveler on Amtrak, I have always been struck by the lack of recycling receptacles onboard. From paging through the company’s 2013 Sustainability Report, it seems like this is because the passenger cars have been in service for many years (which also seems to be impact efficiency compared to European trains, as you mentioned). I think Amtrak should come up with a makeshift solution here – even just adding recycling options on certain cars e.g. the cafe car would be a start. This would help customers associate Amtrak with sustainability and perhaps be part of a broader campaign contrasting Amtrak’s carbon footprint with that of the airlines or driving.

  3. I like the idea of having a sustainable train, but there is a limitation to how much this can actually contribute to the environment.
    Trains have not only a limitation of reach / distance, but also speed – in a world where the millenniums value convenience and fast-paced movement, will they (we) be willing to travel slower to save the environment? I am very skeptical about that.

    In terms of reach, if trains are low utilized, I have questions on how environmentally friendly will the investment actually be. All the money, energy and other resources in general invested to created the lines might have a more negative impact in the environment than the carbon reductions they might bring in a later stage.

  4. I agree that train travel ought to be promoted more. It is very convenient and in some instances more enjoyable than plane travel. I have questions about Amtrak’s expansion plans going forward, however. Aren’t plans to make train travel “sexy” already in motion? Specifically, isn’t that what Elon Musk proposed with Hyperloop? If Hyperloop is able to get a foothold in California first (i.e., becoming a viable project, securing the appropriate rights-of-way and building out the necessary infrastructure), would Amtrak even stand a chance at further development in that market?

  5. Very interesting article, but I’m a bit confused by the two images. The first one states that buses are the least efficient and planes the second most efficient. However, the second image shows that planes are the least efficient and buses the most efficient. Am I reading those wrong?

    Nevertheless, I agree that transport has to be made more energy efficient. From your data, an EV Car using clean energy as a power source is even more efficient than the Eurostar. I see the future of transport being self-driving electric vehicles shared between multiple people. That model would appeal to all segments of travelers, and also offer door-to-door transport for everyone.

    Perhaps Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is the answer..

  6. Interesting article and interesting comment by Aakash on the Hyperloop. Investments for this project has begun and public test are being done already. Some engineers say though that because of the start and stop energy requirements of the Hyperloop, it will be very cost-inefficient to have it service short distances. In this regard, it still makes sense to develop mass transit (cars, trains and buses) for short distance travel.


Leave a comment