Transportation Compared: Energy Use & Environmental Impact of Cars, Planes, and Trains



The leaves have turned, the temperature has dropped, and the stores are about to close — Thanksgiving is officially here. There’s a sumptuous celebratory feast planned 1,000 miles away in New York City, and all you have to do is show up. You have the option of taking your roommate’s 2003 Honda Civic, the series of connecting trains through Amtrak, or getting on a one-way plane trip at the St. Louis airport. But what is the most environmentally friendly way to get there? How much fuel will each method of transport consume, and how much worse off will the earth be after you’ve finally arrived at your friend’s place in Manhattan? We decided to find out.

Energy & Environmental Impact of Car

With an average fuel efficiency of 25 miles per gallon in the city and 34 miles per gallon on the highway, your roommate’s automatic transmission 2003 Honda Civic gets a decent combined average gas mileage of 29 miles per gallon. If you take major interstates, there are a total of 953 miles from your apartment in St. Louis to your friend’s place on 24th street in the neighborhood of Chelsea in Manhattan. Of course, there are also a few toll roads.

You’re looking at a minimum fuel requirement of 32.86 gallons. Since the fuel tank has a capacity of 13.2 gallons, that’s equivalent to about 2 ½ full tanks of gas. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a passenger car uses on average about 3,501 British thermal units per passenger mile. That would be a total of 3,336,453 Btu’s for the trip.

Of course, gas isn’t your only cost. If you observe state speed limits, it will take you just under 17 hours to drive the distance. Most long-haul truckers are only allowed to drive for 8 hours at a time, so it’s probably a good idea to break up the drive over two days. This means you will need a place to stay, such as a hotel room.

A hotel room will require additional energy resources including electricity, heat, and water for showers. The average showerhead produces 2.5 gallons of water a minute, so a 10-minute shower requires about 25 gallons of water. After a solid day on the road, you’ll probably need a good shower. Generally, sustainable hotels with between 100 to 500 rooms use 60 to 350 kilowatts an hour thanks to centralized heating and power delivery systems. If the hotel has 100 rooms, you will be using about 0.6 kilowatts during your stay.

Once you do arrive in Chelsea, you’ll have to figure out a place to park the car. Parking in Manhattan is not cheap. While your friend has an incredible new loft with a view, he doesn’t have his own parking garage. You should add another $30 a day for parking expenses, plus the environmental cost of electricity, heating, and water for the facility that ends up storing your car.

Total Fuel Required: 32.86 gallons of unleaded 87-octane gas
Other Environmental Impact (Electricity, Water, Etc.): 25 gallons of water for hotel shower; 0.6 kilowatts for the hotel room, 3,336,453 Btus for the car trip.
Total Dollar Cost: $243.30 + parking expenses

Energy & Environmental Impact of Passenger Train

It’s possible to get to New York City from St. Louis via Amtrak by taking two different trains: the 322 Texas Eagle from St. Louis to Chicago, and then the 50 Cardinal from Chicago to Penn Station. The first train takes about 6 hours; the second train takes a little over 27 hours. Most Amtrak trains are powered either by an electric locomotive or a diesel locomotive. The diesel locomotives use ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel, which has a total of 15 parts per million of sulfur. According to the Bureau of Transportation Services, the average Btu use is 1,742 per passenger mile, which would make a 1,000 mile journey work out to a total of 1,742,000 Btus per passenger.

If we base our calculations on the assumption that the trains operating are the low height, diesel locomotive GE Genesis series, then we know that each locomotive has a 2,200 gallon fuel capacity. A passenger train usually consists of several coach passenger cars, a sleeper car, and a dining car. The average number of passengers per car is usually between 30 and 40, depending on the specific train configuration.

Intriguingly, Amtrak does not provide a specific fuel per mile per passenger calculation. They prefer to base their calculations on total Btu usage. If the train is carrying 200 people and uses all 2,200 gallons for the 1,000 mile trip, this works out to roughly 11 gallons per person for the entire trip.

Unlike a car trip, a train trip also includes sleeping, eating, and other water uses into its total Btu calculation. Therefore, there’s no need for an additional hotel room or the need to pay for toll roads. Once you arrive in Penn Station, you can skip the cost of subway or cab fare, assuming that your friend in Chelsea decides to pick you up at the station.

