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More travelers are taking the train — to save the planet

Ride the rails to save the planet
WATCH: Correspondent Jon Marcus tracks how riding the train can reduce your carbon footprint.

LONDON — Distracted by the flashing of departure boards and the droning of announcements, riders rushing for the molded plastic seats on nondescript commuter trains seemed not to notice as a line of vintage rail cars snaked to a stop at a platform on the fringes of Victoria Station.

When the doors popped open, stewards in bowties helped well-appointed passengers alight from carriages paneled with polished inlaid wood and furnished with upholstered wing chairs. A white-gloved maître d’ and his team cleared Lalique crystal glassware, china place settings, and bottles of Dom Perignon from pristine tablecloths. And a uniformed French chef bade passengers goodnight beside the brown-and-champagne-colored, 100-year-old train cars.


The luxury train, arriving from Bath, may have looked like something from a costume drama. But traveling by rail is decidedly back in fashion.

Bookings on this line — the British Pullman service by the hotel, river cruise, safari, and train company Belmond, which also runs the Royal Scotsman, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, and the Andean Explorer — have increased 40 percent from pre-COVID times, the company says. Passenger counts on other more traditional inter-city trains have more than doubled.

Demand for rail travel is being driven in part by consumers’ growing preference for slowing down while on vacation and by the comfort and relative reliability of trains compared to planes these days. But people are also shifting to rail transportation because of their growing consciousness of something else: the environmental impacts of flying.

“There is this growth in awareness that traveling by air does have an environmental cost,” said Tom Hall, vice president of and a writer about trains for the travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet.

“Whether you’re looking at this from a leisure or business perspective, it’s not just a romantic idea” to take the train, Hall said. “It’s very practical.”


More than two-thirds of travelers surveyed by the consulting firm Deloitte said they think climate change is an emergency. That doesn’t mean that all of them are acting on this when they plan their trips. But a separate survey by the train and bus booking platform Wanderu finds that the proportion who say they do is up from 15 percent to 25 percent since 2020. More than half of Amtrak customers said in a survey that they think about potential effects on the environment when they take a train, compared to 42 percent in 2019.

“The fact that more and more people want to take the train is great for the industry and the world,” said Gary Franklin, vice president for trains and cruises at Belmond.

Even if travelers aren’t considering the environment, regulators, travel companies, and employers are increasingly doing it for them.

Regulators in France have banned short-haul flights between cities within 2½ hours of each other by train, which has already ended air service between Paris Orly and Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux; similar measures are being pushed in Germany and the United Kingdom. Employers with sustainability goals are making employees take trains instead of flying on work trips. And travel companies are changing itineraries to favor trains over domestic flights.

“Train travel has some really positive news behind it. It’s climate-friendly. It’s convenient. From a traveler standpoint, it’s ticking all the boxes,” said Todd Powell cofounder of Vacations by Rail.

The average plane emits 1.83 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, compared to .41 pounds for the average train, according to Wanderu.Intrepid Travel

That’s likely to continue over the long term, Powell said, “particularly as you have generations come up that are embracing sustainable and experiential travel.”


The booking site Navan, which specializes in business travel, reports that the share of trips being made by rail once its customers arrive in Europe is up from 34 percent at the start of 2021 to 40 percent now, a trend it says is being pushed by their employers.

The company is rolling out a feature called Train v Plane that automatically offers rail alternatives when a user searches for a flight.

“It’s something customers were asking for,” said Nina Herold, Navan’s executive vice president and general manager. “You can make that decision, but if your company is conscious not just about sustainability but about price, here are the alternatives — here are the train routes.”

With travel and tourism generating between 8 percent and 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel companies are also pledging to reduce their impact by switching from planes to trains.

Intrepid Travel, for example, is experimenting with different forms of transportation and, beginning this year, will report the CO2 emissions, per guest, of each of its trips.

“There’s a changing consciousness and awareness in relation to climate change and how people go about making their choices,” said Matt Berna, Intrepid’s president and managing director in the Americas. Still, he said, “sustainability is really difficult to market. Ultimately you’re trying to sell a positive experience and don’t want to make people feel guilty. They are expecting the tour operator to take care of that for them.”


Aviation generates from 2.5 to 4 percent of greenhouse gases, according to various estimates, and CO2 emissions from airplanes are expected to triple by 2050 if they continue at their current rate, the United Nations warns.

The average plane emits 1.83 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, compared to .41 pounds for the average train, according to Wanderu.

Some rail providers are working to further lower that number.

Ninety percent of the energy used by trains in Switzerland comes from hydropower. Germany has the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains. Amtrak plans to introduce new fuel-efficient trains in 2026, including on Northeast Regional routes, that produce 90 percent less particulate emissions in diesel mode; using $66 billion it got from the 2021 infrastructure bill, the rail company is replacing rolling stock throughout its network and has added or resumed service between New York and Montreal, Toronto and the Berkshires; Denver and the Winter Park ski resort; and Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver.

Ridership on Amtrak grew 89 percent last year, though it’s still below pre-pandemic levels. (On-time performance remains low, canceling out the reliability advantage of taking trains in other countries; the Acela was late 14 percent of the time in the first quarter of this year, and the Northeast Regional more than 20 percent, about the same as the on-time arrival rate of most airlines at Logan Airport.) The number of passengers on the Canadian national rail service more than doubled. High-speed Brightline trains connecting Miami and Orlando are in the testing phase and will begin service in the fall.


Trains aren’t always cheaper than planes. That British Pullman same-day roundtrip to Bath, which included a four-course dinner with wine, cost £470 per person, or about $585. But a European sleeper train can save a family of four about $125 over flying, a study by the reviews and advice platform Which? Travel found.

There’s another benefit, said Angela Walker, vice president for operations of the Society of International Railway Travelers.

These days, said Walker, “flying is just not fun at all. It’s stressful. On a train, you can relax and watch the scenery go by. People are going to get hooked.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at