We are indebted to our friends at Midnight Trains for this analysis, first published on their website, but so compelling that it deserves to be shared.
Let’s weigh up the stats
First up, according to the French government, the transport sector generates more greenhouse gases than any other, representing 31% of all emissions. Drilling down into the detail, 94% of greenhouse emissions are due to road transport, 4.4% to air and the rest to the rails – a proportion so small it is considered ‘negligible’ by the French government.
But let’s dive in a little deeper. There are several key stats that reveal the differences in carbon footprint between the various modes of transport.
According to a tool created by ADEME (France’s Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Énergie), a daily 5km journey generates over the course of a year 4.4kg of CO2 on the TGV, 5.84kg by tram, 6kg by metro, 9.80kg on the Transilien or RER lines and…. 353kg by car.
According to that same tool, travelling 500 kilometres creates 1.2kg of CO2 per person on the TGV, 97kg by car and 20kg by plane.
A point often levelled at supporters of rail transport is that of occupancy rate. In other words, is a full plane better than an empty TGV. The excellent blogger Bon Pote has done the maths…and it is revelatory.
On a Paris-Toulouse trip, he shows that each passenger emits 79kg of CO2 if they travel by train, or just 1.374kg by TGV – 56 times less. So the high-speed train would have to be 56 times less full than the train to be equivalent to the plane in terms of greenhouse emissions. Given the TGV can carry 458 passengers, only eight would have to be on board – just one person per carriage.
Finally, it’s important to note that while the French rail network is a clear winner versus flying, this is because it relies on an electrified network with one of the world’s lowest carbon footprints, up there with those of Sweden, Switzerland and Norway.
What’s more, the high capacity of its many trains put it far ahead of its airline competitors. The two storeys of a TGV can carry up to a thousand people, compared with a maximum of 540 for the largest commercial version of the Airbus A380.
So in other words, at this historic and transitional time for the transport sector, the railways remain largely unbeatable, even with trains that might not be as full as they once were.