Regional train in EuropeTrain travel is the greenest way to get around Europe
August 29, 2013

Sustainable train travel through Europe

by Katrine Carstens in Travel tips

You probably already know that train travel is a much greener way to go than flying. But what you might not realize is that fuel consumption aside, planes contribute to global warming in other, perhaps unexpected ways.

The science

The science is complicated, but research indicates that to calculate the total impact of aviation, the carbon footprint should be multiplied by a climate factor of between 1.5 and 2.5, depending on aircraft type and distance flown. Generally, planes with jet engines on long-haul flights incur a higher climate factor, whereas a turboprop on a short haul would be at the lower end of the spectrum. This has to do with various elements released from planes, including water evaporation from condensation trails, increasing the amount of heat being radiated from the sun onto the earth’s surface.

Now let’s look at fuel consumption. To compare the carbon footprint of trains and planes traveling identical routes, I used a carbon calculator – www.ecopassenger.org in this case – and tracked the following journeys: Copenhagen to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Zurich and Zurich to Ljubljana. I adjusted the settings to show results including the climate factor I talked about above. The results were consistent: For all journeys the train was 80 percent more energy-efficient than flying.

And that’s not all – another factor to take into account is the distance you need to travel to reach the airport and take a plane. Whereas airports are often outside of town, further adding to your carbon emissions, train stations are usually centrally located.

Efficiency of different train types

Regional train in S. Giovanni in ItalyIt’s also worth getting to know the different types of train and their associated carbon footprints. High-speed trains require more fuel to keep up their fast pace. This is where your Eurail pass really helps you make a contribution. All of Europe’s regional trains are open to you, free of reservation. When you’re not in a hurry, think about using this option. There are also other advantages to slower trains. They make a lot of stops, allowing you to make a spur of the moment decision and step out if you like the look of a place. Sometimes the best adventures are the ones you don’t plan in advance.

Of course, taking the high-speed train is a joy, and sometimes speed is of the essence. I was in Luxembourg recently and wanted to meet a friend in Slovenia, so I took a high-speed train to save time. By choosing the train over the plane I knew I was already being environmentally friendly  – no reason to sweat it too much.

I know for me the points above make a pretty strong case for train travel! Train travel is easily the most fun and inspiring way to travel around Europe, so this is just another reason the choice of transport methods is simple.