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Earth Power The Almighty Buck Transportation

Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains 345

Posted by timothy
from the for-some-values-of-greener dept.
New Scientist has an interesting piece up about the calculable energy costs per mile for various forms of transportation. Despite the headline ("Train can be worse for climate than plane"), the study it describes deals with highway-based vehicles, too: the authors attempted to integrate not just the cost at the tailpipe (or equivalent) for each mode of transport, but also the costs of developing and supporting the associated infrastructure, such as rails, highways and airports. Such comparisons are tricky, though; a few years back, a widely circulated report claimed that the Toyota Prius had a higher per-mile lifetime cost than the Hummer (see that earlier Slashdot post for good reason to be skeptical of the methodology and conclusions). I wonder how the present comparison would be affected by a calculation of (for instance) how much it would cost to move by plane the freight currently carried by trains.
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Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains

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  • Blimps maybe? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:09PM (#28246635)

    I can see the logic that large airships which are held aloft passively by lighter than air gases, requiring fuel only for movement being economical, but it might be different with standard planes which require fuel to generate lift.

    Yes, rail travel requires resources of iron and such to lay down infrastructure, but that infrastructure is used and maintained for many years and pays off over the long haul. Once down, a diesel locomotive can move immense amounts of cargo for a lot less per mile than other modes of transportation, so it should balance out.

    There is the cost of regulations too. An aircraft has a large amount of money put in due to upkeep, far more than a diesel locomotive requires. This isn't to say that a locomotive is completely maintenance free, but it can go a lot more miles than a plane can before requiring service.

    Finally, there is the amount of cargo a plane carries versus a train. For example, a $150,000 plane usually can carry less than a $15,000 pickup truck.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Alex Belits (437) *

      Money?

      Prices of resources are set by people based on idea of those resources' availability, and impact of their usage on the rest of society. It's obvious that with CURRENT availability of resources in US and CURRENT level of environmental protection, the all-around best mode of transportation is Ford Expedition carrying one driver. The problem is, if you try to scale this to the whole society, you will choke everyone or run out of oil long before you will run out of hard drives in Federal Reserve to keep t

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by xelah (176252)

        Prices of resources are set by people based on idea of those resources' availability, and impact of their usage on the rest of society.

        You presumably missed Economics 101, as Americans would probably call it. I'm not an expert, but I'll do my best.

        Prices in an 'idealized' free-market economy are set by the (physical, not money) costs and benefits to those people involved in the transaction, directly or indirectly (a supplier's supplier, etc). These private benefits are called internal costs. Costs on third parties - pollution, noise, aesthetics, congestion, etc - are external costs (or benefits) and are not taken in to account because t

    • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:48PM (#28246867) Homepage Journal

      Correct. The study is obviously flawed, economically speaking. In a real life study done years ago, trains moved freight for about 7 cents per ton/mile, and trucks moved the same freight for about 28 cents per ton/mile. As I recall, that included investment in tractor/locomotive and trailer/railcars, but did NOT include the highway/rail infrastructure.

      Obviously, MOST people and corporations moving freight find that rail and truck are both more economical than air - witness the fact that millions of tons of freight roll down the tracks and the highways each and every night, whereas air freight is reserved for small, high priority shipments. (In fact, shipping by truck is often faster than shipping by air, but I won't go into that here)

      If we were to build fleets of aircraft like the Hercules to move our groceries around the continent that demanded high quality aviation fuel (JP-5 or whatever it is they use) the cost of ALL fuels would increase because the refineries would simply shift their methods to yield more JP-5 and less diesel fuel and gasoline.

      And, in the end, those planes would still be emitting pollutants, probably worse than what we are doing right now. Not to mention, the trucks would still be around to get the groceries from the airport to the market.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Mwahaha (824185)
        The letter refers to moving people not freight (I think, I can't find it in the journal). The commuter trains weight is dominated by the rolling stock which has to be accelerated after each stop making it far less efficient than for freight.

        I've done some quick calculations in the past and come to the same conclusions more or less. The CO2 emitted per person per mile by planes, fairly full light rail and efficient cars is remarkably similar. I guess this isn't too surprising since the total cost per mile
      • The article clearly compares the environmental impact on the basis of passenger miles (per kilometre for each traveller on board). You can't measure freight hauling in passenger miles. You are not talking about the same thing as the article.
      • Correct. The study is obviously flawed, economically speaking. In a real life study done years ago, trains moved freight for about 7 cents per ton/mile, and trucks moved the same freight for about 28 cents per ton/mile. As I recall, that included investment in tractor/locomotive and trailer/railcars, but did NOT include the highway/rail infrastructure.

        While your freight numbers may be correct, the study referenced referred to passenger movement, not freight. The study basically states if you include infrastructure related emissions, the emissions of various modes of transportation increase. If a mode is lightly used its total emissions may be worse than a mode that has higher tailpipe emissions; i.e. an off peak bus with a few passengers is worse than a car or SUV carrying the same number of passengers.

