Deborah Chu

Green myth busting: train vs driving

2 min Read
Woman in a hat looking at an yellow oncoming train

As with most things in life, making the green choice isn’t always straightforward. Sustainability is a complex and nuanced topic – and as much as we all love simple solutions and easy wins (more of these please?), we can only make the correct decisions once we’ve got all the facts. In our new series Green myth busting, I’ll be doing a deep-dive into assumptions we have around certain sustainable behaviours and choices, and teasing out some of the complexities. First up: train travel vs. car travel. 

The perception: Taking the train is always better than driving

The facts:

The carbon footprint of your train vs car travel depends on a number of factors: how many cars you’ll be taking off the road as a result of opting for the train, what class you’ll be travelling in on the train, and what type of train / car you’re in. 

According to Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas, the carbon emissions of travelling a mile by train per passenger can vary from 22g CO2e (a train run of nuclear energy in France) to 80g (a UK intercity train). 

Seeing those numbers, it’s hard to imagine how the emissions of car travel can compare. But you’ll see from the tables below that this is actually a much more nuanced topic than it first appears:

Type of vehicle One passenger Four passengers
Average petrol car 530g CO2e 132.5g CO2e
Low emissions vehicle (LEV) 260g CO2e 73g CO2e
Electric vehicle (EV) 180g CO2e 45g CO2e

CO2e numbers include embodied emissions of the car. 

Driving any kind of car with just one passenger will emit much more CO2e than getting the train. But it turns out, driving a fully-packed LEV and EV actually results in lower emissions per person than travelling by train. 

The class you travel in on the train matters too:

Mode of transportation Emissions
Standard class train 80g CO2e
Average UK car, fully occupied 132.5g CO2e
First class train 160g CO2e

Travelling first-class doubles the carbon footprint of your travel, because there’s typically half the number of seats in a first-class carriage. So if you were able to pack your average UK car with four passengers going the same way, your travel would be less carbon-expensive. 

Thinking about taking the plunge and buying an EV?

Find out how much carbon you’ll save through our petrol vs electric vehicle calculator
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Watch out for those embodied emissions!

The numbers we’ve just thrown at you include not only the carbon that is emitted while the car / train is in motion, but also its embodied emissions. Embodied emissions refer to the total amount of CO2e that is generated when something is being manufactured – i.e. the extraction of raw materials, the transportation and refinement of those materials, the emissions involved in the production of the product, etc. etc. 

Taken from this perspective, the emissions that we generate from the actual usage of our products and services is just one part of our total carbon footprint. If we’re going to meaningfully reduce our emissions, we need to take into account every stage of our products / services' life cycle, including their embodied emissions.

Depending on what kind of car is being manufactured, its embodied emissions can be anywhere between 8 to 51 tonnes of CO2e (How Bad Are Bananas)– and this is before it even hits the road! That's why if you really need a personal vehicle, and you've got a petrol car that still works, it's better to keep driving it until the end of its life instead of swapping it for a new EV immediately.

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A better direction of travel

There are still lots of reasons to opt for public transportation over driving which aren’t emissions-related! Every time we choose to travel by train / bus / bike, we’re demonstrating a public need for this infrastructure, and by doing so, we’re pushing for greater investment in these services. 

Prioritising public transport over cars will have a knock-on effect on the way cities are designed as well, making them safer for people and better for biodiversity. As our friends over at Sustrans say: ‘When there’s more of us moving around sustainably, this will create a greater demand for green spaces, and push local governments to improve our towns and cities to make them healthier, safer and less car-oriented.’ Sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it?

Conclusion: Get public transport whenever possible. If it's not possible and you must drive, fill your car. If you own a car, share the embodied carbon by lending your car to friends or reduce the embodied emissions by using your car until it can no longer run.

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