The energy cost of airplanes, trains, and buses

I’ve come to conclude that airplane travel makes a lot more sense than high-speed trains. Consider the marginal energy cost of a 90kg (200 lb) person getting on a 737-800, the most commonly flown commercial jet in US service. For this plane, the ratio of lift/drag at cruise speed is 19, suggesting an average value of 15 or so for a 1 hr trip when you include take-off and landing. The energy cost of his trip is related to the cost of jet fuel, about \$3.20/gallon, or about \$1/kg. The heat energy content of jet fuel is 44 MJ/kg. Assuming an average engine efficiency of 21%, we calculate a motive-energy cost of 1.1 x 10-7 \$/J. The amount of energy per mile is just force times distance. Force is the person’s weight in (in Newtons) divided by 15, the lift/drag ratio. The energy use per mile (1609 m) is 90*9.8*1609/15 = 94,600 J. Multiplying by the \$-per-Joule we find the marginal cost is 1¢ per mile: virtually nothing compared to driving.

The Wright brothers testing their gliders in 1901 (left) and 1902 (right). The angle of the tether reflects a dramatic improvement in lift-to-drag ratio; the marginal cost per mile is inversely proportional to the lift-to-drag ratio.

The marginal cost of 1¢/passenger mile explains why airplanes offer crazy-low, fares to fill seats. But this is just the marginal cost. The average energy cost is higher since it includes the weight of the plane. On a reasonably full 737 flight, the passengers and luggage  weigh about 1/4 as much as the plane and its fuel. Effectively, each passenger weighs 800 lbs, suggesting a 4¢/mile energy cost, or \$20 of energy per passenger for the 500 mile flight from Detroit to NY. Though the fuel rate of burn is high, about 5000 lbs/hr, the mpg is high because of the high speed and the high number of passengers. The 737 gets somewhat more than 80 passenger miles per gallon, far less than the typical person driving — and the 747 does better yet.

The average passengers must pay more than \$20 for a flight to cover wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and landing fees. Still, one can see how discount airlines could make money if they have a good deal with a hub airport, one that allows them low landing fees and allows them to buy fuel at near cost.

Compare this to any proposed super-fast or Mag-lev train. Over any significant distance, the plane will be cheaper, faster, and as energy-efficient. Current US passenger trains, when fairly full, boast a fuel economy of 200 passenger miles per gallon, but they are rarely full. Currently, they take some 15 hours to go Detroit to NY, in part because they go slow, and in part because they go via longer routes, visiting Toronto and Montreal in this case, with many stops along the way. With this long route, even if the train got 150 passenger mpg, the 750 mile trip would use 5 gallons per passenger, compared to 6.25 for the flight above. This is a savings of \$5, at a cost of 20 hours of a passenger’s life. Even train speeds were doubled, the trip would still take 10 hours including stops, and the energy cost would be higher. As for price, beyond the costs of wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and depot fees, trains have to add the cost of new track and track upkeep. Wages too will be higher because the trip takes longer. While I’d be happy to see better train signaling to allow passenger trains to go 100 mph on current, freight-compatible lines, I can’t see the benefit of government-funded super-track for 150+ mph trains that will still take 10 hours and will still be half-full.

Something else removing my enthusiasm for super trains is the appearance of new short take-off and landing jets. Some years ago, I noted that Detroit’s Coleman Young airport no longer has commercial traffic because its runway was too short, 1051m. I’m happy to report that Bombardier’s new CS100s should make small airports like this usable. A CS100 will hold 120 passengers, requires only 1463m of runway, and is quiet enough for city use. The economics are such that it’s hard to imagine mag-lev beating this for the proposed US high-speed train routes: Dallas to Houston; LA to San José to San Francisco; or Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh. So far US has kept out these planes because Boeing claims unfair competition, but I trust that this is just a delay. For shorter trips, I note that modern busses are as fast and energy efficient as trains, and far cheaper because they share the road costs with cars and trucks.

If the US does want to spend money, I’d suggest improving inner-city airports, and to improve roads for higher speed car and bus traffic. If you want low pollution and high efficiency, how about hydrogen hybrid buses?

Robert Buxbaum, October 30, 2017. I taught engineering for 10 years at Michigan State, and my company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers.

One thought on “The energy cost of airplanes, trains, and buses”

1. Tim Cook

This is a great analysis! I’ve never seen this comparison made in such basic energy principles. I’m definitely more on board with you for higher efficiency travel with planes. That said, I have a couple of points to make:

When I look up the carbon cost for such trips on a carbon calculator site (like carbonfootprint.com or Delta used to have one for their flights) it gives almost 50% higher CO2 emissions (and thus fuel burn) than your calculations do (yours give about .13kg/mi and theirs is closer to .2 depending on the length of flight, I was using a 650 mile flight path for my comparison). I believe this is a result of taking into account things like taxiing and wait time (I recently learned that the larger engines use 2000 lb/hr at idle!), plus other externalities. This is more in line with the typical statistic I see for planes getting mid-40 passsenger-mpg on average (for the aging US fleet of airplanes, I’m sure newer are better). Not sure if the train mileage also includes these externalities (I assume it would, since I’ve seen similar numbers from academic studies). That makes your comparison quite a bit different.

Secondly, When they do CO2e calculations, they often take into account “radiative forcing” which is basically the increased impact of emissions from airplanes because they are released at such a high altitude. This is something like a 2x factor vs. the direct CO2 produced from fuel burn. So this is also a consideration when comparing planes to trains, if it’s more like 3-4x emissions from planes. Although you seem to be quite skeptical of climate change evidence, I think there are undeniable issues with mass production of emissions, whether or not alarmist predictions come true