Why Trains in Europe Function So Badly

Over at KiwiReport, a writer named Serena Carsley-Mann asks a good question: “Why do trains in America function so different from trains in Europe?” Unfortunately, she mistakenly thinks the problem is that “trains in America function so badly.”

In fact, America has the most efficient rail system in the world. It is European trains that function badly. The Antiplanner has discussed this before, but since writers like Carsley-Mann continue to get it wrong, it is worth repeating.

According to a Pew study, freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail (see page 2). Because rail cars weigh more, per passenger, than automobiles, rail’s comparative advantages for passengers are much smaller, and unlike trucks it will be very easy for cars to close the gap: a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.

This is what the United States has done, but it is exactly the opposite of what Europe has done. According to a report from the European Union, 46 percent of EU-27 freight goes by highway while only 10 percent goes by rail, while in the U.S. 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent by road. Thus, we’re using our rail system far more effectively than Europe. This is not just from an energy view but also from a consumer-cost view, as rails cost less than trucks for freight but more than cars for passengers.

Carsley-Mann actually sees freight trains as an obstacle to effective use of the railroads because the freight trains slow and sometimes delay the passenger trains. But in reality, it is the nearly useless passenger trains that are the obstacle to an efficient freight system. Europe manages to carry 5 percent of passenger travel on intercity rail lines, at the cost of pushing a huge share of freight shipments onto highways. By yielding most of that 5 percent of passenger travel to highways and airlines, American manages to free up the railroads for a huge amount of freight.

To avoid the freight conflict, some European countries are building rail lines exclusively for passengers. For the most part, the cost is very high and the benefits low. To some degree, subsidies to those rail lines attract people from lower-cost forms of transportation. But overall, rail is losing market share to cars and, especially, low-cost airlines, so Europe is fighting a losing battle. As economist Charles Lave wrote in The Atlantic many years ago, the “law of large proportions” dictates that “the biggest components matter most,” so making the cars that move 85 percent of people a little more energy efficient is more effective than getting a tiny share of those people out of their cars and onto trains that are a little more energy efficient.

Carsley-Mann never does figure out why American trains are so different from European ones. The answer is simple: American railroads are private and based on the profit motive they operate as efficiently as possible. European railroads are public and based on the political motive they operate as visibly as possible. Passenger trains are more visible to the public than freight trains (which are almost invisible to people like Carsley-Mann, who see them only as obstacles), so European politicians give their constituents subsidized trains rather than an efficient rail system.

I love passenger trains, but I prefer an efficient private system to a visible but heavily subsidized public system. Now if only we could privatize our airports and highways.


5 thoughts on “Why Trains in Europe Function So Badly

  1. Frank

    “a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.”

    Buses and air travel are also very popular in Europe. Do you have any information about their energy use compared to a Prius and/or trains?

  2. Scott

    Is your post a joke?
    Most people should drive a Prius or similar?
    You made no connection with you quoted comment. What’s your point?
    Why do you ask Randal O’Toole for info? Do your own research.

    Note: Public transit use in Europe is not significantly higher than in the US, rarely even double, and even a small portion of overall transport — with driving being the major mode — so much more convenient, especially for large items, especially groceries for even a week’s worth of consumption.

    Who disagrees with driving gasoline powered cars? You are probably hypocritical & ignorant.

    Where does electricity come from? In case you don’t know: 20% nuclear and a few percent from renewable.

    Live closer! Be denser! Ride transit!
    Hogwash! The results don’t prove anything that those proclaiming density & public transit portend.

    The US people in urbanized areas only occupy about 3.5% of land. Is there a problem of too many city areas?

    Do you now the most dense urban area in the US? LA & San Jose-SF are the highest. Las Vegas is 3rd or 4th. NYC area & Chicago are a little down on the list.

    You want transit? ride it yourself. You are probably a frikin hypocrite! Who pays? Others? Then you are an immoral Hippocratic. You are a piece of $hit & a$$hole, worthy to not not live in the US. Read the Constitution? Disagree? Live elsewhere!

    BTW, “rights” are things you can do on your own, without any interaction, such as speech, writing, movement — as long ass it doesn’t interfere with others’ rights. There is not a right to be not offended, which is ridiculous, at face value. In other words, “rights” do not include action from others. such as health care or housing.

    During the last few decades more than 500,000 acres of land [in the US] have reverted to non-farm. That loss of farmland has not reduced agricultural output. Productivity! Helped by more CO2. (Alarmists are so messed up in science, facts & politics)

  3. Frank

    “You want transit? ride it yourself. You are probably a frikin hypocrite! Who pays? Others? Then you are an immoral Hippocratic. You are a piece of $hit & a$$hole, worthy to not not live in the US. Read the Constitution? Disagree? Live elsewhere!”

