Dear Umbra,

I work in the touring music business, based in the U.K. but touring worldwide. I have noticed recently that the record companies are booking cheap flights for short distances, e.g., London-Manchester, about 200 miles. Over such short distances, there is no saving in time, due to travel to and from airport, checking in, etc. Trains would be quicker, but unfortunately in the U.K., trains are more expensive. I would like to speak with these companies about their continued use of flights where inappropriate but would like to be able to present facts and figures to bolster the argument. Can you help?

Helen G.
London, England

Dearest Helen,

Isn’t there an opportunity for bands to recover the difference in ticket costs by busking in the train aisles? More seriously, I wonder if you could make economic arguments for train travel based on the expense of travel to and from airports. I leave the economics to you. Meanwhile, I found some lovely European transport emissions studies for you to pass around. Your clients will fall asleep reading them, and you can sneakily change the plane reservations while they catch a kip.

Rockin’ in the rail world.

Compared to both regular old trains and high-speed rail — compared to anything, really — airplanes are a terrible way to travel. Planes are a hassle, with bad air, few views, cramped seats, and high greenhouse-gas emissions. For some travel, such as transoceanic or cross-American, planes are the only feasible option unless one has oodles of time. An average round-trip transatlantic flight will add three to four tons of carbon to each passenger’s personal footprint, though, so consider carefully before flying.

Short-distance plane flights, such as Helen mentions, are considered worse than long-haul flights. Firstly, they are unnecessary, as other less-polluting transport modes exist that can cover the same distance. Secondly, the takeoff and landing of a flight expend the highest energy, burn the most fuel, and contribute the bulk of pollution. Short flights are largely takeoff and landing, so they are more polluting per passenger mile than medium and long-haul flights.

And much worse than all other forms of transport. The European Federation for Transport and Environment and Climate Action Network Europe find that no matter how you slice it, planes have an adverse climate impact two to ten times that of trains. Their study, “Clearing the Air: The Myth and Reality of Aviation and Climate Change,” approaches each “planes aren’t so bad” argument with refuting data. It’s clearly written and worth looking over [PDF]. One interesting aspect of the study for Helen’s purposes is the comparison, on page 9, of emissions from trains and planes (and cars and buses) per euro spent on an 800-kilometer journey. Planes are again much worse than all other vehicles.

Sometimes when one is arguing, though, one needs more solid numbers. “Clearing the Air” gives comparative numbers; if you need the original values and would care to calculate train/plane emissions numbers for specific travels, their source was “To Shift or Not to Shift” by CE Delft (look under Publications/2003). Both reports used a wide array of factors to attempt accurate averages. I think you wouldn’t want to do all that math, even if it meant utter accuracy, so let’s find some basic emissions factors for short flights and inter-city train, from the U.K. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

For a passenger on national rail, multiply the kilometers traveled by 0.0602 and you’ll have the kilograms of CO2 emitted. For a passenger on a domestic flight, multiply the kilometers traveled by 0.1580 and then again by a 109 percent “uplift factor” (allowing for travel along the curve of the Earth rather than in a straight line, and circling before landing). Keep in mind that these aviation numbers will not include radiative forcing, the additional high-altitude impact of airplane emissions, which might treble the results for planes. DEFRA doesn’t include them, but you probably should (they argue that radiative forcing science is uncertain, which to my view means we should assume the worst) — so multiply the plane result by three, a rounded up scientific estimate of radiative forcing factors.

There we have it. The basic argument: Planes are far worse than trains (and their role in climate change is currently a hot topic in Europe). Stun them with as many numbers as you please, and best of luck.

Radiatively,
Umbra