Not since the glory days of the B&O Railroad has Baltimore been so much in the limelight of railroading as it has recently. Last week, it was President Joe Biden’s announcement of $16.4 billion in spending on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, a big chunk of which is headed to Charm City. On Monday, top Biden administration officials were back to talk with Gov. Wes Moore about a secondary benefit of all that spending including the $4.7 billion committed to create a new Frederick Douglass Tunnel through Baltimore — the chance to put a lot of young people on the right track toward high-paying transportation jobs (as a “workforce hub”) connected to such public investment.
But there’s another, less high-profile, opportunity linked to this historic improvement of passenger rail service between Washington, D.C., and Boston: a moment to help spare the planet from the worst effects of climate change that may require nothing more than asking employers in Maryland and elsewhere along Amtrak’s busiest route to act in their own self-interest.
What must employers do? Tell their workers to conduct business-related travel by train and not airplane. With faster speeds (and lower emissions) from electrification and the replacement of bottlenecks like the old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel near Penn Station, the travel times will likely be comparable — or even better on shorter hops. That’s especially true when you factor center-city stations instead of remote airports. But add to that internet connectivity so workers can keep tapping away on their laptops as they speed through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and onward, and you have a net gain.
But here’s the best part: Experts estimate that switching from jets to trains can reduce that employee’s carbon footprint by a lot. Like a lot a lot.
The Travel Smart Campaign, a global outreach effort supported in the United States by the Rail Passengers Association and the environmental advocacy group “Stand.earth” among others, has estimated that a trip from Washington to New York by jet results in 173 kilograms (381.4 pounds) of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere per passenger, while the same journey by train results in just 4.73 kilograms (10.4 pounds), which is about 92% less. Yet the group found in a survey of 322 companies that few — just 28 — had taken steps to encourage employees to travel by rail.
Addressing climate change one passenger at a time may sound like something of a slog, but it adds up fast. Business travel represents about 1 in 5 trips in the global air travel field. And the transportation sector is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, ranking even higher than power plants.
Advocates at Travel Smart recommend employers set targets to switch from air to rail, then outright mandate employees use rail for shorter trips, like Baltimore to New York, for example. They might also provide an incentive like allowing first-class travel on rail but not on planes. Granting workers who choose rail some extra time off is also a recommended strategy, as is giving employees who are working on their laptops while traveling by train credit for being on the job during those hours. That last one might be enough to get workers back in the office.
We would go further and suggest that employers who make significant progress on this front, by, say, converting a certain number of miles traveled from air to rail, get some kind of independent green rating. Consumers might be inclined to support companies that are mindful of their environmental impact. Wouldn’t it be nice to hire a financial adviser or estate lawyer or accountant who was smart enough to help save the planet?
Obviously, switching to trains alone won’t fix global warming. People are still going to have to make some difficult decisions about how they live, work, eat and play if the U.S. and other countries are to meet long-term emission goals. But switching to trains when possible would seem like one of the easiest steps to take and, especially in Baltimore, the biggest win-win available as we encourage passenger rail growth. Baltimore is already the nation’s seventh busiest Amtrak rail stop with D.C. in second place and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall’s train stop at 13. So, here’s a final call for all that job creation that comes with it.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.
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