        Without seeing the analysis I can't comment on th

      • by iwein (561027)
        TFA is not about freight, it is about travel. By comparing travel with freight you have ended the discussion I'm affraid. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law [wikipedia.org]
      • At least compare apples with apples.

        1: An express passenger train requires megawatts to run. They run (here in Germany) at 200mph, not 30mph. That's a lot more energy. Power has to increase with the square of velocity for rail, in *exactly* the same way as with air travel.

        2: You cannot run 200mph passenger trains over old freight lines. How many dead bodies do you want on your hands? That means thousands of miles of concrete and steel, both of which are *very* energy intensive to produce.

        The difference betw

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by RoFLKOPTr (1294290)

      For example, a $150,000 plane usually can carry less than a $15,000 pickup truck.

      That's because any plane you find for $150,000 isn't designed to carry more than a couple people and their luggage. A cargo plane costs a few million dollars, but it can carry a few $15,000 pickups and their cargo. But anyway, this article isn't about money, it's about emissions. I can assure you that a plane will use far less fuel to carry a full load 2000 miles than a pickup would.

      And as for people comparing planes to cargo trains... that's also not what the article is about. Of course a cargo train can c

      • I wonder if the future is full of "semi" airships. With a small onboard fuel supply and a generator, and a load of solar panels on top with electric engines powering some props, couldn't they get something to move at highway speeds, but in a straight line?

        No runway, low altitude, and very green if you can come up with a lifecycle for all of the parts.

    • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by wisty (1335733) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:51PM (#28246889)

      How about taxing carbon emissions, and letting the market figure things out?

      If that's not good enough because people cheat by importing materials from China, then you can tax the "embodied emissions" (i.e. the estimated tax that should have been payed) at the border. You could give a symmetric tax refund to exporters, based on the same sort of estimate.

      I'm suggesting using a top down estimate, based on materials in the import / export rather than a paper-trail based rebate. Otherwise people will fudge their paperwork ... and try to push all their emissions taxes into exportable goods via accounting tricks to get a rebate.

      • by timeOday (582209)

        How about taxing carbon emissions, and letting the market figure things out?

        Any calculation of the long-term costs of carbon emissions will be heavily dependent on assumptions and subjective judgments, such as what people in the future will do vs what they would have done if we did something different, what new technologies will come along, how much to weight future vs. current costs, and how to weight costs to ourselves vs costs that will accrue to others (e.g. "we can affordably commute 100 miles each w

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by westlake (615356)

      Yes, rail travel requires resources of iron and such to lay down infrastructure, but that infrastructure is used and maintained for many years and pays off over the long haul.

      You have to build the road anyway.

      Rail is very good at moving bulk freight. The mile long unit train that shuttles back and forth from the coal mine to the power plant.

      Breaking bulk - dropping off a boxcar for the occasional pickup at every local factory, every rural hamlet, reaching deep into the inner city - that's hard.

    • by rolfwind (528248)

      I can see the logic that large airships which are held aloft passively by lighter than air gases, requiring fuel only for movement being economical, but it might be different with standard planes which require fuel to generate lift.

      Lighter than air has several problems.

      One, two lift something, the balloon part has to be very big in comparison. It will never replace rail moving cars upons cars of freight.

      Two, helium will get very expensive. Unless you want to go with flammable hydrogen, which at least has

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iwein (561027)

      Yes, rail travel requires resources of iron and such to lay down infrastructure, but that infrastructure is used and maintained for many years and pays off over the long haul. Once down, a diesel locomotive can move immense amounts of cargo for a lot less per mile than other modes of transportation, so it should balance out.

      Yeah, it should shouldn't it... so why are you avoiding any kind of quantitative arguments about it? The point is to figure out if it *does* balance out.

  • by Dasher42 (514179) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:17PM (#28246679)

    The very fact that airliners leave their exhaust directly at or near the stratosphere should tell you something. After that, their contrails seed clouds which have an impact on the weather which I can't generalize on here. This reminds me of a study on embodied energy in cities; people were questioning the impact of making all those buildings, but it comes out that the high level of re-use by a densely packed population makes cities a much greener choice for the bulk of the human race.

    • by moosesocks (264553) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:42AM (#28247427) Homepage

      Ironically, the smog/clouds formed by these airliners masks the sun's output sufficiently to slightly offset global warming (a phenomenon known as global dimming).

      Granted, aircraft produce plenty of greenhouse gases that do contribute to long-term climate change. The solution to global warming isn't to fly more planes.

      We've actually got a reasonably good set of data to support this hypothesis from the flight ban during the days following 9/11. No planes were in the sky, and it was unusually warm and sunny across the country.

      • by polar red (215081)

        The solution to global warming isn't to fly more planes.

        We won't be able to fly planes for more than a few decades, certainly not kerosene ones anyway.

      • by mellon (7048) on Monday June 08, 2009 @03:12AM (#28247845) Homepage

        That truism is widely disputed at this point, of course - just because a weather pattern is unusual doesn't mean that it has a causal relationship to an event that precedes it.

