June 24, 2004
Cars More Energy Efficient Than Trains?

The energy efficiency advantage of trains is not clear cut.

The Lancaster University research found that if you are journeying from Edinburgh to London by standard Intercity train with all the seats taken, you will be using slightly more fuel per passenger - about 11 litres of fuel per passenger compared to about ten litres - than you would if you made the same journey by car, with all the seats occupied.

By using more fuel, you are causing more damage to the environment through emissions not to mention through using up more of the planetís natural resources.

And if you choose to travel on one of the soon-to-be-launched higher speed trains, you would be using slightly more fuel than a plane - about 22 litres of fuel per passenger compared to about 20 litres - and more than twice as much fuel per head than the car, at ten litres.

Of course the average train over that particular journey probably has a higher load factor than the average car travelling between that same pair of cities.

Regulations and higher speeds are making British trains less fuel efficient. Roger Ford, of Modern Railways magazine, provides the awful truth to environmentalists.

The introduction of crumple zones, disabled lavatories and seating rules for trains travelling over 100mph had added weight and reduced capacity.

"I know this will generate howls of protest, but at present a family of four going by car is about as environmentally friendly as you can get."

Of course the argument can be made that the average car on a long trip does not have most of its seats occupied. But at what percent occupancy does the average long range train in America, Britain, or Europe operate at? I've ridden across the United States on an Amtrak train that was at maybe 5% or 10% occupancy. Heck, that is a lower occupancy rate than a car can manage. One would need a 10 seat vehicle to get down to 10% occupancy with just a driver and a 20 seat vehicle to get to 5% occupancy with only the driver in the vehicle. Still, in Europe the train load factors are probably higher than the car load factors on average. But if you are going to load up a whole family to go tripping and you have concerns about the environment the good news is that you don't have to feel any worse for taking the car.

The UK Daily Telegraph's editors say take a car, save the planet.

May we make a modest suggestion? "Save the planet. Jump into your car."

However, there is still a reason to take the train: the death rate per hundred miles travelled is probably much lower. Plus, you can get up and walk around. Plus, there are some train routes that go through some breathtaking scenery where there are no roads. I'm told the Chicago to San Francisco Amtrak goes through some such scenery in the Rockies and it is on my list of trips to take.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 24 04:42 PM  Energy Transportation

Mr. Farlops said at June 24, 2004 11:24 PM:

Interesting. Please note however that Roger Kemp also says that rail transit over short hauls (subways) in congested urban environments is still much more efficient than cars.

Additionally, most cars rarely exceed single occupancy (Let's assume 25% for a four seat vehicle.). All mass transit (including trains) has to do to pass this is exceed 25% ridership on most routes, during most hours. Fully loaded cars on family road trips are the exception, not the rule.

Kemp also notes that much of the loss in fuel efficiency is due to changes wrought by privatization in UK rail and that this may not be generalizable to rail companies around the world. He is not arguing privatization is bad, just merely noting they'll have to change a few things in order to lower their fuel bills again. It's to the advantage of private rail and air transport to optimize the passenger to fuel ratio.

Then there are the safety and health advantages you note. Stretching your legs is great!

I am not anti-car, at least not fanatically so. It's just that Kemp paints a more complex picture than the news has it. Fully loaded cars will probably always be close in efficiency to fully loaded mass transit, I don't dispute that. I just note that most people don't use their cars in the most efficient way possible, hence mass transit will always come out ahead. Even government transit agencies tend to cut or consolidate routes with less than 25% ridership.

John Doe said at June 25, 2004 2:48 AM:

Telecommuting beats all other forms of commuting.

Trains could be powered by clean, safe nuclear power.

A Berman said at June 25, 2004 6:02 AM:

Interesting article. A bus still has many environmental advantages over a set of cars. I don't know how they all balance out, but here's a few of them:
1) Buses and trains are necessary for people who lack cars, so there's going to be around no matter what. Therefore, you should look at the marginal costs. It's pretty obvious that the extra gas required to seat one to five more passengers on a train is less than the gas required to fuel one car on the same trip.
2) A car requires a set of parking spaces. The fewer cars, the fewer parking spaces must be created.
3) If a bus/train replaces N cars, you have to also look at maintenance costs.

