Train-ing Ourselves

“What do trains run off of, fuel-wise? ”  Good question – one that was asked as I was sitting in the dining car on Amtrak’s Crescent-line, from Washington DC to Louisiana today.  The subject of fuel sources had come up among myself and my two tablemates — designated by Amtrak to sit with me for breakfast — when we ran out of things to talk about after our initial introductions.  So what do I do initially to help ‘break the ice’? Point out that our orange juice cups said, “Rail consumes less energy than cars or air travel,” and then even more oh-so-subtly (and probably obnoxiously) point out that I had done a carbon-calculation before travel, and saw that taking the train from Washington DC to Louisiana was 1/25th the carbon dioxide tonnage of flying (see previous Climate Steps post).  One tablemate (65 years old with purple hair and tattoos) was more than willing to continue the conversation.  My other tablemate (probably around 60 as well, well-coiffed) pinched her lips, and kindof got a frustrated look on her face and said that she was a big supporter of coal, and that we had to keep the coal miners in her state, West Virginia, employed because it was a family-oriented business.  My tablemate noted that yes, generations within a family do keep dying.   The West Virginia woman actually took that statement quite well, and nodded.

A short discussion later, we all concurred strip mining stinks big time, and blowing off mountain-tops is really, really bad.  But the woman from West Virginia adamantly stated that deep mining didn’t hurt the environment.  I was tired and have a cold, so I didn’t go further.  After all, she knew what we were thinking.  We sat there.  We looked at our smartphones.  We each waited for our bill, as the attendant brought them out one by one.  And then the West Virginian asked the question – what is the fuel for trains?

Good question.  She thought coal, especially for freight trains.  But we all then decided diesel.  Doing some research now, it seems trains in the Northeast are electric, while the rest of the trains apparently are diesel/electric (battery) mixes (various train refs, including an interesting post:   But because most trains in the Northeast are electric, it also means most trains in the U.S. are electric, because that is where more people take the trains (Economist, 2013).  Which also means they probably run off of whatever the electric supplier provides. So here’s the surprise, according to the Amtrak website:

In “2014 Amtrak implemented a new green power purchasing policy. The policy provides guidelines for the purchase of power from environmentally preferable sources and technologies, including but not limited to, power from solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, biomass and low-impact hydroelectric sources for use within Amtrak operations.”

That doesn’t mean that the U.S. trains run off of any of these yet (I am sure there would be a big PR announcement when one does, see below), but Amtrak does appear to be making some efforts on multiple fronts.  Even in 2011, some small efforts were being made.  A nice little section of Amtrak’s website has different takes on their efforts for sustainability.

This train is so incredibly quiet, I wonder if it is electric… no – it is diesel, I just found out from a train conductor.

It is interesting that the Amtrak website says rail is only 8-14% more efficient than flying, and 30% more efficient than driving, when the carbon calculators say flying is the worst, followed by driving (see previous Climate Steps post).  But Amtrak is talking about energy units (BTUs) and the carbon calculators only deal with carbon dioxide output, not energy efficiency.  I think Amtrak should try to market the we-generate-far-less-carbon-dioxide-output story as well.  Fyi, Amtrak does have a carbon fund calculator on their website:   What is kindof cool is that, for my particular trip, that is the third carbon calculator site that has said “0” tonnes/tons of carbon dioxide generated, compared to .53 tons noted for flying the same distance (

So anyway, my tablemates and I went our separate ways, and now the coal-must-continue-woman is off the train.  I continue on to New Orleans, enjoying most of this nice, quiet ride through beautiful countryside (minus sitting in the train yards, as we have done for 30 minutes, waiting for a freight train to go by.)

Did I mention it is taking me 25 hours to get to New Orleans (versus 3 hours of flying, plus a couple hours in the airport)?  Good thing I was looking forward to using this trip to catch up on some sleeping and writing.   Amtrak – I look forward to the day you can buy your own tracks!  The trip to Atlanta went very quickly and smoothly – past Atlanta, it is stop, stop, stop for freight trains.  argh.  Still worth it.  So far.

I also look forward to the day when a train in the U.S. runs off of solar or wind power, as this one in India will, or as this one in Holland does, respectively.   To be fair, the first one runs mostly with a diesel engine, but the solar panels generate electricity for all the HVAC, lights, etc….  Thus “Indian Railways estimates that just one train with six solar-panel equipped cars will save 21,000 liters (5,547 gallons) of diesel fuel per year, at a cost savings around Rs12 lakh (almost $20,000).”   The Dutch trains that are stated as running off of wind were already running off of electricity, and just switched to wind-generated electricity.  But the U.S. does have the largest train network in the world (Economist, 2013); think of the impact!

Things are changing.  What can we do to help make it go faster?  Write Amtrak, write our Congresspeople.  Have conversations in the dining car.   In the meantime, go by train when you can – and go relatively carbon-free….(relatively.)

Fyi, there’s a cricket on this train. (and no, it is not someone’s phone.)

PostScript:  I completely forgot to mention a discussion that my friend Linda and I had before I took the trip.  She asked whether they had exercise machines, like stationary bicycles, and noted it would be very cool to be in the front of the train, spinning, while you were going through the countryside.  What a powerful, incredible feeling that would be.  Then we discussed how you could recharge all of the phones, plus run some other electric systems at the same time.  We didn’t think it would quite power the train.  Well guess what – I saw this this morning:

Amtrak – come on, we need this!

5 thoughts on “Train-ing Ourselves

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