      • Yes, there was less clouds and daytime temps went up but nighttime temps went down significantly more. If I'm remembering correctly, that is.

    • Well, your argument only holds for heating buildings.
      Try to put two air conditioning cooling towers in front of the other, and see if you can get any benefit (hint : you don't).
      Try to eat food that only comes from the neighborhood, and hasn't been frozen or kept in heated greenhouses.

      Sure, living in cities have some benefits from an energetic point of view, but those are soon overwhelmed by all the problems that come when the city grows to have more than half a million inhabitants (need to import everything

      • by Dasher42 (514179) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:41AM (#28248701)

        All interesting points, but there's always the example of Havana, Cuba, where 70% of the food eaten in that city was actually grown in that city. That's got to be an attainable goal here as well. As for heating and air conditioning, we've got a lot to learn from the buildings built before the industrial craze, and plenty of new ideas as well. Check it out [inhabitat.com]. I have the privilege of spending my days in a LEED Platinum building, and let me tell you, this green building thing is going to take off when people realize how comfortable they can be.

  • Bull. (Score:2, Interesting)

    So what TFA says is that electric trains are only green if the power is generated by non-fossil fuels. Take for example the Portland MAX, whose power is generated by wind farms. (at least they pay for their power to be generated by a wind farm.) This makes the MAX WAAAY green.
    • I think that's an important issue about sustainability. Trains may be powered through renewable electricity sources or biodiesel but at high altitudes synthetic aviation fuel freezes, or so I read somewhere.

      I think we better jolly well find a replacement for jumbo fuel or cheap air travel will be a thing of the past once oil rationing hits. :(

    • Re:Bull. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Repossessed (1117929) on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:43AM (#28247163)

      No it isn't. Green energy is limited right now. Using wind farms to power trains means the wind farms can't power homes, and extra fossil fuels get burned for those.

      (Still better than the cars the train system makes unnecessary though).

      • You just build more farms is all.
        And intermittency can be dealt with a number of well-known strategies, starting with keeping fossil fuel stations around for emergencies, storing energy in reversable dams, displacing usage dynamically by having industrial refrigerators run a few degrees lower, and so on and so forth.

    • There's a significant difference in brown-ness from generating electricity with fossil fuels. A state of the art natural gas fired combined cycle plant will produce a lot less CO2 per kWhr than an aging coal fired plant.

      This subject has been covered much better on the Trains.com forums with some very detailed explanations of why LD rail travel may not be as green as expected.

    • So what TFA says is that electric trains are only green if the power is generated by non-fossil fuels. Take for example the Portland MAX, whose power is generated by wind farms. (at least they pay for their power to be generated by a wind farm.) This makes the MAX WAAAY green.

      Not disagreeing with the latter comment, but surely electric trains are at least greener than, say, diesel-electric in that...

      • the former is not carrying the weight of the diesel engine + alternator
      • the former can do regenerative braking.

      Even saying that, surely even diesel-electric trains are greener than road haulage.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        Even saying that, surely even diesel-electric trains are greener than road haulage.

        AIUI, until recently there wasn't much incentive for efficient diesel locomotives -- fuel was cheap, and there weren't controls on pollutants in the same way as there are for road vehicles. As fuel cost becomes a more and more significant cost of running the train new locomotives will become more efficient.

  • by MrClever (70766) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:29PM (#28246769) Homepage
    Not to mention many forms of freight cannot be carried by air at all, and others have extreme restrictions on the amounts that can be carried in a single air consignment. As IATA [iata.org] say, "some things just aren't meant to fly" - like pyrotechnic security attache cases [freepatentsonline.com] for example (sorry Mr. Bond, you'll have to send that by road/rail/boat).
  • City planning (Score:5, Insightful)

    by j. andrew rogers (774820) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:31PM (#28246777)

    This research is essentially stating that what is and is not "green" transportation is significantly dependent on the context of the layout of the region it is located in. This should be obvious but it is not hard to find people that think forcing everyone into the same transportation options regardless of objective context is sound environmental policy. Or in other words, attempting to force people to be "green" often generates more pollution than doing nothing at all, and if you do not change the underlying equilibrium that created the original distribution you will just piss people off as a bonus to your non-accomplishment.

    The sad truth is that most American cities are ill-suited to public transportation at the fundamental design level. It would be like trying to make MS-DOS function as an enterprise server environment, the impedance mismatch is extreme. You can't hack an effective and economic public transportation system onto them, and taking a wrecking ball to three-quarters of the American landscape would be expensive beyond belief for a very modest benefit -- you would see more pollution reduction by simply shutting down coal power plants and building nuclear power plants. You have to build the green cities before you can demand people live in them, but for some reason politicians often seem to get that backward.

