On Saving the Planet and the True Calculus of Transportation

In October 2023, I finally took the plunge, and made one of my regular trips to the UK via train rather than plane. It was a first for me.  I wanted to help somehow save the planet.

Initially, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. 

By crude calculations, the train would take more time and be more expensive. A lot more expensive. The cheapest train tickets I could find were three times more costly than flights from Geneva to London. Saving the planet suddenly seemed like a rather costly proposition. And a flight would have me in London very early in the morning. The train could only get me there around midday. So how could I justify the train?

But my friend VC urged me to be logical and look at the door-to-door times, the true costs when you factor in parking, fuel, péage, stress, useful-as-opposed-to-wasted time, and so on. 

Despite her admonitions, it still seemed a losing proposition. But I did it anyway, for the first time in October, from home to London and back via local train and Eurostar. In November I did Paris by TGV.

And it was brilliant.

A planet worth saving?

The Environmental Costs

In a minute, I’ll talk about how much more relaxed the whole thing seemed, the extra space that made it possible to do real work, the fact that even an aisle seat gives you a great view out the window, and so on. But for now, it is enough to say that during that October trip to the UK, and the subsequent November one to Paris, by taking the train, the environmental cost – here we’ll measure the CO₂ cost — of transport is stupidly small, a tiny fraction of the emissions of flying. 

How stupidly small? What tiny fraction?

The brilliant web site Our World in Data lays out the official statistics from the UK government in its article, Which Form of Transport Has the Smallest Carbon Footprint?. It reports in grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilometre per person of travel. 

Domestic and long-haul flights top the list at 246g and 193g, respectively (the difference relating to the fact that take-off is hugely carbon-expensive; the greater distance of long-haul offsets that, but only somewhat). Don’t forget, that is grams per kilometre, per person.

Taking the Eurostar from London to Paris is approximately the equivalent in distance of a UK domestic flight. For example, the Big Circle distance between London and Paris is 344km; between London and Edinburgh is 534km. The London-Paris journey by Eurostar train works out to 4g per kilometre per person. That is not a typo: 246g vs. 4g. 

The Eurostar emits just 16% as much CO₂ as the plane. 

But wait a second, that very, very last stat IS a typo (or a “math-o”?), and an intentional misplacing of a decimal to hammer home the point: the Eurostar CO₂ cost isn’t 16% of the plane, it is just 1.6%. 

Let’s let that one sink in. 

Put in another way, for one flight, London to Paris, you’d need to take about 60 Eurostar journeys before you’d produced the same amount of CO₂.[1]

Those are UK stats; what is the situation in France?

The French website, Bonpote, has an article, Train vs. Plane : Which One is Best for the Environment? which approaches the question in a slightly different way.  It compares specific routes by train and plane, and calculates the actual CO₂ produced by each, in kilograms per person per journey. It therefore produces a less abstract stat than grams per person per kilometre travelled, and instead more closely approaches the way actual people think: I want to travel from A to B. How much CO₂ will it cost me?

For their prime example, they take the busiest domestic airline route in France: Toulouse to Paris. There are two main variants, depending upon whether you land in Paris at Orly or Charles de Gaulle. The average CO₂ cost of the two is 79 kilograms per person per voyage. The TGV costs 1.4 kg. 

It is interesting (not to mention confidence-inspiring) that these figures indicate the TGV journey costs about 1.8% of the CO₂ of the plane, which aligns very closely to the UK figure for train vs. plane of 1.6%. The numbers are clearly converging, despite quite different routes.

Another interesting point, one I’d never really taken on board before, is the sheer amount of CO₂ kicked out when flying: if I were to fly from Toulouse to Paris, I’d be responsible for very nearly my own body mass in CO₂.

[1] Of course, a lot of assumptions go into statistics like these. Trains run on rails and electric ones need a third live rail or overhead wires; there is a significant infrastructure to build and maintain. A plane just goes through pre-existing air. On the other hand, airports are pretty carbon-intensive projects themselves. Another aspect, this time pro-train, is that a large proportion of people live much closer to a train station than an airport; if they want to use the plane, they’ve got to get to the airport. If they do that by non-electric car, that trip will cost them about 170g per person per kilometre. A fully electric car costs about 47g of CO₂ per person per km in the UK, National Rail about 35g. Doing the precise calculations therefore become rather messy, to the point of being impossible.  Eventually, you have to run on faith. My faith is that the difference between 246g and 4g is simply overwhelming, and will iron out any other secondary considerations that might help out the plane’s ghastly figures. From an environmental perspective, you’d be mad not to take the train between London and Paris.

