Season 10 -  The night train

Episode 2 -  Is it as eco-friendly as it seems?

Appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the night train. Without a doubt, the night train is more ecologically friendly and sustainable than planes or cars. But still, we need to ask these questions - just as we have for every other mode of transport.

We’ll open our examination with a figure that’s difficult to dispute, as it comes from the French government. Despite some hype, it hasn’t exactly been the biggest facilitator of the return of the night train. Whatever the critics of the night train might say: “the train emits up to 50 times less CO2 than the car and 80 times less than the plane.” You’ll probably already know these figures, but it’s always good to reaffirm them.

Let's take a quick look at the calculations that prove it, sourced from the Electricity Transport Network (RTE) and the Carbon Base of ADEME, the French agency for ecological transition. A car with an average occupancy of 2.2 passengers emits 88g of CO2e (which means carbon equivalent) per kilometre and per traveller. As for the CO2 emission of a passenger plane with 101 to 220 passengers on “routes of <500 km, 500-1000 km and short haul without drag,” it’s 141g of CO2/km/passenger. Finally, on a high-speed train (think TGV, Lyria, OUIGO), a traveller uses 1.73g of CO2 per kilometre.

And if high-speed trains are replaced with night trains, it’s even more impressive. “Unlike an aeroplane, the movement of which requires overcoming something called gravity, a simple breath of wind can make a train move,” explains Patricia Pérennes, transport economist at the Trans-Missions firm. “Obviously, to travel at 300 kilometres per hour, we have to deploy a little more energy.” She continues: “Except that the night train generally only travels between 160 and 200 kilometres per hour, which makes it even less energy-intensive. Better yet, night trains generally connect medium or large cities, so they operate mainly on electrified lines and rarely use diesel locomotives. There’s no debate here - it’s nothing like flying.”

However, there’s still a big problem. In almost all of Europe, rolling stock for the night trains is ageing, and is often over 40 years old. In France, where this is also the case, most of the carriages intended for night trains have been scrapped. So it’s not easy to relaunch activity and establish a large network aimed at replacing – or at least competing with – short and medium-haul aircraft. “We would have to buy back hundreds of cars, maybe even thousands,” says Pérennes. But then, wouldn't the construction of such a large number of night train cars massively increase the carbon footprint of the night train? Couldn’t high levels of production and building, rather than reusing what already exists, be highly damaging? Our expert's response is clear: “Even in these conditions, there’s no comparison. Planes are renewed every twenty or thirty years and are made of the same steel, or almost the same materials, as the trains. So whether we order new night trains, or allow for a whole new generation of planes to be manufactured, the problem remains the same. The gap between the energy outputs of the two technologies is just insurmountably huge.” So, it’s game, set and match. The night train wins. Hands down. Its competitors are drowning in puddles of crude oil, suffocated by their own exhaust fumes.

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