    Even though I am all for green cities, punishing people who live in car-only suburbs is a non-solution because for the most part Americans have no practical choice but to live in such places. For some reason, the same people that refuse to allow the building of green cities as a matter of policy (or at a minimum show a complete lack of political will to propose such things) have no problem coming up with punishments for not living in cities they would not allow to be built. It is a bipartisan failing, even the extreme "environmental progressives" that control the politics where I live rabidly oppose any city development that does not look an awful lot like crappy suburban sprawl.

    • by dbcad7 (771464)
      Most US cities have some form of public transportation, mostly bus.. but some intercity rail.. The real problem isn't on the design of cities, it's that there has been zero investment in connecting cities by rail. Even connecting to the outskirts, such as many airports would be something. My own limited Amtrak experience, is that it sucks.. what is a 2 hour drive by car, takes 5 hours.. They stop at small nothing towns that often don't make sense.. They should stick to the major cities, offering bus connect
    • Re:City planning (Score:5, Interesting)

      by moosesocks (264553) on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:04AM (#28247501) Homepage

      The sad truth is that most American cities are ill-suited to public transportation at the fundamental design level.

      Maybe we need to rethink the way we plan cities. Suburban-oriented development needs to stop NOW. We don't have the space or the resources to support it. There's no reason why we can't change our zoning laws to encourage new development to be constructed in a more practical fashion.

      Many recently constructed suburbs (ie. anything around DC) don't even offer the typical advantages that the suburban lifestyle promised. Houses are crammed onto tiny lots in a traffic-congested area that provides no businesses or services within walking distance. It is literally the worst-case scenario.

      The "insufficient" population density argument is bullshit. New Jersey has a higher population density than all of the European states and Japan, and yet most of the state has zero access to a public transportation system that will deliver them somewhere other than New York or Philadelphia. I lived in a rural Scottish town for a short while that had public transportation options that were lightyears better than anything I can get living in NJ, just across the river from NYC.

      France has one of the best high-speed rail networks in the world (and has had it since the 70s). Most of France is extremely rural, and yet the TGV system provides access to a huge portion of the country. The eastern seaboard of the US has 4 major cities arranged in a straight line, and we somehow can't figure out how to provide reasonable rail transportation between them. The Acela is barely faster than driving, and costs 10x as much.

      I lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for a while, and attempted to do my commute via public transportation at first. Geographically, the area is composed of a narrow peninsula (~10-15 miles wide) connecting Richmond to Virginia Beach. The 60mi stretch from Williamsburg to VB is very densely populated. The situation practically cries for a commuter rail line down the peninsula, with a few well-placed bus routes around the urban centers. Instead, we have numerous 4-lane traffic-clogged highways, and the world's most disjointed bus network. My fairly straightforward commute to work (25 minutes by car, basically on one road) took over 2 hours by bus.

      It's often said that only poor people ride the bus. In the case of Hampton Roads, I was tempted to believe that the people on the bus were poor because they never got to work on time.

      The naysayers are wrong. The US isn't terribly special. We CAN fix this. Yes, we've made a few bad urban planning decisions over the past 40 years, although much of the rest of the world made those same mistakes.

      The costs are justified. The economy can't survive another prolonged $5/gal gas spike. Fixing the means by which transportation works in America is far more important than any war we're fighting (and coincidentally, would have prevented the one we're currently embroiled in)

      • by Rogerborg (306625)

        I lived in a rural Scottish town for a short while that had public transportation options that were lightyears better than anything I can get living in NJ

        Like.. a bus stop to rival any other bus stop [youtube.com]?

        Pray tell, which "rural Scottish town" had these legendary public transport options?

      • by Graymalkin (13732)

        It's not so much suburban building needs to stop it just needs to be done better. The early suburban growth of the US was based entirely around mass transit systems. You had both railroad and streetcar suburbs. Railroad suburbs were often small towns that railroads had built stations in. When a small town got its rail link to the bigger nearby city the upper and middle class city workers would often emigrate from the cities to the smaller towns and then commute back into the city by day to work. Streetcar s

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by chrysrobyn (106763)

        Maybe we need to rethink the way we plan cities. Suburban-oriented development needs to stop NOW. We don't have the space or the resources to support it. There's no reason why we can't change our zoning laws to encourage new development to be constructed in a more practical fashion.

        I wholly disagree. I think the suburban design is very close to being a system of capillaries needed to support the arteries. A van could circulate through the main roads of my subdivision in 30 minutes and drop people off at a

      • Maybe we need to rethink the way we plan cities.

        That's a great idea if we can rewind the calendar to 1790 and start over. The big problem is that re-thinking how we plan cities is that by and large our cities are already built and already have massive infrastructure investments already built and in use, with signficant economies built around the infrastructure arrangement.

        What we need to do is think about how we can *adapt* our cities & infrastructure in incremental ways that increase energy efficienc

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CodeBuster (516420)

        My fairly straightforward commute to work (25 minutes by car, basically on one road) took over 2 hours by bus.