Bob Badour said at June 25, 2004 6:49 AM:

I suggest the biggest environmental impact comes from traffic jams, and I suspect mass transit has fewer of them.

Factory said at June 25, 2004 5:00 PM:

"I've ridden across the United States on an Amtrak train that was at maybe 5% or 10% occupancy"

The four times I've taken an intercity train in Austrlia they have always been full at the start of the journey, and about half full by the end. I think you may have found out why Amtrak needs to be bailed out so often.. :)

David Nishimura said at June 25, 2004 5:05 PM:

This is one case where I'd really like to see a rigorous and comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. The fuel costs per seat-mile are interesting enough, but what about all the other costs, taking into account government subsidies? Time savings would be a big factor indeed, which appear not to have been accounted for in the UK study.

Daniel said at June 26, 2004 3:38 AM:

Considering the comparison was made with British trains, whose rolling-stock is overwhelmingly old and, even where new, mostly diesel-powered and not up to European standards, I am not surprised at all. I am not sure the results generalise to European high-speed rail travel.

Peep Mall said at June 26, 2004 7:39 AM:

I have to agree, that this one really needs a bit more numbers that just 11 10 and 20 litres of fuel per passenger. There are cars that take 4 litres of fuel per 100km and cars that take 16l. Also there are different trains, where i live most trains go by electricity. Bus transport has'nt been included, how many litres does average bus take per passenger, compared to trains and cars.
I like cars... especcially those cars that take lot of fuel. But i kind of sense that in this article subconciously car-liker parts of brain might have written too pro-car article compared to the facts.

Imho there are only two news that pro-car people should be really happy about. Technology that can produce cheaply and in greats amounts some kind of fuel that can drive those 60'ties muscle cars and technology that can eliminate all pollution made by those kind of cars.

Bob Badour said at June 26, 2004 10:48 AM:

From a strictly economic standpoint, I would expect the greater market appeal of cars to drive advances and adoption of technology that would eventually cause cars to have all kinds of advantages over mass transit including in the areas of energy economy and pollution. It seems inevitable to me.

SteveSC said at June 27, 2004 11:43 AM:

It is interesting that this study takes a whack at the assumption that mass transit always shows economies of scale. If the cost per passenger fully loaded is modest, the most important factor then becomes average load. Most of my experience with mass transit comes from years of commuting on the Chicago El and the Washington Metro, and I estimate that (on weekdays) the load factors were 200% for two hours (e.g., AM and PM rush hours with all seats occupied and another person standing for each seat), 100% for 2 hours, and about 10% for the remaining 20 hours (despite the reduction in train size and frequency during off hours).

(For those who would contest the 10% figure, remember the queuing phenomenon: few customers experience an empty line because no one is there! And lots of customers experience a long line because it precisely corresponds to highest demand. For mass transit this happens both across time and geography.)

Using these numbers results in a utilization of 33% on weekdays and considerably less on weekends. It would take an additional 5 hours of 100% ridership (every seat filled for every mile of system) to raise the utilization to 50%.

So let's be generous and say that, including weekends, utilization of the El and Metro is about 30%. Still better than a car at 25%? Well..

If 20% of the cars have 2 people, or 6.7% of the cars have 4, utilization equals 30%. And this doesn't include other hidden costs of mass transit. In the U.S., many people drive a car to the train station. And spend a lot of time waiting (and in Chicago, freezing their tootsies off). And on the train you can't listen to NPR's wonderful environmental stories... ;-)

The great advantage of a car is that it provides a smaller unit of capacity for low demand periods and routes. As long as the per vehicle cost is lower, it makes sense to use a car instead of a bus or train when the demand isn't there. In fact, I bet the most environmentally friendly thing to do is shut down trains and subways during non-rush hours and subsidize taxis instead.

Randall Parker said at June 27, 2004 12:16 PM:


Great set of thoughts. Your point about the subsidized taxis reminds me of a trip I took to Istanbul decades ago. They have these sort of group taxis (called Dalmoose or something like that) that run regular routes. This smaller sized entrepreneurial public transportation is outlawed in many American jurisdictions and there have been court fights about the restrictions because smaller operators were sued by public transit authorities to try to shut them down. Well, that style of transportation ought to be allowed in America.

