In doing some light research into the proposals for high-speed rail in America put forth a few years ago by the French state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, or SNCF*, I found the éco-comparateur tool on the agency’s travel and booking website (UK version). It’s in French but it’s easy to use (I couldn’t find an equivalent for the US, and there’s no English version of the tool).
It works for trips in France and to international destinations served by the SNCF, but I found an equivalent for a trip that I often take: Chicago–Milwaukee on Amtrak’s Hiawatha service is similar to a trip from Paris to Orléans on the SNCF Intercités train. Both are roughly 80-90 miles trips.
So how does taking the train this distance compare to flying or driving?**
The results show that traveling by train is much cheaper and almost 15 times more energy efficient (per passenger) than driving, and $40 cheaper. There are no flights (“Avion”) between these two cities, so there is no comparison to show. You can change the criteria to include more passengers, the type of car driven, the price of gas, and so on. If 4 people are traveling, the price of driving remains the same but taking the train is 4 times more expensive (but still 3 times more efficient than driving). The tool does not take into account the discounts given to those of different age groups (12-25, 60+, etc.).
Below the summary is a list of the different trains you can take on the dates specified in the search, and directions to booking tickets.
Obviously, France and other European nations have a more complete train system that better serves their population and whose train speeds make rail travel an attractive alternative to driving or flying. Furthermore, anyone who has visited Europe or knows some people there also know they tend to be a little more environmentally-minded than many Americans***, so this type of comparison might work better with certain cultures than in others. Regardless, it is an interesting tool to compare the environmental and economical cost of different travel modes. The competitiveness of trains versus other transportation modes is rare in America; the best example of the train “winning” against other modes is along the Acela corridor.
*If anyone has insightful information about SNCF’s &/or others’ proposals, I’d be interested in seeing them.
**French trains operate on electricity provided by overhead wires and are therefore faster and more energy-efficient than trains in America, so this does not prove to be a perfect energy-use comparison. French highways are also heavily tolled at higher rates than Illinois roads, and the cost of fuel in France is much higher than it is in America. A round-trip between Milwaukee and Chicago may only cost around $25-30 in fuel and tolls, whereas a round-trip ticket on Amtrak is about $48 per person.
***This is my own opinion, based on the political policies (related to the environment) of several European nations versus the United States.