How green are railways?

I am a keen defender of fresh air, a regulator of chimneys, a controller of exhausts, someone who wishes to defend beautiful countryside and great heritage buildings. I dislike fumes, noise and other environmental nuisances. These days being green seems to mean to some just one thing- cutting carbon dioxide emissions. I am quite happy to do that, where it means more fuel effiency, less waste and better methods of making things, heating and travelling.

There is a general view that railways are green whilst all other modes of engine powered travel are not. This is a strange view. Trains need diesel or electric engines to pull them, which in their turn generate emissions including CO2. If we wish to see how much more efficient railways are than cars, buses, coaches, ships, planes and other powered transport, we need to do a proper audit. The figures which result show it all depends. It all depends how the electricity was generated and hwo the double inefficiency of the power station and the electric engine works out. It all depends how new or old the train is, how efficient it is and how many people are on it.

The figures are mainly sensitive to capacity utilisation.Crowded buses and trains do emit less CO2 per passenger mile than single occupant cars or vans. By the same kind of measure fully packed container ships can be more efficient than container trains.

However, in the real world we need to compare journey with journey, looking at the total journey, not just the part of it conducted by train. In practise many train journeys are part of a mixed mode journey. People drive to the station, or go by taxi or bus. They often use other powered transport at the other end. Containers are often taken to the railhead by truck, and may be shifted from the end of the train journey by truck or ship.

When you start to look at actual journeys as opposed to station to station journeys the audit becomes more complex and less favourable to the train. If you factor in poor capacity utilisation in the off peaks that too can reduce or eliminate the lead of the train on emissions per mile travelled.

Maybe we should also factor in the impact of one mode of travel on another. One of the main causes of congestion in the typical town or city in the UK is the shortage of places to cross the railway. This can be exacerbated when the crossing is provided by means of a level crossing rather than a bridge or tunnel.

In Wokingham we have three level crossings to let traffic across the two railway lines serving the town. Under new plans for more train services the level crossing at the station could be blocking cars for 34 minutes in every hour. This will create substantial jams around the town, and in the off peak periods will mean a lightly used train could be holding up many more people in cars.

We need some commonsense. For peak period travel on busy routes trains are clearly superior in terms of emissions of all kinds and should be better for timeliness. This ceases to be true if trains are lightly used, and if the full journey requires considerable fuel burn by other transport modes to get to and from the stations. Tackling congestion is the best green policy we could have. That requires patient work improving junctions, and providing more ways of crossing railway lines – and rivers which have the same impact. The best way to raise the railway’s eco friendliness is to improve routes to and from stations.


  1. Yudansha
    March 21, 2010

    We need patient work improving junctions and road bridges … and then Lord Adonis announces that a sexy new high speed train route is what is needed !

    You're right and also have to factor in empty stock moves. Staff may well take a packed commuter train to an extreme destination but then the the stock needs to be removed to a depot for servicing/cleaning overnight and brought back out in the morning to start the first service. Train crews often book on at 4am in order to get a 6am service started – two hours of movement before a passenger has set foot on board.

    There is also the penalty system which operates on the railway. Delay costs are charged between companies and there are costly penalties for lateness. Empty trains – having fewer complicating factors – are the most punctual and so companies are keen to run them. There are also tax charges for being too efficient – I'm sure it's an unintended consequence, but if a particular train becomes too profitable it gets taxed more (or so I am told by reliable sources.) This explains why popular trains are shortened for no apparent reason.

    1. Yudansha
      March 21, 2010

      "Empty trains – having fewer complicating factors – are the most punctual and so companies are keen to run them."

      This is because the overall punctuality figures improve and look good on the audits.

  2. awhirr
    March 21, 2010

    There is a clear dilemma in British transport. On the one hand everyone wants to be able to travel easily and cheaply as much as they want. On the other hand no one wants railways / bus stops / road building in their neighbourhood. In many places (Wokingham town centre is a good example) providing the necessary transport infrastructure would require significant expenditure and could not be justified in benefit / cost terms.

