Is rail cleaner and greener than bus?

Author: Mulley C, Hensher D, and Cosgrove D (2017)

Journal: Transportation Research Part D


The popular consensus is that urban passenger rail is more environmentally friendly than urban passenger bus. This position is largely associated with the key energy source for each mode, respectively electricity and diesel, where electric vehicle use will typically result in local air quality improvements away from the electricity generation source. Surveys of community perceptions reflect this sentiment; however the relationship between the source of energy and its resultant emissions is not something that citizens fully understand. There is a general lack of awareness of the resource base of much of electricity generation in some countries. Where generation sources are suitably renewable or low-carbon, electricity use will offer greenhouse gas abatement potential. However, in countries which still rely heavily on coal-fired power stations, such as Australia, abatement is not as assured and estimating emission outcomes can require careful assessment. Supporters of alternatives to diesel use can focus on the future supply of fossil-fuels, an argument which has merit; however such arguments are often confounded with environmental qualities related to local air pollution and enhanced greenhouse gas emissions. This paper takes a close look at the greenhouse emissions that are associated with urban rail and bus in Australia. Estimated intensities, when presented in the context of effective service delivery (primarily in terms of emissions per passenger kilometre), raise questions about the distortions that are present in the widespread promotion in Australia (at least) of rail as a more environmentally friendly and hence a sustainable mode of urban passenger transport than bus.