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Earth Power The Almighty Buck Transportation

Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains 345

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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  • The best analysis (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:16PM (#28246677)

    The best analysis is the one run in the real world, in real time, called the market.

  • 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 RuBLed ( 995686 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:43PM (#28246837)
    ... and you forgot to mention something important. Trains are COOL!
  • 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 TroyM ( 956558 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:01AM (#28246943)

    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, But it eventually adds up.

  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:07AM (#28246971)
    So you're saying that all these Prius cars on the street where sold at a 80,000$ loss? Because Toyota recycles the batteries for free and in fact claims to make a profit doing so.

    However, if you really want to drive "green" you wont get a new car but a used econo box.
  • 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).

  • 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 harlows_monkeys ( 106428 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:17AM (#28247313) Homepage

    The best analysis is the one run in the real world, in real time, called the market

    Utter nonsense. Markets provably do not find the best solution, because they don't take into account externalities. (Also for the reasons Planesdragon pointed out).

  • 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?

  • Renewable (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:43AM (#28247433)

    Another thing it doesn't get into is the existing technology for running trains directly from electric lines. If you think about it, rail is the only freight transportation method which can be powered DIRECTLY from renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro, using existing tested and proven technology.

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

    by ThePromenader ( 878501 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:48AM (#28247445) Homepage Journal

    In order to get a complete model of what costs what economically/environment-wise, one must include in their calculation every aspect of a mode of transportation, everything from the energy/cost/pollution needed to create the transportation through its maintenance and management, and not only the energy/pollution needed for the completed mode of transport per se.

    For example, most all trains here (France) run on electric power, but most electric power is generated in nuclear power plants, but the creation of the latter required X amount of fossil fuels (mining, construction equipment, other forms of transport for materials and nuclear fuel). So if I wanted to compare this model to, say, air travel, I would have to measure the consumption/pollution created by plane production and plane fuel, and study not just the consumption/transport capabilites of the plane itself.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:49AM (#28247725)

    Taken at face value this study is all doom and gloom about how much exhaust is generated.

    But what I keep seeing is those empty seats, and last I checked there are empty seats everywhere. Empty seats on a bus makes it worse than an SUV, so stop riding the bus and get an SUV, right? Empty seats on a light rail makes it almost as bad as a plane, so go take a plane to work, right?

    It seems odd that thier findings talk about the tailpipe exhaust but do they take into account the costs of using various forms of transport? If you want to drill down on the cost, shouldn't you factor in how much pollution it takes for someone to buy the plane ticket in the first place? Let's see, if the plane to work is $100.00 (for simplicity's sake) and the bus to work is $1.00 (again for simplicities sake) and you make $10.00/hour in Boston where "82 per cent of electricity... is generated by burning fossil fuels" then a 10 hour day of e;ectrical use more than likely destroys all savings from the bus with only 5 people on it.

    I still find it odd that people try to quantify things but only so much that they can skew the numbers to thier desired effect.

    Truth is, how much worse would we be environmentally if we took away all the trains and put it all on planes? Imagine those 100+ coal cars now needing to be flown from the mine to the power plant. So now we need an airport at both ends, and the long runways, and the environmental impact there. Yes, there are probably better solutions to some of our transportation needs, but studies like these don't really do anything to address them when they sensationalize thier results.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:49AM (#28247731)
    The mighty wisdom of 'The Market', LOL. Mod parent up for being just plain right.

    The Market being efficient, or even rational is a economic masturbatory fantasy that starry eyed economists with blabber about endlessly. The market is huge numbers of misinformed, and lazy people with a imperfect view of the products that 'the market' offers, being bombarded with suspect and deceptive advertising created by companies driven by profit motivations to sell whatever they offer for the highest price they can get away with.

    Markets will push competition and punish stagnation. That is about it, they cannot be counted on as some sort of all knowing divining machines. They are about as rational as their lowest common denominator element, and that quite frankly is nothing to base an economic religion around.

    As a case in point, the market could not even say which is more efficient, because SOME PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO FLY, and they would choose other forms of travel based off of fear. Not cost, not efficiency, but fear.
  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:24AM (#28248297)

    >The CO2 emitted per person per mile by planes, fairly full light rail and efficient cars is remarkably similar.

    Is that with electricity (From Nuclear Energy) powered train (Like for French TGV) ?

    The flaw is diesel train, not really the trains.

    >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.

    Are you comparing a plane during a flight without any stop at all and a train stopping multiple time ? Not fair. J

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iwein ( 561027 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:00AM (#28248481)

    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.

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

    by xaxa ( 988988 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:25AM (#28248597)

    That's partly politics (the train companies usually have monopolies on their routes in the UK), but you're also not making a fair comparison -- you're using the air fare booked a month in advance (and for a specific flight with no flexibility or chance of a refund) with the train fare when you appear 10 minutes before the train leaves (and full flexibility etc). Booked in advance, a train from London to Edinburgh can be as little as £12.

    Also, the train companies are subsidising unused service. There are 23 trains a day to Edinburgh from London, and most of them won't be anywhere near full, but planes are only run on routes that will be sufficiently full all the time -- there's little flexibility for the passenger.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:16AM (#28250021)
    There are nonstop train services, especially along high volume lines. Really, the advantage trains have over planes is only seen on high volume routes anyway, such as the northeast corridor on Amtrak. It is rare for trains to be forced to wait behind other trains on that route (except when waiting to enter a terminal, which is a small fraction of the overall trip), since there are four tracks dedicated to passenger rail, and it is all electric, which is cleaner than diesel.

    Another matter to consider is that many of stops that a train makes are in the centers of towns and cities, while the nearest airport may be 60 miles away or more. Amtrak's service south of Washington DC has stops at several mid-sized towns for which there is no direct flight to or from most major cities (even the major cities along that rail line). If you were to try to fly to those towns, you would have to fly to the nearest major airport, possibly fly to a landing strip near the town, and then get on a bus or into a car to get to the actual town. That is not nonstop service, and that is not necessarily more efficient than rail travel, even diesel powered trains.
  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @10:34AM (#28250867)

    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 efficiency, decrease congestion and provide better-service incentives to motivate people to use them.

    Incrementalism is important because we can't afford to change overnight and we need to give time to both people and organizations to get in sync with the program.

    It's also critical that the systems put in place provide *better* service than existing methods. The religious converts to environmentalism will put up with worse systems for their philosophical/moral value, but most other people won't, which often leads to either failure for projects or punitive changes that create political backlash.

  • Re:City planning (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:15PM (#28252027)

    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 especially if the alternative is our present public transportation fiasco. The greenies and the public transportation boosters spend too much time, IMHO, trying to make cars inconvenient (i.e. traffic calming, even/odd day bans on cars in urban areas, high petrol taxes, etc) instead of trying to improve public transportation and make it more appealing. This "hair shirt" approach to getting people to "choose" (is it really a "choice" if one is forced?) public transportation is a big part of what turns the car people off to the whole idea (among other undesirable attributes of public mass transit).

  • Re:City planning (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chrysrobyn ( 106763 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @01:05PM (#28252805)

    for 7 miles, a bicycle would be faster. or a smart car.

    For a professional, a bicycle without air conditioning, protection from rain or snow handling is not even an option in any climate I know of.

    As for a Smart? Those tiny inefficient things? Have you even looked at their mpg ratings (33mpg)? My 2006 Scion xB does just as well, and I can carry more passengers and stuff. I'm all for mass transit, smarter modes of transit and the like, but a bicycle for anything short of half a mile or a mile is impractical (and that's being generous, many would consider a walk over 100 feet isn't a solution).

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!