    Travel congestion cannot be improved by tweaking junctions and building a few bridges. The minimal increase in capacity would immediately lead to additional journeys and congestion at another point in our already overstretched network. You either convince people to change their travel habits (peak spreading, mode shift, reduce travel) or learn to love the congestion.

    1. alan jutson
      March 22, 2010


      The problem with Wokingham is that there is not many alternative routes to circumvent the town.

      The level crossing at the Station already backs up traffic into the Town which will be even worse if more trains run.

      Coming into Town from the South -North we have the low bridges at Tesco on the Finchampstead road, the level crossing at Barkham road,

      From East-West we have the one way system through the Town which is blocked when traffic builds up at the level crossing.

      The only escape North is the A321 but as I anderstand it, another 2,500 houses are being planned for this area (so another 3-4,000 cars will log jam this route).

      When the M4 was being constructed we actually had a feed from the M4 into town via the A321 to the North. Time to build a link to the A329M so that traffic can be taken away on this route, also time to think of a southern route to bypass the Town.

      Do not think it practicle to modify the existing level crossing, (unless you demolish some houses by widening barkham road) as traffic going North is jammed at the mini roundabout anyway outside the Council Offices (junction A329) although there was talk at one stage of moving the railway station further away from the Town, and the feeder road to it.

  3. Alan Wheatley
    March 21, 2010

    As someone who in the past has crossed the railway in Wokingham on many occasions I feel your pain!!!! I agree with all the points you make. I could add many practical examples to reinforce them.

    Because we can travel we tend to do so, and the easier it is the more we take advantage: John Prescott proved that point when his policies increased bus travel, but there was no corresponding reduction in car use, a point he is happy to avoid. On past evidence the better the train service the more it will be used with no reciprocal reduction in other modes of travel.

    Alongside all that we should also bear in mind that the "greenest" journey is the one you do not make at all. I have just been to a conference organised by Herefordshire Council on "Superfast Broadband" where all the delegates were as one as to the advantages it will bring, if only we can get it. This is a mode of transport (of data) that will reduce the number of physical journeys.

    This is a green investment. It will give a much better return than high speed rail, and it will do so at a lower cost, much more quicker and without a protesting NIMBY in sight.

    1. APL
      March 21, 2010

      Alan Wheatley: "This is a mode of transport (of data) that will reduce the number of physical journeys."

      Even a 'virtual meeting' is not really very green. Suppose your video conference takes one hour per day, that means like the rail system the infrastructure – the internet, data centres and PCs are all idle for the remaining 23 hours.

      It's not just the PC you see on the desk either. The telecom company maintains the data link, the server farm must have 100% uptime, and there will be a redundant site probably too. All that for just one meeting taking one hour.

      Don't mistake my point, I am not against 'superfast broadband' but we should understand that simply because a thing is not obvious – in this case the energy expense of running a sophisticated data network – doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

      1. Alan Wheatley
        March 22, 2010

        Digital equipment, from PC to Internet, is multi functional, so can be used full time. If idle, there are various power saving modes, and the techniques for doing so are improving, because there is a financial incentive for so doing.

        I accept that participation in a video conference does use some energy, but in many cases it will be dramatically less than physical attendance. This, to my mind, makes it "green".

  4. Jamie mccaffery
    March 21, 2010

    Not only that, the ballast is full of oil and other hydro carbons, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, cyanide, asbestos and sewage among other things, all needs cleaning and/or renewed.
    The oil and sewage etc, clog the drainage so all new oil/sewage etc spills, leech into surrounding groundwater, and sssi's (Sites of special scientific interest) and can contaminate drinking water, kill flora and fauna, and ruin the scientific sites. because of the revenue the current government gets from the railways, nothing has been done about the environmental impact that is caused from new and historical spillages and contamination.
    I have devised a cleaning process that can clean and renew if needed the ballast at contaminated stations, depots, and halt points along the railway infrastructure. It is cost efficient and will reduce contaminants in these areas by up to 60 – 100%.
    This level of contamination has been ignored by labour environment gurus if you want to call them that for too long and the areas need cleaning before the local areas get contaminated beyond control.

