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Obviously train or bus transportation won’t work to get to destinations on the other side of an ocean, and may not be practical for other long-distance travel. But if you’re considering a commuter flight within a region, a train or long-distance bus (most commonly known as motor coaches or intercity buses) is an environmentally friendly alternative. In fact, taking the train or bus reduces your carbon footprint three to seven times over flying.[1]

Find it! Passenger trains and intercity buses

Tried and true motor coach and passenger train services are available throughout North America, making sustainable travel close to home affordable and pain-free.

But won't the train take longer?

Technically, the Acela takes longer to reach its destination than a plane. For example, a passenger traveling from Boston to New York City, will arrive in three and a half hours. A plane takes less than half the time. (A bus would take about four and a half hours.) But, when you factor in the typical delays associated with air travel, such as rush-hour congestion getting to the airport, security delays, weather delays, and car rental delays, the time difference may become insignificant. Also, consider that train passengers can often disembark in a central downtown location, minimizing or eliminating the need for ground transportation. In general, high-speed train travelers, experience shorter and predictable travel times, plus greater convenience, on trips less than 500 to 600 miles.

Traveling by train or bus helps you go green because...

  • Train and bus transportation require less energy to operate per passenger mile than air travel.
  • Less energy use results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming.

In the US, transportation is responsible for approximately 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.[2] Traveling by train or bus creates fewer emissions per passenger than traveling alone in a car. Air travel, on the other hand, possesses energy intensity (the amount of energy used to transport one passenger 1 mile) similar to car travel.[3]

It is difficult to accurately compare energy use (and greenhouse gas emissions) between different modes of transportation. Compensating for differences in routes, passenger counts, and fuel efficiencies within and between each transportation model is just one of the challenges. For example, trains can be powered by either diesel or electricity. Intercity buses, which are designed for highway travel and get better gas mileage than transit buses, can be fueled by a blend of ultra-low sulfur or biodiesel fuel. And airlines with eco-friendly policies flying newer, more fuel-efficient fleets have a much lower impact than airlines operating with older planes.

A few organizations have attempted comparisons between trains, buses, and planes have come up with slightly different results. For example, Amtrak, which operates train service across the US, notes that the carbon emissions per passenger mile when traveling by plane is .48 kg compared to only .21 kg when traveling by train.[4] A report commissioned by the American Bus Association says motor coaches produce the least—just .056 kg of carbon emissions per passenger mile.[5]

In Europe, where train and bus travel are more prevalent than in the US, the Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe notes that bus and train travel are less environmentally damaging than air travel, especially for short distances. Planes use more fuel for landing and take-off than they do at cruising speeds, so on shorter flights the fuel burned per passenger mile is greater than for longer flights. In fact, over short distances, buses are twice as energy-efficient, and trains three times more energy-efficient than air travel.[6]

In the US, the Acela Express, operated by Amtrak along the Northeast corridor, is a viable substitute for the estimated 10,000 daily air or train passengers. In California, the California High Speed Rail Authority proposes a system that will connect San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego with trains traveling at 220 mph. Other states and regions including Florida, New York, the Southeast, and Midwest are also considering high-speed rail.

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