Many Canadians are opting to travel across the country on ViaRail passenger trains.

All Aboard the Eco-Train

Our big blue planet isn’t getting any smaller or greener on its own.

And while airlines help to solve the problem of distance, the aviation industry is one of the fastest-growing sources of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

This leads some experts to suggest trains are the future of sustainable transportation, pointing to the highly successful networks of high-speed rail in Europe and Japan as proof.

But ask Canadians what comes to mind when they think of trains, and their response will likely have something to do with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s transcontinental railroad that linked the nation together some 125 years ago.

Our rail infrastructure has fallen well behind the pace set by other parts of the world since then. In fact, given a choice of planes, trains or automobiles for a family of four to get from Vancouver to Toronto, our trains are actually the slowest and most environmentally damaging option.

“A car is more efficient with four people because a car emits less greenhouse gases than a huge train,” says Cherise Burda, transportation director for the Pembina Institute, a non-profit sustainable energy think tank. “Interestingly, the plane is slightly more efficient, too, because flying can take a much more direct route than a train. A plane, on average, travels 25 per cent less distance than the train from Vancouver to Toronto.”

Burda found that a car of average fuel-efficiency carrying four passengers would emit 540 kilograms of greenhouse gas per person round trip, while the number jumps to 1,175 kg on a direct flight and 1,350 kg on a train.

Burda emphasizes that cars are only efficient when at capacity though, and the emissions data from the trip alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

For example, the almost four-day train ride from Vancouver to Toronto could be considered part of the vacation for people who enjoy the sightseeing along the way. Flyers would reach their destination in mere hours, which could mean extra time spent driving around in a rented car at their destination, adding to their vacation’s carbon footprint.

The spectacular views were certainly part of the attraction for Mathew Lee, a 25-year-old corporal in the Canadian Forces Infantry Reserves, when he took advantage of a Via Rail promotion in 2008 for military personnel and rode the train from his hometown of Toronto to Vancouver.

Having never taken a solo trip anywhere – much less a journey across the second-largest country on Earth – Lee was nervous at the outset, but those nerves were calmed by the diverse cross-section of nature he observed along the way.

“The scenery was amazing from start to finish,” he says, recalling countless lakes, rivers, forests and animals he spotted along the way.

But none of it topped his first glimpse of the Rockies.

“What was most memorable to me was seeing a mountain for the first time. I constantly had the urge to run off and climb one – but the urge to jump off a moving train to do so just wasn’t there.”

Carolyn Heller, a Vancouver-based travel writer, agrees taking the train has some intangible benefits not measured in ticket prices or GHG emissions.

“There’s something more sociable about a long train journey,” she says. “I’ve travelled quite a lot by train in China, and I’ve always enjoyed chatting with people on the way. On a plane, it’s more about getting there fast. The train is more about the journey.”

And if hanging out on a train isn’t your idea of a great vacation, there are significant environmental benefits to riding the rails for shorter trips.

Some of the world’s largest airlines have more than doubled their annual passenger numbers since 2005. However, total travel distance peaked in 2008 for most major airlines, and has been declining since, meaning that more people are flying shorter distances – a worst-case scenario for the environment.

Most of a flight’s damage is done during takeoff and the climb to cruising altitude, when planes are burning the most fuel. This process takes up more of the total flight time for a short flight, and cruising altitude will be lower and less fuel-efficient, emitting more GHG per kilometre travelled than long flights.

One-hour flights from Toronto to Ottawa might seem too convenient to pass up, as Via Rail lists the travel time between four and five hours each direction. But considering the added time for getting through airport security and boarding, and the similar plane and train ticket prices for such a trip, the green option might not be such a hassle after all.

Burda found the GHG emissions from a plane on the Toronto-Ottawa route to be more than twice as high as a train’s. And that’s with our old-fashioned diesel-powered trains, which have higher emissions than electric or magnetic-levitation trains used in other countries.

Burda says it’s important to remember that electric vehicles still have to get their power from somewhere, and they won’t be too eco-friendly in areas where most power is generated with fossil fuels. But for hydro power-dominated B.C., electric transportation would be easier on the environment.

“It would really behoove B.C. to push forward with electric vehicles because of the clean power grid,” Burda said. “A lot of B.C.’s emissions are coming from their transportation sector as opposed to their power sector.”

There is an obvious advantage that the Japanese and Europeans have over us when it comes to implementing major high-speed train routes – a larger population to serve with far less ground to cover.

But that hasn’t stopped the Obama Administration and the US High Speed Rail Association from proposing some ambitious high-speed rail projects for the U.S., some of which call for connections to Canada.

“The government can choose to spend more money on highways, which is not the way to go because they will keep filling up, or they can spend the money on a better rail network,” says Burda

But even if we don’t get nationwide high-speed rail any time soon, the truly green thing to do is simply cut back on vacations, and opt for local destinations when the travel bug does bite.

“The more you can travel closer to home, the better. Whether you go by car, train or plane, your carbon footprint by travelling is going to be pretty big.”

And if you do get the urge to get in touch with Canada’s roots and make the cross-country journey by train, do mother nature a favour and enjoy what she has to offer along the way.

“Taking the train across Canada is something I feel every Canadian should try and do at least once in their lifetime,” says Lee.

“It’s worth every penny.”

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