  5. no one
    March 21, 2010

    level crossings should be replaced by bridges or tunnels

    they wanted to get rid of a level crossing in Coventry so they just shut that road down, not the way to do it, anti car madness gone to extremes

    im always amazed the numbers of kids playing on the train lines around Wokingham, dont the British Transport Police do the scary stories in the schools like they did in my day?

  6. Rob
    March 21, 2010

    Certainly there are massive differences in efficiency of trains on some lines, in some areas, because of the need to commute at certain peak hours, leaving off peak loads very modest.

    Another option would be to stagger working hours. This should be a good deal easier with internet technology which means at least some work could be done remotely.

    That said, its often claimed the internet is green, whereas in fact it's environmental impact is equivalent to the aviation industry and is set to generate 20% of the world's GHG impact.

    Taking out level crossings is an excellent idea, and would save much congestion, remove the greatest risk of train accidents and save the railway companies substantial operating costs in the longer term – there is a good deal of staff, equipment and man hours tied up with them.

  7. George Boyle
    March 21, 2010

    If Jamie McCaffery applied his undoubted skills to the pollution caused by road vehicles, which is deposited within a few feet of where I and my children are legally allowed to walk and breathe, I think he would do far more for the health of the nation.

  8. Jim
    March 21, 2010

    Dont forget the CO2 emissions in building the railway. Mile for mile constructing a railway is probably comparable in CO2 produced to a motorway. And a motorway will have traffic constantly for up to 18 hours a day, whereas a railway has trains every few minutes at best, often tens of minutes, even hours on little used lines. So the CO2 emitted per passenger from construction would be massively higher for railways.

    Then there's maintainance – railways require much higher standards of repair, as the consequences of any deterioration in the track is fatal. So more energy will be used there too.

    I reckon the entire UK rail network should be converted to a dedicated lorry/bus/coach road system. Remove massive amounts of freight from motorways, allow freight to get right into city centres without causing congestion.

    1. Rob
      March 22, 2010

      Unfortunately this is a complete myth, unless it can be demonstrated with figures. Indeed, looking at the NR figures for maintenance the cost is actually lower per mile.

      A train carrying 500-1000 people every few minutes is equivalent to cars on A road for 30 minute to 1 hour. A freight train removes 50-100 trucks.

      The WCML fast lines carry about 5,000 people per hour, which is equivalent to 3 lanes of the M1 in practice. HS2 would carry even more.

      On many commuter lines 30,000 pph are carried, 15 times the volume of a motorway lane.

      I'm really rather puzzled why anyone wants more roads when 96% of the surface transport network is road. Trains have about the same passenger KMs as buses and coaches but the latter have 96% of the transport network and can already get right into the city centres.

  9. […] How green are railways? | John Redwood […]

  10. Martyn
    March 21, 2010

    I once had to travel to work in London by train from Didcot to Paddington. Quick, easy and if one chose the right train not too crowded.

    But it often occurred to me on seeing off-peak trains hauling 3 almost empty 1st class carriages (perhaps 3-5 people in each) over hundreds or maybe thousands of miles every day must represent a huge waste of energy and generation of pollution – especially with the diesel-electric trains.

    Is there not a case for having only one 1st-class carraige per train at off-peak times? Or would the energy and staff costs needed to disconnect the 1st-class carriages during off-peak times and reconnect them when needed actually require more energy and staff costs than expended in hauling them almost empty around the country? Has anyone done the sums?

