Green Travel – Aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

Besides being a green travel option, taking the train allows you to stretch out, relax, and switch into vacation mode as soon as you board the train.

In the first part of this 2-part post, Green Travel – Take the Train, we compared the carbon footprint, time, cost, and impact on one’s personal well-being of air travel versus train travel. This second part recounts our family’s recent experience riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Paso Robles, CA to Portland, OR and back. We booked two 2-person compartments for the overnight trip.

Our Trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

Instead of getting up at 4:00 a.m., which is what we would have done had we been flying to Portland, we slept in, ate a leisurely brunch, and had enough time in the afternoon to finish packing.

Paso Robles, CA Amtrak Station - Photo: Loco SteveWe left our house about 3:30 p.m. to drive to Paso Robles in anticipation of boarding the Amtrak Coast Starlight train at 4:37 p.m. After easily finding a free parking spot, we toted our luggage about 200 feet to the station. By checking the train’s status on one of our phones, we learned it would be about an hour late. We passed the time playing cards.

When the train arrived, we walked to our assigned sleeping car, showed our ID’s and tickets to the car attendant, boarded, and stored most of our luggage in the downstairs luggage area and took a few small bags to our compartments.

We settled into our large comfortable seats thankful to have room to stretch out and relax. The car attendant came by to take our dinner reservation, explain the locations of the restrooms, shower room, and beverage area, and ask if we needed anything.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Dining Car Table with Dinner Selections - Photo: Carl MorrisonAt eight o’clock, as the train made its way to Oakland, we reported to the dining car for dinner. Several options were available for each meal and the food was good. Amtrak switched from china to recyclable plastic dishes, but they still use cloth napkins and stainless steel flatware. Recycling bins throughout the train encourage passengers to recycle.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Parlour Car Interior - Photo: Wikipedia

After dinner, we retired to the parlour car which provides drinks and snacks, meals, comfy lounge chairs, wine tasting, and movies for sleeping car passengers.

We snagged a table and played board games we brought with us. This involved a great deal of trash talk, some strategy, and a lot of fun.

Sometime after midnight, we returned to our compartments to sleep. The upper berth folds down and the bottom seats fold out to create two beds. Fortunately, my non-claustrophobic spouse allowed me to take the lower berth. I would not say the beds were comfortable but we did catch a few hours of sleep.

Amtrak Coast Starlight with Cascade Mountains, OR Scenery - Photo: Uncle BobBy 7:00 a.m., we were up and sipping our first cup of coffee from the sleeping car coffee urn. A couple hours later, we met our kids for breakfast in the dining car and enjoyed the scenery as we passed through the Klamath Falls area just over the Oregon border. We opted to skip lunch.

We dispersed to our respective compartments to play computer games, read, and watch the scenery, talk, and nap.

We arrived in Portland about 10 minutes ahead of our 3:32 p.m. scheduled arrival. We grabbed our luggage and headed to our hotel for the night.

Six days later, we made the return trip from Portland to Paso Robles. This time the train was delayed about two hours sometime during the night and never made the time up. We used the extra time to have lunch, kick back, and enjoy the afternoon.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Roomette - Photo: Jim LoomisOur train journeys took about 2 ½ times as long as flying would have taken but we were far more comfortable and relaxing, and completely hassle-free. The reduction in carbon footprint was significant, but the best part was having the time and space to relax, unwind, and take pleasure in spending time with each other.

The next time you are planning to fly somewhere consider taking the train. You may be pleasantly surprised to find the cost and sometimes the time comparable or even less than flying. Regardless, the planet and your personal well-being are worth it.

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Green Travel – Take the Train

Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Aerial View - Photo AmtrakAir travel emits about 20 times more CO2e than train travel. Be green and travel stress-free by taking the train instead of flying.

Air travel gets you from point A to B relatively quickly but it has a huge carbon footprint and you often arrive at your destination tired, stiff, cranky, parched, and stressed out. You need time to recover from the flight before you can begin to enjoy your vacation.

Taking the train is by far a greener option involves minimal hassle, and allows you time and space to decompress from work and enjoy the journey. Your vacation can begin as soon as you board the train.

In this 2-part post, our recent family vacation to Mount Saint Helens, WA via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train will serve to illustrate the green aspects of train travel and its positive impact on travelers.

Four major factors to consider when deciding to travel by plane or train are:

  • Carbon Footprint
  • Time
  • Cost
  • Personal Wellbeing.

Carbon Footprint

Air Travel

If we had traveled by air, our family of four would have flown from San Luis Obispo, CA to Phoenix, AZ where would have changed planes and then flown to Portland, OR.

