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Getting There: Biden says Amtrak is ‘environmentally, a lifesaver.’ But just how green is rail travel?

In this Sept. 30, 2020 photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden boards his train at Amtrak's Pittsburgh Train Station in Pittsburgh. President Joe Biden is set to help the nation's passenger rail system celebrate 50 years of service.  (Andrew Harnik)
In this Sept. 30, 2020 photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden boards his train at Amtrak's Pittsburgh Train Station in Pittsburgh. President Joe Biden is set to help the nation's passenger rail system celebrate 50 years of service. (Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants Congress to spend $80 billion over eight years to improve and expand service on Amtrak as part of a multitrillion-dollar effort to shore up the nation’s aging infrastructure. That may sound steep, but to America’s most famous rail travel aficionado, it’s a no-brainer.

At an April 30 event in Philadelphia marking Amtrak’s 50th anniversary, an anniversary I’m acknowledging on a cross-country trip by rail from Washington D.C. to Spokane, Biden made the case for keeping the rail network running. Amtrak says it needs $38 billion just to restore the Boston-to-D.C. corridor to a “state of good repair” – not only to create jobs, but as an essential part of the White House’s pledge to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

“This is a bargain of bargains of bargains,” the president said, citing the cost of additional highways if the train network falls further into disrepair. “It’s economical, and it’s, environmentally, a lifesaver.”

“For years, I fought efforts to cut funding for Amtrak because cutting funding for Amtrak would be a disaster for our environment and our economy,” said Biden, who famously made the 90-minute Amtrak trip home to Delaware from the Capitol almost nightly throughout his 36 years in the Senate.

Traveling on the northeast corridor between D.C. and Boston – the train Biden would ride home to Wilmington, Delaware – emits 83% less greenhouse gas than driving and up to 73% less than flying, according to Amtrak’s 2019 sustainability report.

But I’m not riding the high-speed, partly electric-powered Acela train that runs on the northeast corridor – the only significant stretch of rail Amtrak actually owns. (Private freight companies own some 97% of the 21,400 miles of track Amtrak uses across the country.)

On my 60-plus-hour journey to Spokane from the nation’s capital, I’m riding a diesel-powered Amtrak train with a top speed about half of the Acela’s, traveling on 2,659 miles of track mostly owned by freight railroads, and I wanted to know how climate-friendly my choice really was.

As a whole, Amtrak claims its fleet of diesel and electric trains are 46% more energy-efficient than traveling by car and 34% more than domestic air travel, based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

I reached out to Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, to help me understand how the so-called carbon footprint of my trip compares to flying or driving to Spokane. While several carbon calculators are available online, a range of variables makes estimating the environmental impact of a single trip tricky, said Wynes, whose research focuses on how our individual choices affect climate change.

For instance, driving across the country with a friend has roughly half the carbon footprint of making that same trip alone, because the carbon emissions are split between two people. By that same token, flying on a half-empty airplane – or taking up more space in a first-class seat – makes for a bigger individual climate impact per passenger.

Wynes helped me calculate the carbon footprint of my trip based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions data for Amtrak, car emissions data from the Canadian government’s natural resources agency and airline emissions data from the UK government.

We compared the distance my train will travel with the shortest possible driving route from D.C. to Spokane and a direct flight from Reagan National Airport just outside D.C. to Spokane International Airport. Since there are no regular direct flights between any of the three D.C.-area airports and Spokane, the real impact of flying would actually be higher.

Based on my car – a relatively fuel-efficient 2014 Ford Focus – driving would emit more than double the greenhouse gas of taking the train. Flying, even on an imaginary direct flight to Spokane, would emit nearly 60% more greenhouse gas than my Amtrak trip.

While many trains in Europe and Asia use electric power – often from climate-friendly sources – most passenger trains in the U.S. and Canada are diesel-powered. So while my Amtrak trip may have a lower impact on carbon emissions than driving across the country, it could be better.

“Trains are just really efficient ways to move heavy objects around,” Wynes said. “There’s not as much slowing down, stopping and starting as what you would have on highways during rush-hour traffic. So they can still be a really good alternative, but it’s definitely not as clear-cut.”

Another factor, Wynes said, is that while air travel is pretty much stuck with its current level of carbon emissions – the few electric aircraft in development couldn’t replace high-volume jumbo jets – the technology to decarbonize both trains and cars already exists. Indeed, Biden’s infrastructure proposal also calls for ramping up electric car manufacturing and installing more charging stations, along with investing in climate-friendly rail travel.

While I’m sure my cross-country train trip won’t be without its problems – I’ve been told delays are almost inevitable – it will be nice to know I made a climate-friendly choice while watching thousands of miles of countryside pass by outside the window.

Work to watch for

Rock blasting will begin Monday near the intersections of Strong and Indian Trail roads, as well as Wieber Drive and Shawnee Avenue in northwest Spokane.

The westbound Interstate 90 ramp at Grove Road will reopen Thursday after construction as part of Geiger interchange improvements being built by the Washington Department of Transportation. The eastbound on- and off-ramp at Grove is expected to be closed through the Fourth of July weekend.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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