  11. Bardirect
    March 21, 2010

    Anyone been similarly held up by the raising of Tower Bridge for pleasure craft who sell and profit from the spectacle but still pay nothing for it whilst this busiest of crossings grinds to a halt backing traffic up to the Old Kent Road in the South and Aldgate to the North?

  12. Acorn
    March 21, 2010

    There is a good article from the IEA on the subject at:-

    If you are an energy number cruncher, there is the excellent Energy Trends from DECC / NSO at:-

  13. Neil Craig
    March 21, 2010

    We have a pretty good way of measuring efficiency, at least in terms of things we are short of. It is called "money" & repeatedly we find the thing that uses least inputs is "cheaper". The "Greens" who aren't remotley interested in the actual environment. are merely desperate to find any other way of arguing for the Luddism they actually want & therefore invent ever more exotic methods of calculating "efficiency" in ways that fit their agenda.

    The fact is that because railways are (A) an old technology & (B) a technology not suited to individs but to mass movement they are idealogically attached to them. The fact that real trains probably use up more of the "Earth's resources" & produce more pollution per passenger mile is wholly irrelevent to their eco-fascist agenda.

  14. ManicBeancounter
    March 21, 2010

    A proper audit would be advisable to put this in context. One thing that may be found is that high speed rail may be more environmentally unfreindly than the current situation.
    CO2 Savings would be from
    – transferring people from empty cars to full trains
    – transferring people from full planes to full trains.
    CO2 Increases would be from transferrance from current electric to high speed electric. The reason is that power requirements rise disproportionately with speed. You can see it with cars. For instance the least powerful petrol Ford Mondeo gives a top speed of 118mph from 108hp. The most powerful a top speed of 152mph from 236hp. In otherwords, a 120% increase in power gives 30% more speed.
    The question of more public transport needs to be put in a proper context as well. People value their time and comfort. Travelling by car on a long journey is quicker than walking, taking a bus, then a train, then a bus, then walking. Further, waiting in a warm car is better than waiting at a bus stop in the driving rain. This is why I thought the Manchester congestion charge would be a flop if implemented. Even the best, most frequent public transport would add to journey time and eat into leisure time. For this reason people would economise on other things to afford the conjestion charge. The only way to make the congestion charge effective would be to make car travel unaffordable for a large section of the working population.

    1. APL
      March 22, 2010

      ManicBeancounter: "CO2 Savings would be from"

      Why are you concerned about production of a beneficial gas? Plants eat the stuff for breakfast, dinner and tea!

      Unless as a proxy for measuring consumption of energy. If so, then there are plenty of perfectly useful measures of energy avaliable to frame the discussion correctly.

      1. ManicBeancounter
        March 22, 2010

        APL – you may be unaware, but a lot of scientific experts beleive that excess anthropgenic CO2 production may be causing unprecedented global warming, with destablizing consequences for the weather. In theory this may be true, though an objective analysis of the empirical evidence would conclude that any predicted noticeable change resulting would be classed as circumstantial or hearsay in a court of law.
        However, given that the majority of policy-makers believe that the evidence is compelling (with plenty of scientists of various deciplines refering to other, unspecified, sceintific experts to back this up), then any attempt to influence policy decisions should utilize that arguement. Especially as the current party of policy makers will find environmental arguements more compelling than financial ones.

        1. APL
          March 22, 2010

          ManicBeancounter: "..experts beleive that.."

          The significant word there is 'believe'. There is no evidence.

          ManicBeancounter: "..makers will find environmental arguements more compelling than financial ones."

          Well, that is your opinion. Mine is that assertions that 'Carbon' by which they invariably mean Carbon dioxide is dangerous or 'Carbon', the chemistry of which incidentally forms the basis of the majority of organic life, is a pollutant should be ridiculed at every opportunity.

          We need to confront and demolish the arguments of the enemy not give credence to them by pretending they are credible.

