What's Really Better for the Environment; Rail or Car?

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Swapping a car for a train, even for part of a journey, is usually better for environment says Car Hire Market.

Swapping your car for a train, even for part of your journey, is usually better for environment

Using trains instead of cars where possible (even only for part of the journey) will typically lower the overall greenhouse emissions, according to a recent investigation commissioned by carhiremarket.com.

Although public perception usually points to public transport as better for the environment than using private cars, a recent US academic study showed that the standard method of measuring emissions was misleading, since it was limited to whatever comes out of a given vehicle's exhaust pipe, and didn't include overall greenhouse gases produced by each public transport method's life-cycle and infrastructure. Once these latter figures were added, emissions for rail transport more than doubled.

Nonetheless, train travel still came out better for the environment than road travel - but trains don't go everywhere you need them to. So how does a combined train-plus-car journey measure up against making the whole trip by car?

Based on British Department for Transport figures and factoring in the American findings, overall journey emissions per traveller are still lower, on average, when using a car at either end of a train trip, than when making the whole journey by car:

In 2009, UK car, light van and taxi emissions counted for 15% of the UK's CO2 output, with rail coming in at 0.37%1. The American study (carried out in the same year) added an extra 63% CO2 emissions to road journeys, and 155% to rail. With this factored in, the car/taxi/van CO2 contribution jumps to 24.9%, with rail still under 1% at 0.96%.

Brits travelled a total of 680 billion kilometres by car, taxi or van in 2009, while they only travelled 61 billion kilometres by rail. That still works out as less than half the overall CO2 per passenger, per kilometre on train journeys in 2009, compared to passengers on the road - even when factoring in the American "total infrastructure" study.

Rail v. car

However, although rail wins from an environmental perspective, cars clearly remain more popular. There are dozens of reasons for this, from convenience to plain availability, with many journeys simply not possible by rail.

An acceptable compromise might be to take the train where possible, and use a hire car to fill in the detail at either end.

An investigation carried out by the UK Transport Research Laboratory indicated that hire car fleets tend to be more environmentally friendly than the average UK car. They're more likely to be new, with typically 12% lower exhaust CO2 emissions compared to cars UK-wide, and lower levels of other local pollutants, too. Compared to privately owned cars, they tend to be used more efficiently - hired out 70-80% of the time, and often with more passengers in them, reducing that emissions/passenger/kilometre ratio.

Comparison of the two methods - car only, and rail+car - using a typical domestic UK journey; London Paddington to the touristic Cotswolds town of Broadway, with four passengers.

Unable to get there directly by train. If wanting to use public transport at all, travel by train to Moreton-in-Marsh, and then use a car to finish the trip - bus services are scanty out here.

By car alone, using the AA Routefinder, that's 144.7km. The rail journey to Moreton is 147km, plus 15.4km once in the car. But even though the rail+hire journey is longer in total, it still emits less CO2 - whether factoring in the American study or not, and without taking traffic jams into consideration. There's a car hire company on Moreton high street, so the vehicle would not need to be delivered.

This research is, it must be admitted, and not a peer reviewed scientific paper. These calculations have been made using data reported by the UK Department for Transport and the UK Transport Research Laboratory. However, they certainly point to a viable eco-friendly compromise that's well worth considering.

1. Full report with references and sources on http://www.carhiremarket.com/news/What-s-really-better-for-the-environment-rail-or-car_991.aspx

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Andrew Shorrock
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