    Scott, you may want to sell help for your reading comprehension issues and for anger management.

  4. LazyReader

    So a train running on diesel does produce emissions. Electricity derived from coal produces emissions. So an electric train running on coal has emissions by virtue of electric supply. Electricity for Portlands light rail lines…..most of Oregons power is hydroelectric. So the pollution of running a light rail train in Portland is mute…..whether it’s 5 miles or 500 miles. BUT….all rail projects require construction. and that’s construction vehicles, concrete which involves 2 tons of CO2 per ton of concrete. Once all emissions are factored at what timeframe does the zero emission train now running will (in annual energy savings by not driving?) amortize; in other words when will the supposed emissions savings equal the total emissions incurred by the project….the answer is never. If it’s electric supply is fossil fuel powered, it’ll never amortize as it’ll just continue to output emissions during it’s running and if it runs mostly empty, it’s wasting energy. If it’s running on renewable power amortization may take decades….by then the system has to be reconstructed which inputs emissions once again.
    One thing in particular, is the difference between energy and electricity. Only 28% of US energy is electric (everything that plugs in or runs on batteries that plug in) and 72% of our energy is Non-electric (everything that burns, chemicals, fire, non electric lighting, gas stoves, vehicles, airplanes, ships, etc). So providing the US with 100% renewable energy means first replacing all current US electric out put with renewable……Then switching everything that is non electric over to electric (cars, buses, trains, planes, cruise ships, naval vessels, construction equipment, farm equipment) which triples the demand for electric power. The Obama Administration spent $150 billion to bolster the nations renewable energy portfolio….by 1 measly percent.
    So, the mayor of Stockholm, Sweden wants to be petroleum fuel free by 2040. Why stop there? Why not be totally fossil fuel free. Here’s a few things the mayor will have to give up to meet that goal:
    1. Food – no more fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Expect crop losses of 40-80%.
    2. Plastics – gone, cant manufacture complex carbon chains (i.e. polymers) without simple carbon chain molecules to start with (Ethane, hexane, etc) and no carbon fiber……(sorry Europe, I know you love your fancy tennis racquets and BMW’s, I love this one cause BMW has a carbon fiber plant in washington state…to make the carbon fiber for their i3 and i8 electric cars, cause electric power is cheaper in Washington than it is in Germany.
    3. Manufacturing – like above, jobs go where energy is cheap. That’s why Tesla is building it’s new multi billion dollar car plant in…Nevada, not California.
    4. Modern Medicine. About 85% of pharmaceuticals and drugs use Benzene as a pre-cursor.
    5. Lubricants – both machine and “personal”, hope you like it raw. Without lubricants you have no moving machines, no trains, cars, engines, no hydraulics and some very sore butt holes. Only substitute…..animal grease.
    6. Steel and all other metal alloys. They require petroleum or coke
    7. Synthetic materials, nylon, spandex, polyester and rubber. No more LuLu Lemons or running shoes for you and no more bike tires, we all know how Europeans love to bike. No more synthetic fabrics to keep you warm during those below zero European winters unless you’re willing to ignore PETA and start skinning furry animals again for warmth.
    8. About 20% of all construction materials contain or use petroleum products. Without glue, sealants, epoxies, binders, coatings there goes your house. And no fuel means no oxy-fuel welding or construction equipment, and no steel means you really cant build anything past a few stories and expect it to hold up.
    9. Flying. Yeah, let’s go back to wooden sailing ships that took weeks to cross oceans.
    10: Refrigerants. Yeah, hydrocarbons being used to keep food with short shelf life fresh
    11: Shipping: Diesel powered marine vessels big no no. (Which would be devastating to their economies since Nordic countries heavily depend on shipping)
    12: She can also stop promoting her city as a tourist destination. Think of all the fuel saved by people not going there.

  5. epic000

    You’re probably right that the value of passenger rail in Europe is overstated, but:
    1) You lose credibility by relying on the Panorama table that clearly says under it “Note: The data concerning different geographical entities are not fully comparable.”
    2) If you actually look at the DOT PM freight figures, you get a very different story than what you claim based on the panorama data (see Figure 2 https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/subject_areas/freight_transportation/tonmile); and
    3) I’d question whether ton-mile is the appropriate metric to look at if you’re trying to determine “effectiveness” of use of our rail/freight networks.

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