Balancing Time, Cost, Pleasure and Stress

I caught the train just a few minute’s drive from home, saved on parking, my allotted seat was much larger (allowing proper work to happen), the atmosphere much more relaxed (which meant the people were much more open to conversation), wandering around seemed much more acceptable (and so better for my lower back, which travels only painfully), the windows larger, the scenery much more delightfully “in your face”, and the ultimate terminus very, very, very close to right where I wanted to be.

Many of these points are subjective and hard to measure. You have to fall back on near-intangibles like “How did you feel when you stepped off the train?” My answer was “great”: There’s no baggage carrousel to wait for (you take your bags with you into the carriage on the train); upon arrival, I was in the near middle of my destination cities in both cases. So I just hopped off the train, and started walking. It was like being handed your freedom much earlier than anticipated. It was that nice.

Getting to the airport for me is an expensive proposition. The fastest car route is over 2 hours, is 190 some odd kilometres, and will set you back some €20 in péage, about €100 in parking (4 days in the cheapest on-site carpark in Geneva airport), and in my car, will cost about €40 in fuel, which will amount to about 32kg of CO₂. Bear in mind that, except for parking, those figures all need to be doubled; although I left both London and Paris reluctantly, I did eventually need to get home. But the point is, although the round-trip cost of basic tickets was a losing proposition for the train, every other cost factor helps to bring the costs very close together.

Not For Everyone (But Then Again, Before I Tried It, I Didn’t Think it Was for Me)

I suspect the train is not for everyone, and much depends on where you are starting, where you are finishing, and what’s in between. But I began the whole thing as a sceptic, and now am a proselyte. If you have never taken the train, and have even the slightest inkling that it might work for you, please give it a go. 

No promises, but it just might change your mind about the true calculus of transportation, the elegance of train travel, cause you to arrive at your destination in better shape, and help you save the planet, all at the same time. 

Don’t Take It From Me

But why take it from me? Frank Tatchell, a clergyman from Sussex, summed up the advantages of train travel better than anyone, in his 1923 book The Happy Traveller: A Book for Poor Men. Here’s what he had to say:

The beaten track is often the best track, but devote most of your time to the by-ways. In no other way can you so quickly reach the heart of your country. Yet, though I would have you do much of your journey by road, get a zest for travelling by railways. Just being in the train and rushing on to somewhere is extraordinarily nerve-soothing. Besides, a train goes through out-of-the-way places and enables you to surprise many intimate sights which you would miss from the highway. The track usually follows river valleys and a distraction can be found on a long journey in shooting the rapids in an imaginary canoe or in fishing likely pools. When there is no river, I take the hedges and ditches on a dream horse, and pretend I am an airman and spot good landing places.

Tatchell Cover
Tatchell’s Book


As an afterthought, I want to loop back to what I consider to be the most stunning statistic that I came up with while doing this research: on the train, you could ride between London and Paris 60 times before you had belched out the same amount of CO₂ as you would have in a plane, had you taken it just once.

Sixty times.

I am 66 years old as I write this. It seems highly unlikely I am going to see the worst of climate change, as I fully expect to be pushing up the daisies before all these environmental chickens come home to roost.[2] The environmental decisions I take now are not going to affect me nearly so much as they are the next generation. And yet I have no kids.

So why do I care?

Well, I do have nieces and nephews who (they will be mortified to think this) are approaching middle age, and will have to live with the future consequences of the decisions I take now. My dear friend TW has a daughter in first year university, who is even younger. She will live even longer in the world she inherits from me.

My choice, their consequences.

It makes me think the true calculus of transportation, at least from the environmental perspective, works as follows:

If I take the plane, those younger people, those I claim to care about, are all stuffed. By me.

If I take the train, I’ve saved nearly 60 more such journeys, comparatively speaking. Effectively, I can bequeath those 60 to these people, and it works out to about eight each. Eight carbon free-bees from Brad.

This article has mostly been about costs. But maybe this one afterthought best expresses the benefits. There are benefits, substantial benefits, to be passed down, to those who come after you. Those you care about.

I only hope they use those journeys to go to some place as nice as Paris.

And shoot the rapids in an imaginary canoe along the way.

Emily Carr’s Kayak yak: An imaginary canoe.

[2] From the literary point of view – from any point of view — that has got to be one of the worst mixed-metaphors I have ever produced. It really is dreadful, and I really should edit it out. But it is so bad, I am rather proud of it, so it stays in. One of the advantages of being your own editor….