Trains, Planes, and Pollution

Fun chart from my colleagues:

What’s more, not only is intercity rail energy efficient compared to other means of transportation but it’s typically electricity which can be produced with much less pollution per unit of energy output. With automobiles, of course, we’re all looking forward to the future of electrification as well. But I’ve never heard anyone outline a remotely credible low-pollution alternative to jet fuel. Now obviously there are also distances across which rail doesn’t work as a credible alternative to air travel. But for shorter distance flights it’s important to understand that air travel is currently benefitting from a major unpriced externality in the form of air pollution. If we started taxing greenhouse gas pollution, then rail starts looking like a much better option on a range of short routes that are currently popular for air travel.


For example, today there seem to be almost 30 flights daily between Seattle and Portland. Clearly a lot of people are making the trip. If you built a high-speed rail connection, a lot of people would take that. But how many would obviously depend heavily on how the price compared to the price of those flights. And that in turn would have a great deal to do with how we price pollution.