If the GO Train were electric, rail passengers would lighten their carbon impact on the planet

Imagine the GO train running on electricity. That is one of the recommendations of a transportation expert quoted in a very provocative article in today’s Toronto Star. Electrified GO Trains would represent a major improvement in travel through the GTA and beyond. The carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per passenger-kilometer are currently, with GO’s diesel trains, around 74 grams, according to a 2007 study by the Association of Train Operating Companies in the UK (see Table 2, on page 3 of the PDF). The same study put electric rail CO2 per passenger-kilometer at 54 grams.

The mighty GO (Government of Ontario) Train. Currently it runs on diesel. This means that each passenger’s carbon footprint from GO Train travel is around 74 grams of CO2 per kilometer. If it were to run on Ontario electricity today, then each passenger’s carbon footprint from GO Train travel would be less than 10 grams.

That difference in rail transport CO2 per passenger-kilometer—74 grams for diesel trains and 54 for electric—might not seem all that dramatic. But remember that was a UK study. We can be confident that the diesel estimate is directly applicable to Ontario: gravity is the same in the UK as it is in Ontario, as are air density and the stoichiometry of diesel combustion and conversion of diesel-combustion heat into work.

However, there is a difference, a major difference, in the CO2 related to electricity in the UK and Ontario.

This difference is in a number called the CO2 intensity per Kilowatt-hour, or CIPK. The CIPK is a grid-scale measurement of the amount of CO2 that goes into putting a kilowatt-hour of power into a grid.

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”What is the CIPK, and how is it calculated?”]CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. It is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table 1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at www.ieso.ca), and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!


There is a huge difference in the CIPK of UK electricity and that of Ontario. The UK’s annual CIPK, that is, the average CIPK across the 8,760 hours in a given year, was 506 grams in the year of the ATOC study (according to this International Energy Agency report, page 111.

Clearly, the GO Train should be electrified. BUT: we have to ensure that Ontario’s CIPK stays low. The only reason it is so admirably low compared with the UK’s is because we have so much zero-carbon nuclear feeding the grid.

Ontario’s right now, as you can see in Table 1, is nowhere near 506 grams. It is likely not even 100 grams. I estimate that when 2013 is in the history books, Ontario’s CIPK for 2013, averaged across the 8,760 hours in the year, will have been around 86 grams.

This means that the carbon content of Ontario electricity in 2013 is less than 17 percent the 2007 UK mark: divide Ontario’s 2013 CIPK (86 grams) by the UK’s 2007 CIPK (506 grams).

If I am right, then we could estimate that the CO2 per passenger-kilometre of electric GO train travel in Ontario today could be just under 17 percent of the 54 grams estimated for 2007 electric rail travel in the UK.

That works out to 9.7 grams per passenger-kilometer.

Currently, each passenger’s carbon footprint from GO Train travel is about 74 grams.

And personal vehicle travel is even worse than diesel rail. As you can see in Table 2 of the ATOC document, it is estimated at around 106 grams.(For some numbers, see this recent article.)

Clearly, the GO Train should be electrified. BUT: we have to ensure that Ontario’s CIPK stays low. The only reason it is so admirably low compared with the UK’s is because we have so much zero-carbon nuclear feeding the grid.

Have a look at Item 1 on the right hand sidebar. It is a counterfactual, which assumes that Ontario’s nuclear plants have been replaced by gas-fired ones—this is something that the self-styled green lobby hopes would happen.

I have calculated what our CIPK would be if our nuclear plants were replaced with gas plants. Look at what the CIPK would be. It’s depressing to realize that this is what our so-called environmental lobby wants.

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James Greenidge
9 years ago

This data just HAS to Get Out!!!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Morgan Brown
9 years ago

As a railfan and nuclear engineer, I’d like to thank Steve for combining the two in such a positive manner!

A beauty of electric traction is that it does not have to carry around its prime mover (i.e., the diesel engine), but only the electric motors (the vast majority of North American railway locomotives are diesel-electric). Electric traction needs a substantial infrastructure, and therefore is most applicable for an intensive service such as GO Transit. But will we have enough electrical generation capacity to supply electric railways? The largest locomotives are in the order of 10 MWe, and passenger electric multiple units are in the order of 2 to 4 MWe. Also, will we have enough generation to supply a large fleet of electric vehicles (if they ever become popular)?

9 years ago
Reply to  Morgan Brown

Who cares?  Nuclear plants aren’t some primeval creations, never to be found again.  Just reverse the crazy decision not to build those PWRs, get AECL back in the CANDU business (nationalize it if you have to; its present value under do-nothing ownership can’t be much), and build that DUPIC plant to cut your fuel-disposal issue down to size (every ton of ex-PWR fuel used as DUPIC appears to eliminate on the order of 2 tons of SEU).

Heck, offer to take some of the USA’s spent LWR fuel off our hands and use it as DUPIC.  It’ll really rattle some cages, especially among our so-called “environmental community”.

6 years ago

Your article disregards the impact of retrofitting the latest “Tier 4” compliant diesel locomotive engines to the GO fleet, which will substantially reduce particulate and other emissions. $150 million has been spent by GO so far on this retrofit, which was in planning at the time of your article in 2013