        Which is precisely why most working people cannot use the bus or any other public transportation for commuting purposes. The bottom line with public transportation is that it must make sense and be competitive on the merits (i.e. no government mandates that people cannot drive on certain days or similar bullshit) or the commuting public will stay in their cars. Personally, it would take a lot more than $5 per gallon gas to get me out of my car (which is fast, clean, fuel-efficient, and private) and especi

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      It would really make more sense to start an electric bus and cab fleet than to roll out high speed rail, at least in the immediate term. Long term, the nation needs a plan - something on the level of the highway system, something that will work and can actually be implemented - that can satisfy mass transit and rapid transit needs while keeping them affordable. Air transport is already very expensive and relatively inaccessible, and the price only goes up with oil. The same, I learned a few years ago, goes
    • by mellon (7048)

      What does this have to do with the article? Are you proposing that people commute by airplane instead?

      Sprawl gets built because for a variety of reasons it makes short-term economic sense. In fact most modern wood-frame houses are only good for a relatively short time, so it's a problem that will ultimately take care of itself. Just because you are "forced" to live in sprawl right now does not mean that when your house has to be rebuilt because of shoddy construction, the right thing for you to do wil

  • Other benefits (Score:2, Interesting)

    by TastyCakes (917232)
    To me, it seems transportation by trains has benefits that extend well beyond how much energy they use. For example, being able to use electricity generated in any way, rather than being dependent on av-gas, provides a stability and flexibility that planes just can't. While coal may be an ugly way to make power, for America, its supply is certainly more dependable than oil looking forward. Also, being able to reach into the centre of big cities provides a big convenience factor, in my opinion. And train
  • by MtViewGuy (197597) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:34PM (#28246797)

    If you're talking current infrastructure, freight trains are still WAY more environmentally friendly than trucks.

    Remember, you only need four modern 4,000 bhp diesel-electric locomotives to pull 180 loaded 53" trailers, not 180 trucks spewing WAY more exhaust emissions (assuming each truck has about 400 bhp pulling power).

    The problem with airplanes is that because so much of the structure is needed for aerodynamic lift, the result is a much lower freight load per pound of structure compared to a freight train. That's why interest in super large lighter-than-air vehicles have never completely waned, since they could carry a lot of load per pound of structure.

    • Easy to tell too (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770)

      By the fact that they are still used all the time. Freight trains are slow for moving things since there's lots of load/unload time, and you don't get to chose the routing as precisely as by truck. It is the kind of thing that survives only because it is so cheap. It is likely to get even better too, what with hybrid locomotives. All locomotives are electric drive these days. There is just no way to make the kind of transmission you'd need to provide the torque needed to move that thing. Thus you use electr

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You're using the term "hybrid" for locomitives as if it were something new. Even the early diesel locomotive prototypes of the 1910s had this design. Hence the proper term: Diesel Electric. These have been in use for 70 years.

        The first part of regenerative braking, running the electric motors backwards to generate electricity, is already done too. If you look at a locomotive from above you'll see a series of exhaust fans. That electricity is turned into heat and pumped out the top. Trains are heavy ass thin

      • by rolfwind (528248)

        By the fact that they are still used all the time. Freight trains are slow for moving things since there's lots of load/unload time, and you don't get to chose the routing as precisely as by truck.

        This is really too bad. Imagine the fuel/road repair (trucks cause 200x more damage than average car) we could be saving if they could make trains so efficient as to relegate trucks as last mile/last leg part of the journey and train as the majority to the point you would hardly see a cross country truck anymore.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by smoker2 (750216)
          Trucks do not cause 200x the damage of cars. Each axle (in the EU) is limited to 8 tonnes, which means 4 tonnes per wheel so roughly 8x the weight of a cars wheel. But read below for more on that.
          Also, at least in the UK, they ripped up most of the branch lines for the railways in the 1960s and so unless you are delivering to a very narrow corridor, you don't get close to more than 10% of the towns.

          There are also many whiners in the UK who think that trucks should be banned and everything done by trains an
      • It is likely to get even better too, what with hybrid locomotives.

        Erm. Not quite. Diesel-electric hybrids have been in use for just about as long as diesel locomotives have been around. There are only a handful of diesels (all historic) that weren't hybrids.

      • by bitrex (859228)
        Many freight railroads that operate diesel locomotives in mountainous areas have had electric braking systems for decades called "dynamic brakes", but the electric power created by turning the traction motors into generators was just turned into heat through large resistor banks and blown out the top of the locomotive. You can spot a locomotive with dynamic braking by the characteristic bulge in the roofline where the resistor bank is located. I guess it didn't make economic sense until now to actually pu
      • by jabuzz (182671)

        Or you could "electrify" the lines, and generate that electricity to power the locomotive using whatever zero emission electricity generation method takes your fancy.

        This is where the analysis is flawed. It is much easier and possible today to make a train journey that has zero carbon emissions (or put another way is renewable cause oil ain't going to last even if you don't believe in global warming). You cannot realistically do that today or in the foreseeable future in a plane.

  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:40PM (#28246829) Homepage

    While this study seems a much better reflection of the total (environmental) cost of each type of transportation, it's important to remember that the marginal cost of you buying a plain ticket or driving your car is not necessarily proportional to the total cost.

