Carbon cost: Toronto–Chicago

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,172 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 130/252

Amtrak and Carbonfund’s greenwash

So, I’ve been hunting for emissions figures for Amtrak and I always wind up back at It’s become characteristic that rather than having a page presenting sensible data about emissions, companies are just putting you in the hands of offset salesmen. You pay the company to pollute, then you pay their mates some more to pretend that it makes no difference. A few companies will have useful emissions data in their annual reports, but neither Amtrak’s 2010 annual report nor, more irritatingly, its 2010 environmental report gives useful, per-passenger emissions data.

So I’m stuck with Carbonfund. Despite the ostentatious partnering with Amtrak, their methodology page (such as it is) shows that they don’t get their data from Amtrak, but from some outfit called the World Resources Institute, specifically this spreadsheet. But hang on, the first page of the spreadsheet (scroll to find it) says:

The use of these tools is not a guarantee of an accurate or complete greenhouse gas emissions inventory. To develop a high quality inventory, it is essential to plan an inventory quality system that includes suitable internal and external reviews, and accuracy checks for activity data, emissions factors, and emissions calculations.

Great start, Carbonfund. If I was running a professional emissions offset service, that’s where I’d get my data too.

Then, if we scroll to sheet 8, we find that the emissions data for Amtrak was 0.12 kg per passenger-kilometre—in 2002. You could work out an up-to-date figure from the 2010 data published in chapter 9 of the 2011 US Department of Energy Transport Energy Data Book—which, if I’m not confused, shows on table 9.10 that Amtrak’s energy use per passenger-kilometre has fallen annually by 2.8% over the last decade, which I think would suggest a figure more like 0.095kg per passenger kilometre.

But oh, that would be so much work, especially if it’s your actual job.

My carbon footprint

But for now let’s stick with the old WRI figure of 0.12kg CO2 per passenger kilometre (or 0.41lbs per passenger mile, which is more or less what Carbonfund give). Carbonfund give Toronto–Chicago as 1487km (924 miles, which looks promisingly like the real distance): 178 kilos of CO2.

That’s huge! If I’d flown, which would have been about half the distance, the raw CO2 equivalent would have been about 100kg, so the train only wins because of the (provisional but conventionally accepted) higher impact of aircraft emissions (around 250kg equivalent). More than twice the UK average, and seven times an old Finnish electric intercity train, or for that matter a Finnish fully loaded coach. I wonder why Amtrak has such massive emissions—or are the WRI data just faulty? I’ll email Amtrak. Meanwhile, comments appreciated!

So, arse. If I’d done my research before I set off, I could have done the trip by coach and had way lower emissions. What an idiot. The big lesson is: actually checking data allows you to make much better choices than just sticking with rules of thumb. If only the purveyors of these services would do it for you.

Though of course by coach I wouldn’t have had the stopover in Cheektowaga, or been held up by the derailment… *facepalm*


About alarichall
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4 Responses to Carbon cost: Toronto–Chicago

  1. T.J.W.M. says:

    Do the figures take account of passenger density?

    Though not at all aquainted with the American rail system, I get the impression that it is not well used (due to various factors mostly connected with the size of the place). The marginal carbon emission for an additional passenger would likely be small, nay even tiny, with roughly the same emission taking place for a full as an empty train – an emptier train would, ceteris paribus, have higher per passenger emissions.

    Just a random postulation.

    • alarichall says:

      Thanks for the comment! (I’m honoured that you’ve been reading.) Yes, passenger load can account for a huge amount of variation in per passenger emissions; though the train seemed pretty full: there was a bum on every seat from Depew to Chicago anyway. Mind you, probably for every two seats on an Amtrak train you’d have fitted four onto a British train (this isn’t much of an exaggeration); but Finnish trains are roomy too and they seem to score okay. And Amtrak trains do seem to do a lot of stopping and starting; though equally they seem to go slowly. Maybe I’ll have a nose around for passenger load information sometime.

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