Taking the train

Here I am in Montana near Glacier National Park, riding on one of the more fuel-efficient modes of transportation: the train. While gliding along and looking at the spectacular scenery, I couldn’t help but run some numbers through my head about the efficiency of this mode of transit.

This train is carrying 340 +/- 20 people from Chicago to Seattle, Portland, and points between. So due to my compulsive quantitative bent, I had to figure out how many miles per gallon per person this represents.

My estimate of the fuel usage is about 2,000 gallons, plus or minus 1,000. I got that estimate because I found out the Diesel tanks in the engine are 2,500 gallons, and they topped them off once for the trip (but they certainly weren’t empty). Since the train travels a total of about 2,000 miles on its journey, this represents approximately 1 gallon per mile (or mile per gallon for those who like it like that!). After I calculated that number, I talked to one of the personnel, and he said that sounded about right for fuel efficiency.

Ok, so let’s say we’re in the ballpark. In fact, let’s imagine that the fuel usage is

twice
what I estimated, just to be safe. If the train uses 2 gallons per mile, the math is easy. That means it gets 170 miles per gallon per passenger.

Let’s figure out how else we could get that kind of mileage. A bicycle would do it, but then, pedaling from Chicago to Washington state takes a while – a lot longer than the train. But the cool thing is, I have my bike with me (a folding bike that I can just carry onto the train free of charge). So I can be fuel efficient for the whole trip.

What about a Prius, the gold standard for green transportation? There are only two ways a Prius could match that mileage. One: drive really slow, like 40 miles per hour, so that the Prius gets 50-60 mpg, and carry 3 passengers and their gear. Well, you could do that, but it would take a lot longer than the train, and be a whole lot less comfortable. The other way is to carry more passengers and drive faster. Driving the prius 70 mph, a loaded prius with bikes on the roof gets at best 35 mpg (I owned one and did cross country trips with it). So, it would require carrying 5 passengers and their gear. Nope, no folding bikes are going to fit in that prius.

Well, for an airplane, fuel efficiency is right out the door. I’ve seen various estimates, but 30 MPG per passenger would be generous.

Why don’t more people use the train in the USA? Well, a couple reasons. The first is that people don’t know about it. I told several people that my family and I were doing a train trip who had no idea that there was a train to take a trip in. I guess Amtrak doesn’t advertise much.

The second is the train is perceived as slow. Well, it is slower than an airplane. But it is a whole lot more comfortable, you get to see a lot of great scenery, and enjoy the travel. But the real issue is that the US has not invested in high-speed rail like many other countries. If we had a 200mph bullet train like Europe and Japan, it would be possible to go from coast to coast within 12 hours. I’ve seen people on the internet claim that the US is too spread out for useful train service, except population dense centers. I don’t buy that. There are many large cities spread out throughout the US. If connected by high speed rail, these corridors would be used. If we just had three major east-west routes (North, middle, south) and 4-5 North-South routes, it would cover a large portion of the US, with busses acting as the local links to these stops.

While I still use airplane travel for many business trips, if practical train service were available to get me to the destination, I would use that. I like the comfort, the scenery, the ability to relax, and the fuel efficiency of the train. I just wish the US would get its act together and start building a real, large-scale rail system that shows we can once again be leaders in transportation and innovation.

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