    For example, to drive one car across the continent may require a massive investment of infrastructure to create a suitable road, but if that road is already there, the infrastructure cost of driving a second car on the same road is essentially zero: you aren't buying any additional infrastructure because of the second car.

    I honestly can't imagine ever doing away with our network of highways, regardless of any increase in the popularity of air travel, so a large portion of that infrastructure cost may have nothing to do with whether you personally choose to drive instead of fly. The innercity roads are also a permanent feature: it's not like the plane is going to drop you off at your apartment complex.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by TroyM (956558)

      But at some point, the addition of enough cars means you have to widen the highway, or build a totally new highway. Don't know about where you live, they're constantly building new roads here, and there's a cost for that.

      There's also a cost to maintain the roads. And cars driving over those roads do damage that has to be repaired. Large trucks cause much more damage.

      In both cases, it's hard to see that adding just one more car means a new road has to be built, or and section of road has to be repaired,

      • That is quite true, but my point is not to disregard the general maintenance and service cost that each car incurs. My point is that a certain quantity of that cost exists entirely independent of the cars vs. planes argument, and therefore has no bearing on whether you should decide to take a plane instead of car.

        At our present level of technology interstate roads or railroads will continue to be maintained as a strategic asset even if virtually all commercial travel moves to airplanes, so you don't get

  • by KeithIrwin (243301) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:45PM (#28246859)

    As someone who has read the report (instead of just read articles which summarized it) I can definitively say that that report was, is, and always will be a load of crap.

    First off, that report came from a marketing firm, not a serious research organization. Since when are marketing firms experts on lifetime costs.

    Secondly, their estimates were that the bulk of the energy costs for each of these cars was in the cost of recycling and/or disposing of the cars. Specifically, for the Prius, a $20,000 car, they estimated that it would take over $100,000 worth of energy to recycle or dispose of it.

    Right off, that doesn't pass the simple common-sense test. If it costs $100,000 to recycle or dispose of a Prius, then who is going to be paying that? For all of the cars on the road, they estimated that disposal and/or recycling would cost at least tens of thousands of dollars. Which is to say, if the report is to be believed, scrap yards are all operating at gargantuan loses, since, generally most of them will pay you for your car rather than charge you to haul it away.

    My best guess as to the justification of their lunacy is that they're assuming that all of the plastics in a vehicle will be somehow incinerated at some huge temperature or something (rather than simply put in a landfill, which costs way less energy) and they've slipped a digit or two somewhere. But in the end, it's impossible to judge because although they claim to have some very specific break-downs which justify their numbers for each category of the life-cycle, those break-downs are only available if you spend several thousand dollars to purchase the complete version of the report from them.

  • by evilsofa (947078)
    Does it make sense to, for example, haul coal on planes? I don't believe you can replace trains with planes, or planes with trains.
  • by e9th (652576) <(e9th) (at) (tupodex.com)> on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:02AM (#28246953)
    Is ERL for real? Is it customary nowadays for journals to charge [iop.org] $1900 to to publish an article?
  • It's amazing what you can do with a spreadsheet. Fudge things just right, and you can overcome a wall of facts, even a 8 times disadvantage.
    Awesome.

    But back in the real world, trains and ships can move stuff for pennies a ton-mile, at useful and quiet speeds, with very low emissions, and requiring relatively low-energy infrastructure of wood and iron.
    While air transport moves stuff at a cost of almost a dollar a ton-mile, while emitting a whole lot more noise near the endpoints, and requiring a lot more ec

  • Make no mistakes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pig Hogger (10379) <`pig.hogger' `at' `gmail.com'> on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:43AM (#28247167) Journal

    Make no mistakes. Rail as an industrial transportation sector predated all (save marine) by almost a century. Initially at the hands of powerful "robber barons" (the Bill Gates of the day), rail has had the time to generate pretty powerful ennemies and longlasting resentment (witness in the canadian west, where "goddammed CPR [wikipedia.org]" is still used as a curse, and likewise in the southwestern US where the Southern Pacific has not mucha in matters of a saint's aura). At the hands of those robber barons, rail has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on overland transportation for about a century before road and air transport managed to get off the ground, generating fortunes and attracting talent that has previously made rail the high-technology sector of it's time.

    With talent gone, rail first sank into routine operation and management, and as it slowly started it's long descent into hell (the 1970's), it degraded into crisis management and deferred-maintenance and emergency patch cycles that were no match for the lobbying efforts of the road and air upstarts who had developped an ever increasing arrogance.

    Case in point: when the Alaska pipeline was first proposed, Boeing seriously submitted a proposal to fly the oil in special 747-tankers, which could have brought a totally new meaning to the words "black tide"...

    Still riding high on it's nouveau-riche influence, the road and air sectors do not see the brink of the collapse they are about to succumb to. First the air with the unprecedented paranoïa that followed 9/11 that brought about billions in governmental support to troubled airlines, and now the bankrupcy of General Motors that will suck even more public money in an industry that was too arrogant to see it's own pitfalls.

