Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and Bicycles)

Southwest Chief - Lamy, NM Train Station

The Iron Horse (aka. train) shaped much of the modern Western US. Despite that history, most of us now travel long distances by car or plane because of the supposed convenience. I've flown and driven across the country countless times, so I wanted to try something new. For a trip from Santa Fe, NM to Kansas City, MO I traveled by bicycle and passenger train. The trip went smoothly and was much lower carbon than either automobile or passenger jet. I'm now a fan of train travel and hope that train travel in the U.S. can be improved.

When planning my long-weekend trip from New Mexico to Missouri I considered and priced traveling by plane vs. car. Given that I would only be spending Friday through Sunday in Kansas City a 26+ hour drive round trip wasn't appealing. Nor was the airfare from ABQ to MCI and back. Then I priced a round trip train ticket and I found a reasonable answer. A little more research showed that the bike ride from my home to LMY is 17.7 miles and ~39 miles from KCY to my friend's home, which I consider 'ride-able' on a bike* and effectively CO2 neutral.

Lamy to Kansas City by Train

The closest train station to Santa Fe is in Lamy, NM (LMY). Amtrak's 'Southwest Chief' route runs directly from LMY to Kansas City's Union Station (KCY) and points beyond. According to Amtrak '...the average Amtrak passenger train uses 2398 BTUs per passenger mile (compared to 3437 BTUs per passenger mile for automobiles and 3051 BTUs per mile for air travel). Thus, a trip of 837 miles (LMY to KCY) will use 2,007,126 BTUs per passenger.'

  • 837 miles * 2398 BTUs/passenger mile = 2,007,126 BTUs
  • 2,007,126 BTUs / 129,500 BTU/gal. = 15.5 gallons of diesel
  • 15.5 gallons diesel * 22.38 lbs CO2 per gallon = 346.82 lbs. of CO2
  • 346.82 * 2 = 693.74 lbs. of CO2 round trip by train

Santa Fe to Kansas City by Car

Google Maps gives the shortest, toll-free route from my home in Santa Fe, NM to my friend's house near Kansas City, MO at 786 miles and 13 hours 40 minutes driving time. Driving our 2005 Toyota Corolla with automatic transmission which gets an average 36.34 mpg would use 21.63 gallons of gasoline each way.

  • 786 miles / 36.34 mpg = 21.63 gallons of gasoline
  • 21.63 gallons gasoline * 114,000 BTU/gal. = 2,465,820 BTUs
  • 21.63 gallons gasoline * 19.64 lbs CO2 per gallon = 424.86 lbs. of CO2
  • 424.86 * 2 = 849.59 lbs. of CO2 round trip by car

Riding the Rails

Bringing a bike on Amtrak's Southwest Chief will cost $5 each way and cardboard bike boxes are available at the ticket office for $15 new (used boxes may be available for less). Remove the front wheel and using a multi-tool drop and spin the handlebars, remove and flip the pedals inward, slide your bike in the box, tape it, label it and it's ready to go. The ticket agents were helpful and my bike made the trip unscathed each way.

The train trip itself was much more relaxing than a marathon drive to Kansas City. I also rediscovered why train travel is so interesting, people. I met Boy Scouts, Amish farmers, young families and older couples all enjoying the more scenic and social mode of travel. I quickly decided that the Sightseer Lounge car was the best place on the train for scenery and people watching. I spent much of the trip reading, writing, watching the unmanicured countryside scroll past the windows and talking with an amazing variety of people. It was easy to strike up a casual conversation or just enjoy the view. I also recommend eating in the Dining car as the meals are reasonably priced and better quality than the options in the Café car.

While my train trip to and from Kansas City wasn't perfect (the rail through western Kansas was pretty rough) it was a welcome change from driving the same distance solo. I had a relatively restful journey (bring a blanket to keep warm overnight) and taking the train was definitely lower CO2 than either driving or flying would have been. The cost of my trip was lowest by train, but that can vary depending on travel dates and ticket specials, etc.

Will I travel by train again? Yes and I already have a trip in mind. I'm also looking over the Amtrak routes for more destination ideas. The main drawback to passenger train travel that I can see is that they don't connect to enough places, especially in the west. Perhaps the plan for a national high-speed rail system will be able to help bridge some of those gaps.

Southwest Chief - Unloading in Raton, NM   Southwest Chief - Marchiondo's Dry Goods - Raton, NM   Southwest Chief - Grain Silos   Southwest Chief - Granada, CO Water Tower   Southwest Chief - Holly, CO Co-Op   Southwest Chief - Downtown Kansas City, MO from the Chouteau Bridge  

* If possible, try not to arrive at your destination on a day with a record-setting 98°F high temperature and 60% humidity. While the cycling mileage was reasonable, the heat and humidity were brutal.

More Info:

Fly or Drive Calculator

Southwest Chief (Chicago - Albuquerque - Los Angeles)

US DOE Transportation Energy Data Book

British thermal unit

Gasoline gallon equivalents

  • 1 gallon Gasoline = 114,000 BTU/gal
  • 1 gallon Diesel #2 = 129,500 BTU/gal
  • 1 gallon Jet fuel (kerosene) = 128,100 BTU/gal

Carbon Dioxide Emission Factors for Transportation Fuels

  • Diesel Fuel (#1 and #2) = 10.15 Kilograms CO2 (22.3769196 lbs.) per gallon
  • Motor Gasoline = 8.91 Kilograms CO2 (19.6431876 lbs.) per gallon

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Driving vs. Flying CO2 Emissions