          It's my opinion that the Tory party has reached its current sorry state because none of the senior members of the party were prepared to confront the Socialist claptrap that has become the mainstream staple. Tories where they can be identified as such are too timid. In fact the party has largely embraced the Green claptrap.

  15. Peter Marshall
    March 21, 2010

    Commenting Oklahoma, US:
    The ballast is polluted, but how much of the same pollution is washed of the roads annually?

    RR crossings are a concern, here in the US due to distances there are few overpasses or guarded crossing in the majority of the country. It's hear and be careful.

    Towns grow along travel routes, be they water ways, trails , roads or railroads. so what is the total impact on the environment to build and maintain roads? Cement, re-bars, gravel for foundations has to be hauled in and surplus dirt hauled of. Old paving material has to be disposed of, generally not recycled.

  16. S Matthews
    March 21, 2010

    There was a study on this. IIRC the train came out quite badly, the conclusion was that it was greener to drive if two people were transported. With the latest fuel efficient cars it may be down to just the driver alone would be competitive in the green stakes with the train. From memory, the poor performance of the modern train was attributed to its huge weight coupled to starting and stopping the thing at stations.

  17. S Matthews
    March 21, 2010


    The graph on page 5 is particularly illuminating.

  18. Lola
    March 21, 2010

    Railways also have massive carbon costs in the plant and equipment. Trains are very fault intolerant of the permanent way, unlike motor vehicles which are very fualt tolerant of the road surface/condition. The building and the upkeep of railways is a large emitter of carbon. Greenies never seem to admit this.

    1. Rob
      March 22, 2010

      Not the case at all. Most our our main lines have track 30-40 years old, and branch lines have track up to 90 years old.

      When they ripped the Skegness line up recently most of the track was the 1940s, with the newest bit from the 1960s. It 'appears' that railway need more maintenance because thanks to far stricter H&S policy than roads, you have to close lines when you take the track up – unlike years ago there are few diversionary routes and single line working is banned.

      It is also far older, with many earthworks and bridges dating from the Victorian period, whereas most of the trunk road network is less than 40 years old.

      Even a brand new line, over 40 years, would only add 10-20% per pass km of GHG.

      1. Lola
        March 23, 2010

        Whoa Whoa. I agree that a lot of the infrastructure is aged but still in use. But my point about fault intolerance still stands – whatever the HSE regime demands. New lines like the CTRL and the whole HSL to Brussels have huge new infrastructures that will have involved a lot of GHG. It seems as though not a lot of work has been done on the comparative 'whole system' GHG 'costs' of rail v road, as far as I can find out.

        1. Rob
          March 23, 2010

          There is some work, but it's early stages. Eurostar gave evidence at a recent transport select inquiry meeting that the addition embedded GHG amounts to an extra 10-20% per pass km over 40 years – clearly the railway would last longer than that.

          There is also some work by Network Rail

          I believe SNCF are carrying out some more work.

          Most of the costs of running public transport networks are staff, not energy consumption. Track maintenance is very small energy consumer.

        2. Lola
          March 24, 2010

          The 10% to 25% bit is interesting. That's roughly the proportion of GHG produced in the manufature of a motor vehicle.

          I am just not convinced that rail is inherently more 'green' – based on the notion that the energy to take a tonne of stuff from A to B is roughly constant (relative to speed) whatever way you do it.

  19. martin
    March 21, 2010

    Most people want good roads and train services for their neck of the woods.

    With the level crossing being used for trains half the time it is probably time to bite the bullet and get some sort of underpass or flyover built. Alternatively put the railway in a trench with level bridges over it.. Wokingham station is getting a bit small for its peak use and could do with extra space.

    As for the CO2 business I guess you are asking for more nuclear stations. Not a bad solution. Just a get a decent deep burial facility for waste.

    I reckon a third runway at LHR will reduce pollution as aircraft will not be stuck in that ghastly traffic jam waiting to use the take off runway or stacked over whereever waiting to land.

