How environmentally friendly is rail transport?

I regularly travel to and from London, and almost exclusively travel by train. This is not because it has a lower carbon footprint than driving (I am not absolutely certain it does), but simply because it is a preferable mode of transport. For the first hour it is an entirely pleasurable chug through the Suffolk countryside on a little branch line, with chances of seeing deer, foxes, hares, kingfishers, sparrow hawks and so on. Very relaxing. And then I change trains at Ipswich for the intercity, and can get out my laptop and do some work.   But I also do a bit of thinking. About the Byzantine fare structures on the trains. Because I am over 60 I get a discount by having a rail card. This in itself is bizarre. Many people aged 60+ are at the peak of their earning capabilities, so why make it cheaper? And frequently it is cheaper for me to travel first class than it is the normal cheap returns. The whole structure is arcane, until you realise one key factor. Much of the fare structure is designed to encourage people to make unnecessary  journeys.  That way the railways become profitable, and in post-Thatcherite-speak, profitability=efficient.  But are railways environmentally efficient? Hauling those thousands of tonnes of metal around, requires huge amounts of energy, but just as important is the vast quantities of embedded energy in the actual machinery, carriages, cabling, rails, sleepers and other infrastructure. Having met with representatives of the metal recycling industry, I appreciate that a huge part of the metal involved is recycled, but even recycling has an energy cost.

I am not advocating any particular position, other than pointing out the fact that all forms of transport, air, road, cycling, or rail have an environmental impact. But as with almost all aspects of modern day life, rail use is now driven not by real need, but a consumerist-driven, profit gobbling belief that profitability means efficiency.

I have never understood the logic of privatising the railway. There is no genuine competition over the majority of the network, and in any case there is no empirical reason why competition is ‘a good thing’. And huge parts of the rail network are still subsidised. I don’t understand where these subsidies come from, but my understanding is that much of the profit from the rail system ends up in private pockets. Or am I quite wrong. Perhaps someone can explain to me?



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