Louise Pearson: Packing us in like sardines must mean far less fuel per head than the rogue lone drivers

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I’M TEMPTED to describe them as zombies. But zombies are more animated: their taste for human flesh on occasion energises them. Here in the economy class train carriage we commuters don’t even have that.

Instead we adopt the blank stare. The blank stare can be directed out of the window, at the floor, at a phone, tablet or laptop screen or, very occasionally, at the person opposite you. That person doesn’t take offence – they are too busy staring blankly at their overpriced cup of coffee.

I recently rejoined the realm of the commuter after a lengthy absence and the trains are much as I remember them (not enough carriages for everyone to get a seat and almost always running a few minutes late because there is “a train ahead of us in the tunnel”. That one really gets me. Isn’t having a train in front of you a normal state of affairs for a railway?).

But there is one notable change. While checking the ScotRail timetables, I noticed you can now check on carbon emissions. I was informed my six-mile journey is the equivalent of 0.5kg of C02. Had I chosen the bus it would rise to 1.3kg and as a lone car driver, my emissions burden on the planet would be a weighty 3.5kg.

My gut reaction is that the train’s superiority has to come down to density. Packing us in like sardines must mean far less fuel per head than the rogue lone drivers. It transpires that this is indeed the winning card for the train. And according to the Association of Train Operating Companies, average emissions per passenger km have fallen 22 per cent since 1995/6, as compared to an eight per cent reduction from car traffic and a five per cent increase from domestic air travel. All the analysis is based on average figures and occupancy is the key factor – a fully loaded car would come out on top when compared to a train with only two passengers, but having been recently wedged into a space intended for luggage, I can confidently report that such sparse occupancy isn’t the normal state of affairs in rush hour.

ScotRail passenger numbers totalled 78.3 million in 2010/11, a 22 per cent rise since 2004/05. Three quarters of journeys in Scotland are still made by car, but it’s nice to see the trains experiencing a rise (in numbers – the rise in ticket prices is most definitely not nice). I know your next question: diesel or electric? What do you mean you were actually wondering how much it costs to take a trip on the Orient Express? This column is about the environment, not your earthly pleasures. I can report that C02 emissions from passenger traffic on diesel trains comes in at 74g C02/passenger km, while clean-living electric trains win the day with 54g C02. This is even taking into account that the electricity is being produced mostly from fossil fuels. If in the future ‘green energy’ was used, the emissions would drop.

Meanwhile, there is a whole world of innovation going on to make the trains greener. Drivers are being given fuel-
efficient driving training, biofuels are being tested (we are unconvinced by these but will let it pass) and brake 
regeneration is being implemented, allowing electric trains to return energy to the power supply. Don’t ask me to explain the finer points of that last one, that’s what the internet’s for. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get practising my very best glazed expression. I’ll be needing it tomorrow morning.

Twitter: @greengoddesslou