Colin said at July 9, 2004 8:21 AM:

The reason this research was done was to highlight a problem to the train manufacturers and government!

It wasn't meant to get us driving our cars - and as we all know, we rarely drive with 4 seats filled (or American SUVs 8 seats...).

By the way Damian said something about UK having old trains - well Roger Kemp's research said explicitly that it is the new trains that are the problem. In transport professional journals it is reported as "wake up call for fuel inefficient rail".

They are 40% heavier than the ones they replaced (which were only made in the late 1980s) and are also less space efficient. I know someone who works at Network Rail (they run the network) and they are having to upgrade all their power substations because the power of the engines, and the air conditioning, laptop power points etc, are massively increasing the power draw.

Many of our new trains, of which we have a lot, come from Germany. They are not meeting their international Kyoto protocol CO2 targets as well as the UK is (of course, the USA would not sign up to it) but the reason they have high speed rail all over their country is because it is far safer than car travel and unlike domestic air, can service small locations simply by stopping the train! I have travelled extensively all around Europe by train and it's a pleasure.

Colin said at July 9, 2004 8:31 AM:

Sorry I referred to the wrong name there - not Damian, but Daniel.

Also a very important point. The research compared a Volkswagen Passat 1.9 Diesel. These are phenomenally efficient cars - they will average around 55 miles per UK gallon. American SUV's do between 4-16 miles per gallon - a figure almost unthinkable in the UK - and the average 3-litre sedan would be no more than 25 miles per gallon.

So immediately we realise that rail is the greenest option by far, unless you can fill a VW Passat diesel with 4 passengers. It also comes down to how necessary your trip is. Commuters on a train are making a necessary trip at least compared to a few youngsters cruising around in a Chevy... oh and I am only 22 by the way..

Ian said at July 12, 2004 4:35 AM:

I live in Southern England and have travelled north over similar ditances.
Please note that the trains in question are high speed, limited stop, express type - they are not commuter trains. They run on electricity generated by gas turbine power stations, which needs to be generated whether the train is running or stationary.
The UK loading gauge is smaller than in the rest of Europe and this prevents use of double deck units or indeed more seats across the carriage. But our 100 mph Commuter trains in the south have more than twice the passenger occupancy of an inter-city express.

I also have a VAG 100bhp turbo diesel engine in my Skoda. It is a lighter car than the VW Passat and uses exactly the same engine, but I only manage 52 mpg max. Why? because our roads are sufficiently congested that 4 people (+ luggage over 400 miles!)are stuck in traffic for a large proportion of any journey. In the real world of conjestion, urban sprawl and roadworks, 60 mpg is just not possible and 50 mpg would be far more likely.

Flying from London to Edinburgh is a good theory. But you still have to travel to and from airports and a double deck Airbus would be too big for our regional airports.
If VAT was levied on Aircraft Fuel at the same rate that car drivers pay, flying would not be an economic alternative anyway.

This study is made using a deliberate worst case scenario for the train and a best case for the car. But over 50 miles in a commute to and from London, the results would be easily reversed.

Malcolm Stringer said at January 21, 2005 6:26 AM:

The study from Lancaster concludes that as stand alone vehicles, cars are more efficient than trains.

In response, I question whether we really need a group of highly qualified scientists at Lancaster to prove what is patently obvious, ie that trains are heavier per passenger seat than cars, and that heavier vehicles which travel faster burn more fuel.

Needless to say, they have missed the point completely. The study should have concentrated on the fuel efficiency of travel by public transport vs private car. The conclusion would however been even more obvious, ie that it is many, many times more efficient to utilise vehicles which are already running and have spare capacity, than to create additional parallel journeys for separate vehicles.

Please therefore, do not be misled by the results of this irrelevant theoretical study, and the prejudices of The Daily Telegraph editorial.

Malcolm D Stringer

Daniel Turner said at January 8, 2006 2:41 PM:

This is a good set of comments to an interesting and controversial study: however the other option I can't see the article covering is buses/coaches especially on long haul journeys (National Express/Greyhound). I can't really find a good study that considers train, rail, car, plane AND buses...

The closest I found was this thinkpiece:


which suggests that coaches can be 2 and a half times more efficient than cars.

Anyone have any better information about coach/bus efficiency?

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