Total Fuel Required: 11 gallons of ultra low-sulfur diesel
Other Environmental Impact (Electricity, Water, Etc.): 1,742,000 Btus
Total Dollar Cost: $127.00

Energy & Environmental Impact of Airplane Trip

A one-way flight leaving from St. Louis to JFK Airport in New York on a Canadair Regional Jet 700 costs about $139 plus taxes. The engine on this jet is a 2 General Electric, with a range of 1,496 miles, a cruising speed of 544 miles per hour, and a total passenger accommodation of 70 passengers, including 9 first-class passengers. It has a total fuel load of 19,450 pounds. Aviation fuel weighs about 6 pounds per gallon. Therefore, the total gallon capacity of this plane is roughly 3,241 gallons. This gives the plane a fuel efficiency of 0.46 miles per gallon. However, when traveling by air, the total distance between St. Louis and New York City is only 874 miles, which means that the plane only needs 1,900 gallons to get there. When this figure is divided by the number of passengers, it works out to 27.14 gallons per passenger.

Of course, what is the fuel efficiency of larger planes? Not everyone will travel on a regional jet. A Boeing 737, for example, has a fuel capacity of 6,875 gallons, a passenger manifest of 149, and a maximum range of 3,440 miles. This puts the Boeing’s fuel efficiency at roughly 0.5 miles per gallon. For the 874-mile trip between St. Louis and New York City, the plane would need 1,748 gallons. This means that with a fully loaded plane, the average passenger would use 11.73 gallons of fuel to get to that Thanksgiving in Chelsea (assuming, once again, that your friend picks you up at the airport).

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the total Btu usage per passenger mile on a domestic aircraft is 2,931. For an 874-mile journey, that’s a total of 2,561,694 Btus. There’s no need for a hotel or additional electricity/water costs.

Total Fuel Required: Between 11.73 and 27.14 gallons of aviation fuel
Other Environmental Impact (Electricity, Water, Etc.): 2,561,694 Btus
Total Dollar Cost: $139-$200 depending on type of plane

Overall Environmental Impact of Fuel

If we review each of these methods of transport, we discover that the car is the most expensive, consumes the most fuel per passenger, and uses the highest number of Btus. Taking the train consumes the least amount of fuel and has the lowest total Btu consumption. A plane is competitive with a train in terms of fuel use, depending on the size of the aircraft, but has a higher per passenger Btu use. What’s important about each of these methods of transport is what type of fuel they use, and how that fuel impacts the environment.

Aviation fuel is the most damaging to the environment because it emits tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide during its take off and landing cycle. Additionally, aviation fuel contributes nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, tetra-ethyl lead, and incompletely burned hydrocarbons to the atmosphere. In concentrated doses, tetra-ethyl lead can destroy otherwise fertile soil and poison the air and contribute to air pollution. Hydrocarbons are particularly damaging because they contribute to ground-level ozone and smog, which pollutes the air which people, especially those living in cities, breathe. Ground-level ozone has also been shown to cause cancer.

However, regular gasoline also has a significant toxic environmental effect. Cars and other ground-based transportation that use gasoline, such as motorcycles, generate roughly 55% of harmful hydrocarbons.

Sulfur, the primary environmentally damaging toxin in train fuel, can produce byproducts that cause internal damage in both animals and humans. When ingested in measured doses on its own, sulfur is a healthy part of a regular diet. In large amounts, sulfur byproducts such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide can pollute the air and cause a variety of cancers and other health problems in humans. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are responsible for “acid rain.” However, ultra low-sulfur diesel has a sulfur content of 15 ppm, and produces far less sulfur than traditional low sulfur diesel, which had a content of 500 ppm.

The extra energy expenditures of each trip, from hotels to cabs to subway trains, are variable. We’ve tried to create a realistic portrait of likely extra energy use based on each transportation model. In short, for this particular sustainably minded Thanksgiving holiday, you should take the train. It will expend the lowest amount of damaging environmental particles, use the lowest amount of Btus, and provide you with beautiful scenery for your thousand-mile journey. Now that’s an appetizing prospect.

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