Wednesday, 6 August 2014

My Guilty Travel Secret

‘carbon guilt’ illustration by Stephen Collins
I have a guilty secret. I recently wrote about one my travel decisions: the decision not to fly. As I explained then, my decision to no longer use air transport was made because I found the environmental impact of aeroplane use to be too high. When I shared that post with friends on Facebook it drew some support, some admiration, some critique and a need in many to justify their own use of aeroplanes. I didn't seek to criticise others, as Bill Mollison wrote 'The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it now.' I take that seriously - I am responsible for my existence, you are responsible for your existence.

I have a guilty travel secret. I use trains. I use trains a lot. In the last couple of years my partner and I have holidayed in France taking National Rail, London Underground, Eurostar, TGV and TER  trains from our home to the Ardeche (in 2013) and to the Cote d'Azur (in 2014). But this is is not my guilty secret.

Those holiday journeys pale in significance when placed in the context of my regular weekly train use. My name is James and I am a commuter, it's been 3 hours and 45 minutes since my last train journey. A searching and fearless inventory of my usage requires a thorough survey.

I live in a small town in Essex and I work in central London. Everyday Monday to Friday I walk to my local branch line station and board a train into the metropolis.


If it's what we do each day that defines us - this is what currently determines me. And it's an activity that adds up. I leave our home at about 8.20, board a train at 8.37, arrive at Stratford about 9.16, transfer to to the London Underground and take the Central Line to Tottenham Court Road station from which I make a 5 minute walk to my workplace.

I leave work at 18.00, walk back to Tottenham Court Road station, take the Central line to London Liverpool Street where I board the 18:41 train home, I get to South Woodham Ferrers around 19.25 and walk back to the house to get in by 19.40.

What's the impact of all this travel? How might I analyse my survey data?

Daily CommuteDistance (Km)Carbon Emissions (KgCO²e)Carbon Conversion Factor (KgCO²e per passenger/Km)
Outward Journey (train)48.28032.3676659120.04904
Outward Journey (tube)10.530.66981330.06361
Return Journey (train)54.71772.6833560080.04904
Return Journey (tube)3.790.24108190.06361

Every workday I travel 117km by powered transport, leading to the equivalent of 5.96 kgCO² emissions. I work 224 days a year at this job, meaning my annual commute involves traveling 26,279.23km with concomitant emissions of 1,335.47 KgCO²e. [see below for data sources].

It's not the only rail travel I make.

As a trustee of the Permaculture Association I make two round trips to Leeds by train a year (totaling 1,178.04 km) and four additional round trips into central London - so my total rail travel as a trustee  is about 1,647 km.

Early this year I taught on a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in London for 12 days across 6 weekends. Each day required additional travel from home into London, with rail travel of about  1,369km.

My previously mentioned holiday in France earlier this year involved rail travel totaling about 3,022km.

I know that I make more rail travel than this in an average year. At the weekends I will frequently make short local journeys by train, less frequently I will travel into London and back and make several tube journeys. Some workday evenings will involve additional tube travel. Across the year I am also likely to make some weekend travel across the UK to attend events or visit friends. I have found these journeys hard to enumerate but have estimated that in any given year these will involve travel of another 4,000 km.

Adding all these pieces of rail travel together, I get the following results:

Type of TravelDistance (km)Carbon Emissions (KgCO²e)Carbon Emissions (tCO²e)
Annual Commute26,279.231,335.471.335469435
Trustee Travel1,647.3181.620.08161875008
Holiday in France3,022.4426.840.02683848202
Travel for PDC1,358.7067.290.06729352699
Other Rail Travel4,000.00225.300.2253


My annual travel, just by rail, results in equivalent CO² emissions of 1.73 metric tonnes - with my commute alone creating 1.33 metric tonnes of those.

Rush 'hour' on the Central Line, standing room only & currently 34.8°C, 45% RH
Being a commuter is both poor energy efficient planning and poor use of relative location. Two major elements of my life (my home and my workplace) are situated at a great distance from each other making it difficult to establish beneficial relations between the two. A large amount of energy* is required to transport me 117km five days a week leading to the production of waste in the form of atmospheric emissions and poor Earth Care. The daily grind and being away from home 12 hours a day isn't too great for People Care either, the journey is tiring and frequently frustrating with delays beyond my control extending my working day - I've also less time with my partner, family and friends and less time for housework, exercise and creative activity. According to the Office of National Statistics, commuting makes you 'unhappy and anxious'. There are also large financial impacts resulting from commuting, my annual season ticket currently costs £4,764 and will rise by inflation (RPI) on 1st January 2015** while my salary rises at just 1% a year (if I'm lucky!). My commute currently costs about 25% of my take-home pay. The profits made from me by Greater Anglia will largely leave the country to go to parent company Abellio (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) in the Netherlands.

But most significantly, according to United Nations projections, by 2050 the annual carbon emissions of every person on Earth must not exceed 2 metric tonnes, if we are to keep global temperatures in the 'safe zone' below 2 degrees above the pre-Industrial Revolution average and maintain Fair Shares of the atmospheric commons. As my annual rail travel alone is close to that figure, and my commute alone is over half of it - the way I travel is clearly not sustainable - this is my guilty secret.

Tune in next time, as I move on to design decisions!

*(All of the trains I have used are electric, offering the future opportunity for them to be powered entirely by renewable resources - but currently they reflect the UK and France energy mix and also use a range of non-renewable (coal, gas, nuclear) fuels. A change to an entirely renewably resourced service is inevitable eventually, but the national infrastructure requirements will be large, carbon intensive in construction and that eventual service may look very different to today in both scale and type.)

** Exact figure to be announced on 18th August, given that RPI was 2.6% in June, fares are expected to go up by over double my likely 2015 cost-of-living rise taking my annual fare to £4887.86 - spitting distance of £5 grand, a figure it will inevitably top the following year..

Data Sources

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