    In the meanwhile, rail still trundles around, carrying stuff (and some people, too) around without much of a fanfare (save for whistling at crossings).

    Elsewhere in the world, rail systems were either developped by the States outright, or with heavy State involvement. That heavy State involvement meant that elsewhere, people were spared the costly shenanigans of private railroads (such as duplicate lines by competing railroads, or outright purchase of competing more-efficient routes [wikipedia.org]), so "other" railroads were far more efficient at providing public service than their U.S. brethen, and did not generate the resentment the robber barons of the gilded age did in the U.S.

    And those "other" railroads have managed to pull pretty impressive feats, such as the world's fastest scheduled passenger service [wikipedia.org], something U.S. railroads would be hard-pressed to manage in the hostile environment they have to deal with. It seems that the only way the U.S. can press forward with improved rail service would be following the utter collapse of other modes of transport...

    • by pimpimpim (811140)
      Unfortunately, in several cases the Europeans did not learn the lesson from the private rail systems in the US and more recently the UK. For example the Germans are actually still trying to privatize [spiegel.de] their relatively efficient railway system (typing from a packed german commuter train now). I'm not completely up-to-date, probably the economic crisis suspended the privatization for a while.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Uberbah (647458)

      It seems that the only way the U.S. can press forward with improved rail service would be following the utter collapse of other modes of transport.

      It would also help if the U.S. could wean itself from the corporate cock and get back into investing in the public sector. For example, single payer health care provides better care for less money yet that option is being ignored by the Senate. Instead we get half assed, wishy washy "public-private partnership" crap. Salon had a nice editorial [salon.com] on the subject a

  • propaganda (Score:4, Insightful)

    is always about omitting the context of a conclusion. yes, a prius is less green than a hummer, in certain contexts. yes, a train is less green than a train, in certain contexts. in a limited set of variables, you can conclude an aircraft carrier is greener than a pack mule

    for example: fed 0.25 pounds of nuclear fuel, the aircraft carrier was founds to go around the planet a couple of times, while the pack mule was found dead. surely, the aircraft carrier is greener here

    for example: by ability to transport aircraft to military hotspots, the aircraft carrier was found to go exactly where needed for a reasonable amount of fuel, while the pack mule merely sat there with a crushed spine

    etc., etc.

    along any narrow axis of any comparison, you can really say anything you want, and in fact good propaganda does this all the time. that's why it's called "half truths". they are telling you the truth, they only are omitting half of what you need to properly evaluate the value of the statement they are making

    beware any "facts" you encounter on any controversial topic: gun control, the environment, islam and terrorism, etc.: lots of "facts" are not really as convincing as they appear at face value, phrased in such a way to tug at your preconceptions and subtle prejudices, instead of actually enlightening you as to any real truth

    everyone needs to go into this world with a very skeptical mind, about anything you hear. unfortunately, it is actually those who are most emotionally invested in any number of controversial topics who lose that discipline, and become nothing more than blind kneejerk partisan hacks

  • by hyades1 (1149581) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:31AM (#28247381)

    Another factor that wasn't considered in TFA: airports tend to be built 'way out in the country, where there aren't a lot of local residents to complain about the noise. Typically, the thousands of acres an airport needs are carved out of prime agricultural land. And if the airport is built next to a major population centre, how do you put a price on the degraded quality of life suffered by thousands of people who have to endure the constant din of landing jets roaring overhead?

    • Excellent point. Another way to look at it is if you build a metro stop, for example, you'll have business (commercial, retail and residential) booming in the general vicinity. That even applies to backwaters like Los Angeles where the problems of doing so are prohibitive and where they've only recently discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) how real cities are supposed to function.

      By contrast, try to build or expand an airport and you'll have the locals complaining, or moving away. Those that remain are

  • by harlows_monkeys (106428) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:32AM (#28247385) Homepage

    The article points out the full buses (such as during rush hour) are more efficient than mostly empty buses during off-peak hours. Unfortunately, that kind of analysis tends to be misused, leading people into looking at individual bus routes and trips on those routes when allocating resources, rather than thinking about the system as a whole.

    What they overlook is that a bus saves nothing over my car if I'm taking my car, not the bus. To entice my out of my car regularly, I must be able to rely on the bus. If I take the bus, say, to go out to dinner, and then decide on a whim to catch a movie afterward, I need to be able to know, without having to stop and study a bunch of schedules, that I will be able to get a bus home shortly after the movie lets out. I need to be able to know that I can go to this corner near the theater, and within 15 minutes catch a bus home, without worrying that someone decided when I wasn't paying attention that the routes after 11pm were not cost effective and cut them.

    Only by committing to a regular schedule that does not cut trips--even if a particular run of a particular route gets poor ridership for months or years--can a bus system become a real alternative to cars.