  20. BillyB
    March 21, 2010

    The single most useful thing you can do to cut travel waste is to live nearer to where you work.

    1. alan jutson
      March 22, 2010

      Billy B

      An excellent solution, which many people undertook in years gone by, when they either walked to work (as i did for 8 years) or cycled.

      Unfortunately redundancy, and the re-location of many businesses away from Towns has made journey times longer for many.

      The cost of housing has also had a bearing, as people very often cannot afford to purchase their first house, near to where their parents live, or the old family home.

  21. English Pensioner
    March 22, 2010

    The problem with railways is that they go town centre to town centre which is not required by most travellers. Businesses are frequently on new factory estates on the edge of towns and transport is needed on arrival. If one has to use a taxi to get to one'sactual destination,this must be included in the overall "green" assessment of the journey.
    The old G.W.R. recognised this by building branch lines, which in themselves were unprofitable, but brought in the custom. Dr Beeching failed to recognise this, and closed them!
    There is also the matter of how many people travel in a car. The Greens like to assume that there is only the driver as it helps their argument, but it's certainly not in our case. And of course the journey, once you have decided to own a car, costs far less than the railway, particularly when there are two in the car.

    1. Rob
      March 22, 2010

      You got it the wrong way about. The problem with the car is is encourages urban sprawl, out of town shopping, and long journeys, not smart growth – walkable, dense, development, where energy use is far less overall.

      Cars also cost on average £6,000pa and around 40p-£1 per mile. They are only cheaper when they are fully loaded.

      1. S Matthews
        March 22, 2010

        That figure of an average of £6,000pa looks a bit high to me. Do you have a source? An awful lot of people couldnt afford that, but still drive cars.
        The cost per mile is misleading. It includes all the fixed costs as well, which once you have a car are there whether the car is used for a trip or not. Anyone buying second-hand, after the initial big depreciation period, will pay far less than that.

        1. Rob
          March 22, 2010

          The average cost is published by the RAC, AA and other motoring groups every year.

  22. Lindsay McDougall
    March 23, 2010

    If anyone wants to follow this up and see some detail, he/she should Google 'Paul F Withrington' or 'WCML Public Inquiry'. It is then not difficult to find Mr Withrington's closing statement of December 2001 in support of his 'Objection to Railtrack (West Coast Main Line) Order'. It's worth a read.

    Mr Withrington is a retired engineer and a founder member of the Railway Conversion movement. Its (his) policy is to take out all of the UK's railways and use the right-of-way to install additional road capacity. In order to meet the objection to too many cars converging on London and other cities in the rush hour, he proposes that these new roads should be subject to congestion charging (a bit like the Singapore system).

    I was present at this public inquiry doing calculations on freight issues, in support of the main Railtrack witness, who was the transport division head of the consultancy I worked for then. So he and Mr Withrington were in opposition.

    The old boy did not prevail but to some extent he gave as good as he got. This was the additional WCML enhancement, whose costs escalated. As I recollect it, it was abandoned when Virgin Trains withdrew their offer to assist in funding it.

  23. Aion Power Leveling
    May 6, 2010

    googd thanks a lot,this is very useful!!

  24. cheap ghd
    May 7, 2010

    For this reason people would economise on other things to afford the conjestion charge. The only way to make the congestion charge effective would be to make car travel unaffordable for a large section of the working population.

  25. Dofus Kamas
    May 8, 2010

    thanks !! very helpful post!

  26. Train tickets
    May 18, 2010

    I think trains are more environmentally freindly in a coomuter sense. If everyone who travelled to work by train started to drive instead it was be horrendous. Well, it just wouldln't be possible. And then there would be the effects of the environment to consider. People may drive to and from the station but it's much better than going to whole journey.


  27. Travelling from Ebbs
    May 24, 2010

    I agree all travel is expensive, and cycling or walking is probably the best option in terms of being absoloutley eco friendly. other than that, you'll always have some form of carbon footprint.


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