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Got time? You can avoid 'flygskam' (Swedish for flight shame)

caption: Passengers on Amtrak's Coast Starlight watch Puget Sound roll by
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Passengers on Amtrak's Coast Starlight watch Puget Sound roll by
KUOW Photo / John Ryan

In Sweden, they have a word for the guilty feeling of polluting by air travel: flygskam.

Translation: flight shame.

While air travel is soaring in most of the world, it’s down in Sweden as people take the planetary downside of flying more seriously.

Climate activists in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States, have been urging frequent flyers to consider taking the train instead: a slower but climate-friendlier mode of travel.

I decided to turn this dilemma into an experiment. Instead of flying to San Francisco for a business trip, I would take the train down, then return by plane and compare the two experiences.

Amtrak Coast Starlight

Downtown Seattle to downtown San Francisco: 23 hours

Miles: 890

Carbon footprint: 200 lbs. CO2

9:15 a.m. I arrive at King Street Station in downtown Seattle to catch the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s West Coast run from Seattle to Los Angeles.

I show my phone to a ticket agent and walk on board with my luggage. No one even asks to see my i.d.

Amtrak Coast Starlight boarding sign gif
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KUOW Photo / John Ryan

9:45 a.m. We depart on time for what’s listed as a 23-hour journey to San Francisco.

The Coast Starlight rolls along riverbanks and shorelines and past too many snowy volcanos to keep track of. The double-decker train's big windows and high vantage points make sightseeing easy.

11 a.m. On board are lots of silver-haired people who don't seem too concerned about speed. Mark Lascelles, a retiree from Anacortes, Washington, and his wife Mary are prepared for the long ride.

“We’ve got our little sleeper loaded up with wine and books and chocolate, and we're ready to go,” Mark Lascelles says. “By the end, we'll be ready to get there. But in terms of seeing things, this is the speed that we like to go.”

AmtrakTracksGIF.gif. BNSF tracks near Kalama, Washington, from the Amtrak Cascades
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KUOW Photo / John Ryan

From the train’s observation car, we see fishing boats, kayakers and even a harbor seal on a glassy Puget Sound, with snowy Olympic Mountains on the horizon.

1:30 p.m. “Ladies and gentlemen, a short stop here,” our conductor announces as we idle in an industrial stretch of North Portland. “A freight train’s going to pass by. Soon as they do, we will continue on. Thank you.”

From the tracks, we can see that some government agency in Portland deposits fields of jagged boulders beneath highway overpasses to prevent homeless people from camping there, but there don’t seem to be enough boulders to accomplish that goal. On this trip, I spot track-side tents in Seattle, Olympia, Portland and Eugene.

caption: Portland's Union Station
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Portland's Union Station
KUOW Photo / John Ryan

2 p.m. Despite three stops for freight trains, we arrive on time in Portland, though we are late continuing south.

Amtrak runs the trains, but BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad own the tracks. Big delays often result.

Some freight holdups are built into Amtrak’s schedules. Still, the passenger rail service says the Coast Starlight ran late 45 percent of the time last year.

It’s long been nicknamed the Coast Star-late.

3 p.m. We’re still stopped in Portland. Sorry, Portlandia, the dream of 90-miles-an-hour rail travel is not alive in Portland.

5:45 p.m. We arrive in Eugene, Oregon, 35 minutes late. “Nothing to write home about,” the conductor admits to passengers over the P.A. system.

8 p.m. After a sit-down dinner in the dining car, I talk with first-time Amtrak passenger Anna Graf, a biology major at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

“I realized I can do my part and not put too much harshness on the environment,” Graf says. “I don’t have to fly.”

We chat in the train’s viewing car, with the big, dome-shaped windows, while we cross over the snowy Oregon Cascades. Heavily cut timberlands, including whole valleys lacking vegetation older than a Christmas tree, roll by.

Graf is on spring break, so her 20-hour travel time is not a big concern, though expense is.

Her fare from Tacoma to Sacramento was half the price of a plane ticket. “Being a college student, I don't have a lot of money,” she says.

But, Graf says, she made a conscious choice to go by train to avoid flying.

"Just think, if everybody started taking the trains, maybe they would build more routes instead of flying everywhere," she says.

10:30 p.m. At our stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon, passengers get to hop off for some fresh air. I spy the diesel engines at the front of the train. To get me to California, they’ll pump out more than 200 pounds of carbon dioxide.

That’s more than my body weight but less than if I had flown or driven.

11 p.m. The big test comes overnight: Will I be able to sleep on the train, or will I be a bleary-eyed wreck in the morning?

7 a.m. Sunrise over California’s Central Valley. It was certainly not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. My reclining seat was comfortable, with more leg room than any plane I’ve been on, but a kid in the seat next to mine kept trying to snuggle me in his sleep—and waking me up in the process.