    • by anagama (611277)
      Aside from scheduling, the bus has to overcome the whole "ghetto on wheels" issue.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by a whoabot (706122)

        That, my good sir, is precisely the problem with the omnibus. Every time I've ridden the omnibus there is someone so offensive on board I'm about to...can't even finish this sentence I'm so angry at them still. They have their headphones in, but I can hear their "hip hop" music. If I can hear it, how loud are they listening to it? Last time I was on there was some girl trying to speak French to her boyfriend or some over creature over her cellular telephone. She kept on saying "je t'aime" with the wors

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by dodongo (412749)

          And if you quit calling it an "omnibus" everyone on the bus would quit calling you a "prick" which would, I'm sure, make your time on the bus more pleasant.

          I haven't a clue what to do about the French people, though.

        • by Marcika (1003625)

          That, my good sir, is precisely the problem with the omnibus. Every time I've ridden the omnibus there is someone so offensive on board I'm about to...can't even finish this sentence I'm so angry at them still.

          Yes, but every time I use a car in rush hour traffic instead of the bus or the underground, I invariably get close to road rage as always there is someone so aggressive and obnoxious on the road that I'm about to...

          But ay, there's the rub: If you could clean the trash out the whole world would be down-right pleasant, you'd be lord and savior, and it's never going to happen.

          Indeed.

  • by blind biker (1066130) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:49AM (#28247447) Journal

    Earlier this year I flew from Paris to Bangkok and was reading the information sheet of the Boeing 777-200 on which I was flying. The 777-200 is one of the most fuel-efficient long-haul aircrafts there is. So the consumption is 0.022l of Kerosene per (km*passenger) (liters per kilometer per passenger). That's better than many cars, if you drive alone, which most people, sadly, do. So if you look at it from this angle, the 777-200 is more fuel-efficient.

    But here comes the kick: from Paris to Bangkok is nearly 10.000Km. So to ship my white ass between the two points, I was responsible for consuming some 200l of Kerosene! I felt rather bad when we landed, as I imagined 200 liters of kerosene burned up in the atmosphere, just for my enjoyment (I was consoled rather quickly, though, as Thai women are the most beautiful in the world. If there was any justice, we'd have all the Miss World winners from Thailand.).

  • by driptray (187357) on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:28AM (#28247637)

    The article neglects the way that the transportation infrastructure affects how much transport is needed. If you rely on cars and trucks for most transport you end up with low-density sprawl and hence a very high number of miles travelled. If you rely on trains and bicycles you end up with high-density development and hence a much lower number of miles travelled.

    In other words, when comparing transport modes you can't assume that the amount of miles will be the same.

  • by mumma3k (1571887) on Monday June 08, 2009 @03:04AM (#28247807)
    In less developed countries like USA the major part of all trains run on diesel and oil. Here in Sweden almost all trains run on electricity.
  • ... sincerely, so what ? How come, calculations of fuel consumption and pollution of army vehicles (planes, trucks, ships, submarines, carriers (!)) and of industries are less frequently slapped in our face than those of public transport and cars? They frequently preach us about how much pollution our cars produce, but all of it pales in comparison to army pollution. Also, there are very many trains that carry more people than most smaller planes, and they travel more frequently, and even more so on smaller
  • by rew (6140) <r.e.wolff@BitWizard.nl> on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:47AM (#28249023) Homepage

    The problem is that these comparisons are difficult to do. The only way to accurately allow estimations of such climate-efficiency is to impose climate-taxes.

    Make every company pay for their emissions into the environment. So the costs of producing electricity will go up because the electricity company has to pay for their CO2 emissions. Similarly the steel mill producing the steel for the hummer will charge higher prices because of the CO2 they produce, and to compensate for the higher electricity bill.

    Eventually throughout industry a new price-level will stabilize and in the train tickets and airline tickets their relative climate-efficiency will show through. People will feel the climate-inefficiency of the hummer (or the prius if you believe that report) in the amount they have to pay.

    Oh, because taxing all citizens for the CO2 that their cars produce is not feasable, you add a tax on the fuels: The amount of CO2 per gallon of fuel is easy to calculate.

    And... because this will shift prices significantly, it is not feasible to start these taxes all at once. So besides that the eventual rates should be known in advance, so that companies can change their investment patterns to for example build more CO2 efficient plants in the years that ramp up the cost of emitting CO2 into the environment.

    There are some difficult problems: What is the CO2 equivalent price of radioactive wastes? This depends a lot on for example the cost of "suppose 100 years from now the storage facility generates a leak causing 100 square miles of our country to become inhabitable". The chances of that happening are small, difficult to estimate, but the resulting cost to the environment so enormous that they do make a contribution to the "global-environmental-cost" of using nuclear energy.

    Another problem is that this doesn't make sense to do in just one country. This has to be done globally otherwise it is tremendously unfair for companies that are in a country that taxes its companies compared with those that are in a country that doesn't tax its companies. (You might be able to add those taxes at the border. So competition inside a country becomes fair. And the "other country" will see that the taxes that they could've charged end up being charged at the border, and flow into the foreign government, providing an incentive for them to implement the taxes....)

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