9.11 Transportation: Intercity Transport-Trains

Author: Laura Chan-Sing 

ABSTRACT: Intercity rail are express passenger train services with fewer stops that cover longer distances compared to commuter trains with distances ranging from 50-1,000+ km, travelling at speeds up to 300 km/h, varying from country to country. Examples include the VIA Rail system in Canada, and the Eurocity and Eurostar in many countries across Europe. Railway travel has been regarded as the most eco-friendly mode of vehicular travel in comparison to road or air transport.

(Retrieved from UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS))


Intercity trains account for lower levels of carbon compared to other modes of transportation but still acts as a contributor to climate change due to their usage of diesel engines which exert a significant amount of exhaust emissions including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOₓ), sulfur oxide (SOₓ), particulate matter (PM), and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

            A study conducted by the BBC revealed the steep difference in emissions between aviation and railway through measuring the emissions per passenger of a trip from London to Madrid which is approximately 1,262.61 km. The findings indicated that travelling via plane produced 265 kg of carbon per passenger (118kg accounting for primary emissions and 147kg of secondary effects), while railway contrastingly released 43 kg of carbon per passenger (BBC, 2019). The detrimental effects of aviation lie within their internal combustion engines and the high altitude in which they release their emissions. To further substantiate the difference in carbon between the two, globally, railway accounts 0.3% of CO2 emissions while aviation accounts for 2% (Timperley, 2019). 

           Despite railway travel being a significantly less carbon intensive mode of transportation, the main issue subsists in their engines. Diesel engines burn diesel fuel, composed of crude oil and biomass, and release higher amounts of waste, heat, and noise compared to their electric counterparts. Electric engines are both lighter in weight and build, more efficient speed and cost-wise, operate on renewable energy, and emit 20-30% less carbon than their diesel predecessors (Nunno, 2018). Rail will continue to have many opportunities to reduce their emissions in the future due to electrification, the ongoing effort of replacing outdated technologies that use fossil fuels with those that use electricity (Cleary, 2019). Electrified trains do not have conventional engines and draw power from an external source which is typically supplied through an overhead cable or a third rail (StudyElectrical, 2020). A statistical analysis conducted by The Office of Rail and Road concluded that despite there being an increase in both electric and diesel usage in 2019-2020, C02 emissions per passenger km were 4.1% lower compared to 2018-2019 (Office of Rail and Road, 2020). Although 476 million litres of diesel were consumed, an increase of 1.5% compared to 2018-19, only 1,313 KTonnes CO2e emissions were emitted, which was a decrease of 5.8% compared to 2018-2019 (Office of Rail and Road, 2020).

            Tailpipe emissions have lessened significantly in the last 15 years and are projected to continue to decline within the coming years (Kageson, 2009) as intercity train companies, such as Canada’s VIA Rail, have implemented refurbishment and replacement programs that modernizes their mechanical systems, making for more sustainable travel that will “[reduce] particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 85-95% “(VIA Rail, 2019). The switch from diesel to electric is revealed to produce 20-35% less carbon per passenger mile and as the decarbonization of electricity generation continues to advance, the percentage is due to increase (Hickman, 2012). As of 2019, three-quarters of all passenger trains have been converted to electric instead of diesel, with countries such as Korea, Japan, Europe, China, and Russia having 60-80%+ electrified railways (Timperley, 2019). With rail being the most electrified sector in transportation, the future of less carbon intensive travel lies within the development and modernization of intercity trains.


BBC. (2019, August 24). Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? BBC News. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566 

Cleary, K. (2019). Electrification 101. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.rff.org/publications/explainers/electrification-101/ 

Hickman, L. (2012, July 16). How green are electric trains? Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2012/jul/16/electric-trains-diesel-green-carbon 

How Electric Locomotives work? (2020, May 3). Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://studyelectrical.com/2014/05/how-electric-locomotives-work.html 

Kageson, P. (2009). Environmental Aspects of Inter-City Passenger Transport. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.itf-oecd.org/sites/default/files/docs/dp200928.pdf 

Nunno, R. (2018, May 30). Electrification of U.S. railways: Pie in the sky, or realistic goal? Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.eesi.org/articles/view/electrification-of-u.s.-railways-pie-in-the-sky-or-realistic-goal 

Rail emissions 2019-20 – Orr Data Portal. (2020, November 5). Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://dataportal.orr.gov.uk/media/1843/rail-emissions-2019-20.pdf 

Sustainability Report 2019 . (2019). Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://media.viarail.ca/sites/default/files/publications/2019_Sustainability_Report_EN.pdf 

Timperley, J. (2019, February 20). How ‘aggressive’ railway expansion could cut emissions in eight charts. Carbon Brief. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.carbonbrief.org/eight-charts-show-how-aggressive-railway-expansion-could-cut-emissions 


Laura Chan-Sing is in her third year of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University. She’s an aspiring graphic designer and illustrator with an interest in accessible and sustainable design.

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