Electric Trains are the Powerhouse EVs

An Italian high-speed train is passing in the countryside.

Trains are the true EV powerhouse for cutting carbon emissions and fighting climate change. Here’s why.

Lawmakers and business leaders alike are touting electric cars as a game-changer for climate change. And it’s true that cutting carbon pollution from vehicles is critical. The transportation sector accounts for about 29 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution in the US. The on-road emissions in Texas alone account for nearly ½ of 1 percent of all carbon-dioxide pollution globally.

But the hype around electric cars is misplaced. Electric trains are the true powerhouse EV in the fight against climate change. And it’s not even close.

Data from the UK shows that the national rail system is about 25% more energy efficient than electric cars, and London’s subway system is about 40% more efficient. The most energy efficient travel mode overall? Electric Eurostar trains from London to Paris. They produce just 4 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer—versus 47 for electric cars, 171 for diesel cars, and 246 for domestic flights.

Another analysis shows that the kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy consumed by a French TGV high-speed train with 350 riders is less than half the energy needed to move the same number of people in electric cars (7,084 kWh vs. 14,420 kWh). And that’s assuming 1.7 passengers per car. The average car occupancy in the US is closer to 1.5 people.

What makes electric trains the powerhouse EV when it comes to cutting carbon emissions and fighting climate change?

The efficiencies they create. Here are six specific examples.

Steel on steel. Steel wheels on steel rails are vastly more energy efficient than rubber tires on asphalt and concrete. In fact, steel-on-steel contact reduces friction by up to 99 percent versus rubber on roads. That’s critical. In cars, much of the consumed energy takes the form of heat produced by friction, as spinning tires rapidly bend and unbend in response to contact with the road. This lost energy is one reason shipping freight by rail is so much more energy efficient than shipping by truck—about seven times more efficient, by one analysis. The lack of friction in steel-on-steel contact means that most of the energy consumed by trains is used to actually turn the wheels.

Draft. Trains also gain an energy advantage through their caravan formation. The draft created by the locomotive reduces drag—and increases energy efficiency—for the entire line of railcars. Competitive cyclists and race-car drivers use the drafting strategy to powerful effect, but it’s impossible to achieve safely on highways.

Power. Electric cars are basically gigantic batteries on wheels. As the cars get bigger, they require bigger and heavier batteries. (One GMC Hummer EV weighs about 9,000 pounds.) As a result, the average battery-pack size in electric cars increased from 40 to 60 kWh from 2018 to 2022. This “battery bloat” poses a number of problems, starting with lithium mining—which is a stunningly carbon-intensive process in itself. Heavier cars are also more dangerous in collisions; do more damage to roads, creating the need for more frequent repairs; and require more frequent charging. As one recent analysis noted, “each 1% increase in weight leads to an increase in electricity consumption of about 1%. The transition to [electric cars] could therefore increase electricity consumption by 35% or more and compromise the transition to a decarbonized electricity grid.”  Electric trains, by contrast, are powered by overhead lines or a third rail, so they don’t need to haul around their power source. Their light weight not only increases their energy efficiency; it lessens their wear-and-tear on the tracks.

Capacity. One highway lane can handle about 2,000 vehicles per hour. One high-speed track with roughly the same footprint can carry about 12,000 passengers per hour. So, trains can transport far more people in the same space, which translates into lower carbon emissions from constructing and maintaining the rail infrastructure. In particular, there are massive efficiencies to be gained from upgrading and electrifying existing rail lines—and increasing train frequencies—rather than building and expanding highways.

Lifespan. The lifespan of a train is roughly 30 to 35 years, which is about three times longer than the expected lifespan of an electric car battery. So an electric train keeps on creating value—and lowering carbon emissions—long after an electric car is in the scrap yard.

Community. Trains catalyze the growth of communities where people can leave their car at home yet still have safe, affordable, and low-stress options for getting around. These communities are not only healthier and wealthier. They produce fewer carbon emissions by encouraging biking and walking. By contrast, cars eat up state and local budgets, divide our communities, create parking-lot sprawl, and hollow out urban centers.

Electric cars can be a piece of the puzzle of solving climate change, no doubt. But they’re not a silver bullet. In some ways, they do more harm than good by reinforcing the vicious cycle of spending more money to build and expand roads that quickly fill up with more drivers, leading to more traffic fatalities and ever-increasing road-maintenance costs.

To reduce the transportation sector’s role in climate change, we must move beyond a narrow focus on tailpipe emissions. We need a big-picture view. We need to get serious about building healthy, sustainable communities over the long run. We need to invest in the powerhouse EVs that are actually up to the challenge.

We need electric trains. Now.

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