Round trip, we would have flown about 3,000 miles resulting in 0.77 metric tons of CO2e emissions per person (including radiative forcing), which equates to 3.08 metric tons of CO2e for the family. 1, 2

Train Travel

We boarded the Amtrak Coast Starlight in Paso Robles, CA and disembarked in Portland, OR.

Round trip, we traveled 1,864 miles resulting in 0.04 metric tons of CO2e emissions per person, which equates to 0.16 metric tons of CO2e for the family. 2, 3

Comparison

The difference between air and train travel for our trip was significant at 2.92 metric tons of CO2e. To put that figure in perspective, one could drive an average American passenger car for over 7 months for the same emissions saved by taking the train. 4

Imagine the amount of pollution we could keep out of the atmosphere if we all opted to take the train instead of fly, at least some of the time.

Time

Although flying is often the quickest way to travel, especially for longer distances, when you take pre-boarding time into account, riding the train for shorter distances can be just as fast as or faster than flying.

Clock with Hour and Minute Hands - TimeBoth airplanes and trains are subject to delays due to weather, equipment problems, and airport or track congestion.

If we had flown, our total travel time including pre-boarding, the flight, and retrieving our checked luggage, would have been about 10 hours (if all went well).

The overnight trip on the Coast Starlight took about 24 hours.

Cost

The cost for both air and train travel can vary widely depending on where you live, where you are going when you are going, how far in advance you buy your ticket, and travel class (e.g. coach, business, first).

Tickets

Hands Removing Money from Wallet - CostFor our trip, if we had booked well in advance, coach airfare would have been about 2 ½ times the cost of a coach seat on the train.

For the overnight trip, we opted for two sleeping compartments which included meals in the dining car. Our train fare was comparable to airfare.

Parking

Parking at our tiny airport would have cost us an additional $8 a day and require dragging our luggage uphill at least ¼ mile to the terminal.

We parked right next to the Amtrak station at no additional charge.

Baggage Fees

Although some airlines do not charge extra for checked bags, many airlines charge $25 or more per bag. If we had flown, we would have racked up an additional $250 in baggage fees.

Amtrak allows passengers to bring luggage on the train and offers checked baggage, all at no additional cost. We stowed our luggage downstairs in the sleeper car and kept an overnight bag in our compartment.

Personal Well-being

If the enormous carbon footprint of air travel is not enough to convince you to take the train, consider the positive impact traveling by train can have on your personal wellbeing.

The Day before Vacation

You know the drill. The day before vacation you rush around at work trying to finish your seemingly endless to-do list while fielding last minute requests and handling the inevitable day-before-vacation crisis. After a rushed dinner, you have to do several loads of laundry, search for vacation gear like snorkels and canteens, and pack. You fall into bed exhausted.

Vacation Travel by Air

Allegiant Coach Cabin - Photo: Associated PressThe next day, if you are traveling coach by air, you search for a parking space at the airport, stand in line to check in, partially undress in the security line, drag and carry your gear and possibly children for what seems like miles through the airport, and wait. Once on the plane, you squeeze into a tiny seat with legroom suitable for a child where you must remain for the duration of the flight. Upon arrival, you stand in line to get off the plane, hike through the terminal to baggage claim, wait, and then heft your luggage off a revolving carousel. You collapse onto the seat of the rental car shuttle and wonder when the vacation part is going to begin.

Vacation Travel by Train

Amtrak Coast Starlight Observation Car - Photo: jshyunThe next day, if you are traveling coach by train you easily find a parking space next to the station, remain fully clothed, show your ID and ticket, board the train, and store your stuff in the luggage area and over your seat. You sink into a large comfortable seat with room to stretch out and recline. You are free to get up and walk around as much as you would like, check out the scenery from the observation car, or get a snack in the café, Upon arrival, you grab your luggage and step off the train. You hop on to the rental car shuttle ready for the next part of your vacation.

Besides its low carbon footprint, taking the train is a more pleasant hassle-free way to travel. The next post recounts our family’s experience aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight train on our family vacation.

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References

Carbon footprint calculations are based on information from the following:

Term Definitions

  • Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) is a metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential (U.S. EPA Glossary of Climate Change Terms).
  • Radiative Forcing in calculations accounts for the increased effect on global warming from various factors, such as carbon emissions from planes flying at high altitude (Carbon Footprint Ltd).

Vacation – Let’s Take Our Green Habits with Us

The whole point of vacation is to relax, travel, have fun, explore, and “get away from it all”, a perfect excuse to chuck our green habits.