He of course slept like a log even when I had to move his foot or head off me.

8:05 a.m. We pull into my stop, Emeryville, California, on time. A waiting Amtrak bus takes us the last 10 miles to downtown San Francisco.

I make it to my conference on time, only slightly bleary and with a fairly light carbon footprint.

Alaska Air flight 331

Downtown San Francisco to downtown Seattle: 7 hours

Miles: 680

Carbon footprint: 460 lbs. CO2-equivalent (carbon dioxide + contrails)

4:30 p.m. I enter the snaking line to go through Transportation Security Administration screening at San Francisco International Airport.

We shuffle forward slowly and intermittently, but I should make it to my 6:30 plane on time.

caption: Passengers in a security line at San Francisco International Airport.
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Passengers in a security line at San Francisco International Airport.
KUOW Photo / John Ryan

5:15 p.m. After 45 minutes in line, I make it through security and head to my gate.

5:30 p.m. I ask business traveler Neerav Thakkar of Sammamish if he’d consider taking the train instead. He drives an electric car, so he has taken action on the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, but he’s not on board with slow train travel.

He calls the 23-hour trip from Seattle to San Francisco “just outrageously long.”

Then he reconsiders.

“The most important thing would be productivity. Like good Wi-Fi coverage,” Thakkar says. “That pretty much would immediately make it a very viable option for me.”

Speed is the main appeal of flying. The main drawback: the climate impact of hurling a plane across the sky.

My flight home will do two or three times the climate damage of my outbound train trip.

Flying is the only form of transportation that leaves actual marks on the sky: contrails. The World Meteorological Organization calls them Cirrus homogenitus – human-made cirrus clouds.

It’s been estimated contrails cover 0.1 percent of the Earth’s surface.

caption: Crisscrossing contrails and cumulus clouds.
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Crisscrossing contrails and cumulus clouds.

Those wispy streamers of ice crystals behind high-altitude airplanes trap extra heat in the sky.

Exactly how much, scientists are still figuring out.

But in a nutshell, contrails make flying the most harmful way to get around a planet facing a climate emergency.

5:45 p.m. My flight’s status on the departures and arrivals board has suddenly changed from "on time" to departing nearly two hours late. On the bright side, that gives me time for more interviews.

I ask Californian Danielle Cameron, headed to Seattle for business, if she ever thinks about the carbon footprint of flying.

“Oh, I try not to!” she laughs. “But I do. I wish that it wasn't such a large impact. But it also feels like there aren't any options, unless you have time.”

In Sweden, flygskam led nearly one out of five Swedes to take a train instead of flying last year, according to a survey by WWF-Sweden, and the national rail line is reporting a surge in passengers.

Other newly coined Swedish words include tagskryt (train bragging), and smygflyga (flying in secret).

Business traveler Mia Li of Seattle grew up in China, where most big cities are connected by high-speed trains that can exceed 200 miles an hour. As we wait for our delayed flight to Seattle, Li tells me the same distance would be a roughly four-hour train ride in China.

“Yes, it's longer than a flight, but considering the timing to get here early, to check-in, it's pretty much the same,” she says.

caption: Alaska Air jets at San Francisco International Airport
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Alaska Air jets at San Francisco International Airport
KUOW Photo / John Ryan

8:10 p.m. My flight leaves the ground. I'm glad to have a west-facing window seat with the last glow of twilight fading over San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. I sleep through most of the flight.

10:05 p.m. I step off the plane and into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an hour and 20 minutes late. My luggage arrives 10 minutes later. I head out to the light rail to complete my round trip to downtown Seattle. All told, about a 7-hour trip.

Even with the delays, air travel wins over Amtrak for speed, but that balance could shift if high-speed rail comes to the West Coast.

Construction has begun on a high-speed rail line in California, though cost overruns and political opposition have put its future in doubt.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sought $3 million for a feasibility study for high-speed rail in the Northwest. State legislators approved only $224,000 for the study on Sunday in Olympia.

Those rail lines promise to use less energy than either Amtrak or flying, but they’re years, and billions of dollars, away from becoming reality.

The same is likely true for the technical fixes—like electric airplanes and biofuels—that might some day tame aviation’s worsening climate pollution.

“One day a scientist will figure out how to replace the current jet engine, and I think those planes will become available to all of us in, say, 20 years’ time,” Scandinavian Airlines System CEO Rickard Gustafson told Bloomberg.

So for now, the travelers’ choice remains: get there fast or get there without making climate change much worse.

John Ryan’s travel was paid for by the National Press Foundation, which hosted an oceans journalism conference he attended.

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