Train vs Plane: Which Is the Better Way?

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CC BY 2.0. 0711: Quebec City/ Lloyd Alter

A test, on a trip from Toronto to Quebec City.

Woodrise is an international conference covering mass timber construction that was held this year in Quebec City, 700 km from where I live in Toronto, Canada. I wanted to cover it for TreeHugger, and thought I would make getting there and back part of the experience, a real comparison between air and train travel in North America. In Europe or Asia this wouldn't be a question; 700 km takes about 3 hours. In Canada, a train trip like this takes the whole day. That's why I flew one way; I felt that I couldn't afford to take that much time off.

But in the end, door to door, and looking at the day in its entirety, there is a different story.

There is good reason for environmentalists to take the train. According to a few different carbon calculators, the 700 km flight had a carbon footprint of .178 tonnes of CO2. By comparison, driving my Subaru Impreza (which I rarely do and never this kind of distance) emits 0.16 tonnes, and taking the train emits only 0.03 tonnes.

Getting there: 11:04 AM Departure from home

UP Express train

1122: UP Express train arrives/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 On Monday, 30 September, I got up a bit early (5 AM) to get work done before I left. I usually do a newsletter and two or three posts every day. I got one long post up and had a few phone calls completed before I left the house at 11:04, getting a lift from my wife to the UP Express train that goes to the airport.

1:21 Pm

Loading the plane

1321: Boarding the Airbus/CC BY 2.0

The plane wasn't leaving until 1:45 but I am conservative about the time it takes to get through security – except this time there was no lineup at all, and I was through and inside five minutes after I got off the train, with an hour and a half to kill. So I got a second post up from the airport lounge.

2:46 Pm

View from plane window

1445: View from plane window/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There was no wifi on the airplane, so I read and looked out the window, taking photos of Quebec farms; every August I write about the difference in planning between Ontario and Quebec, and I finally saw it myself.

seigneuries in Quebec

seigneuries in Quebec/Public Domain

In Quebec, they relied on rivers for transport well into the 20th century. Land was divided according to the Seigneurial system, based on thin strips of land leading to the water. These would get thinner and thinner as they were subdivided for inheritances; the rest of the province was considered one big woodlot. Many believe that this was a major cause of economic development lagging considerably behind Ontario; there was really no way to get around. Buildings come and go, but the underlying decisions about how land gets subdivided and distributed affect us for centuries. That's why it's so important to get it right.

3:49 Pm

Arrival at hotel

1549: Arrival at St. Anne's Hotel/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I could have taken the bus and subway to the UP Express train instead of getting a lift, and I could have taken a bus instead of a taxi from the airport; this would have skewed the trip an hour longer and would have been a better story, but I was tired by this time and just took the cab, arriving at my hotel at 3:49 PM. Total travel time door to door: 4 hours 45 minutes. Productivity for day: 1 Newsletter, 2 posts.


Woodrise/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It was an interesting conference. I met and talked to a lot of people and learned a great deal from the presentations and the exhibitors. We often ask should we be flying to conferences, and many say we should just do it on video. But there is nothing quite like being there. See the related links below for my coverage of it so far.

Coming home: 4:39 AM

trains tation in Quebec City

0448: Train station, Quebec City/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Because I wanted to work on the train, and have a little bit more comfort on such a long trip, I chose to go business class. I also wanted to have the layover (there is no nonstop train) in Montreal, rather than in Ottawa's suburban train station. The 8:00 train was sold out so I booked the 5:25 AM train. I left the hotel at 4:39 and walked 15 minutes to the very beautiful train station.

Via train in station

Via train in station/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The seat was lovely, a single so you have the window and the wide aisle, big fold down table and space beside to put stuff. Lots of room, good breakfast. Slow but OK Wifi and I got my Newsletter and first post of the day up without a problem.

9:13 Am

Maisoneuve Bike Lane

0913: Maisoneuve Bike Lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

My first big disappointment was when I got to Montreal at 8:45. I wanted to go to the Museum of Art and the McCord Museum during my layover, both within a ten-minute walk from the station. But all the museums open at 10, so there was nothing for me to do but take photos of bike lanes for future posts. Should have taken that 8:00 train!


bar cart

1110 Bar cart starts right away/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Back on the train at 11:00 in Business Class again, they start with the bar cart when the train is barely out of the station. They never stop serving, and everyone is having a very good time. I got a really delicious lunch (and wine!) and then it was back to work.

11:32 Am

1132: lousy wifi

1132: lousy wifi/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 Except this time the WiFi was just awful, making me nostalgic for dialup speeds. I could barely do anything at all. Fortunately my data plan for my phone only had a few days left and quite a bit of data still available, so I just gave up on the trains's wifi and tethered my phone and completed Post #2, not withstanding all the wine.

3:50 Pm

Countryside from train

1550: Countryside from train/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I spent the last two hours of the trip doing what I almost never do: relaxing, thinking, looking out the window and watching the countryside slip by. This was something I could get used to.

4:27 Pm

Union Station Toronto

1627: Union Station Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 Arriving in Toronto, I took the subway and streetcar home, arriving at 5:06 PM. Door to door time: 12 hours 23 minutes. Productivity: 1 Newsletter, 2 posts.

Your office is where you are.

In terms of cost, the business class ticket was almost identical to the economy airfare. The biggest difference was the $40 cab fare from the airport to the hotel, and of course I got two included meals and a lot of wine with the train. In terms of carbon, the train won hands down. In terms of productivity – the reason I flew one way in the first place – the train became my workspace and I probably got more usable time out of the day coming home by train than I did going by plane. These days, your office is where you are, so the speed of the plane really didn't matter; a good workspace mattered more.

Chinese train

High speed train in China/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But imagine if it was a European- or Chinese-style train, real high speed rail on decent tracks, where you could walk or subway to the station at either end. Door to door, it would be faster than flying. The carbon footprint per person (especially if it was electrified) would be a fraction of that of flying. It's just nuts that Canada and the USA don't have this.