Road Construction Traffic JamGoing on vacation presents us with a conundrum. On the one hand, vacations give us a break from work, school, and daily commitments to refresh our bodies and spirits, enjoy time with family and friends, see new sights, revisit favorite places, and indulge ourselves. On the other hand, vacations generate a sizable carbon footprint, especially if they involve air travel.

Chances are people will not stop needing, wanting, or going on vacation in the near future, but we can mitigate the environmental impact of our vacations by taking our green habits with us. Sure, not having your towels washed everyday is drop in the bucket compared to traveling via fossil fuel powered transportation. However, drops do fill up a bucket, and a partially full bucket is better than an empty one.

Michigan Vacation

I recently returned from a trip to Michigan with two friends I met at work over two decades ago. We now live thousands of miles apart so cherish our rare opportunities to get together in person.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Our travels took us from the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, up the center of Michigan, and then across much of the Upper Peninsula to a lovely house on Independence Lake. On our journey, we saw three of the Great Lakes: Michigan, Huron, and Superior (where we dipped our toes in the frigid 40° water). We explored lighthouses, forest trails, and lakeshores by day, and played games and enjoyed each other’s company at night.

We all flew to Detroit so our transportation was not low carbon (unless one considers three people driving around in the same car as carpooling). I did bring some green habits from home.

No Bottled Water

Not buying bottled water at home is one thing, avoiding it while traveling is another. I challenged myself to not buy or knowingly drink bottled water on the trip. I brought two reusable water bottles with me.

Author's Reusable Water BottlesI filled both reusable water bottles each day before we set out, stowed one in the car, and carried the other with me.

If you ask for water on an airplane, the flight attendant opens a bottle of water and pours it in a plastic cup. I avoided this bottled water pitfall by filling up my 24-ounce reusable water bottle at a drinking fountain after going through airport security. Finding a drinking fountain at the Detroit airport was not easy. I finally located one tucked into a niche next to the family restroom at one end of the terminal. Whew!

Reusable Shopping Bag

Our county banned single-use plastic bags in 2012 so reusable bags are routine here, even at stores not affected by the ban.

Reusable Shopping BagsI packed two roll up reusable bags and wondered how they would be received in Michigan (I’ve encountered occasional hostility in other cities and states).

As it turned out, reusable bags were accepted and often welcomed at stores across the state, from the small general store near our vacation rental to a city grocery store. I handed back plastic or paper bags to a few efficient clerks who bagged my purchases while I was counting the money to pay for them.

Personal Towel

Author's Purse and Personal TowelsA couple years ago, I came across the concept of personal towels, which are small towels you carry with you to dry your hands in public restrooms instead of paper towels or electric hand dryers. I liked the idea and bought several; a washcloth or any small towel would work just as well.

I took two personal towels with me and attached one to my purse or fanny pack whenever we went out.

Not using paper towels in office, store, and airport restrooms may not make a huge environmental impact, but walking around with a towel hanging from one’s purse might raise an eyebrow, prompt a question, or spark an idea.

Waste Reduction

Breakfast Waste at the Hotel - Cereal, Milk, Banana, and CoffeeOn our first morning in Michigan, I ate a simple breakfast at the hotel: coffee, cereal, and a banana. I was shocked to see how much waste this small meal generated. Only the metal spoon and plastic tray were reusable and there was no recycle or compost bin in sight.

After that, I realized I’d need to pay more attention to what I was buying to eat and drink. We ate many of our meals with reusable silverware, plates, and glasses in restaurants or at our vacation rental; however, we ate delivery pizza one night and at least one fast food meal, and consumed several bottles of wine. Recycling was a challenge.

Accountability

Airplane in FlightWe flew almost 10,000 miles and drove about 1,800 miles (including to and from our home airports) which emitted approximately 2.6 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. As a gift for my friends, I bought us each a 2-ton carbon offset and selected a reforestation project in the Mississippi River Valley for our donation.

A carbon offset does not negate travel and doesn’t give us a free ride; however, it is a tangible way to take responsibility for our actions.

The other day, I was talking to one of my friends from the trip and she said it was too bad we couldn’t buy carbon offsets for local projects. What a good point! While it might not necessarily offset the carbon from a trip, donating time or money to green projects in our own communities is a reasonable alternative.

While I did take some of my green habits with me to Michigan, I feel I could have done better in the areas of food and recycling. I’ll endeavor to up the green factor of my next vacation.

What green habits do you take on vacation?

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