Train travel is a gem waiting for rediscovery
It’s not often you get bumped up to first class for a tenner. I can’t believe my luck. The seats are like armchairs and pivot so you can recline into a perfect sleeping position. The pull-down table so generous I have plenty of space for my laptop, a coffee and a sandwich without having to channel my ninja skills, ready to catch a falling object at any moment. I managed to book last minute and the cabin is almost empty, the temperature perfectly controlled to ensure maximum comfort and I can stroll next door anytime I like for a hot meal. Oh, and did I mention the view? Train travel around Europe is a gem waiting for rediscovery.
I’ve been on a retreat at Villa Lugara near Baiso, Italy and in the company of some extraordinary writers but I don’t envy them their return home, flying Ryan Air from Bologna to Bristol. Squished in like cattle, commonly made to wait for two hours on the hot tarmac without explanation of the delay and refused free water. Modern air travel has been perversely designed to be endured rather than enjoyed. Tell me, when was the last time you enjoyed a flight?
Perhaps this is the right time to mention that Ryan Air has recently joined the fossil fuel crew as one of the top ten most polluting companies on the planet. The latest research reveals that it’s not only carbon emissions that are causing global heating. Contrails left by aeroplanes are now so wide spread that their warming effect is greater than that of all the carbon dioxide emitted by aeroplanes that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the first flight of the Wright brothers. My choice to travel by train rather than fly has saved 480Kg of carbon from the atmosphere. Currently, there are over 100,000 flights around the world every single day which melts Arctic ice the equivalent size to approximately thirty-seven Empire State buildings. Choosing NOT to fly has a powerful impact.
Slow travel is set to make a comeback. Travel that reconnects you with place and culture. Travel that’s occasionally but joyfully inconvenient. Travel that forces you to make unscheduled stops resulting in the discovery of people and places that inspire, uplift and smash through ingrained certainties. But that’s only if you’re lucky. So far, the trains I’ve caught have been on time and on schedule and I’ve reached my destinations as planned. If I didn’t have to whizz back to the UK to be with my young children, I would have stopped a day or two in all the places I’ve had to catch connecting trains – Paris, Turin, Milan, Bologna. Lingering to imbibe each cities’ culture, welcoming uncertainty as I navigate my way through unmapped streets and stumble over half understood conversations but having slowed enough to allow each City to imprint on me; to change me a little as I seek to understand the world through an exploration of otherness and with that, discover myself a little more. Each City entices me to stay longer. This is not a holiday, this is akin to being the protagonist of a Hemingway novel.
The booking engine LOCO2 offer a simple Europe-wide city to city search of alternative travel routes overnight sleepers (expensive), high speed day trains (cheap) and every alternative you can think of in-between.
Trains are the lowest carbon emission form of easily accessible public transport. As a passionate traveller, mother and environmental scientist I’ve completely reimagined how to explore the world. A holiday is no longer a jet to Mexico to lie by the beach for a week nor a quick weekend in Rome. I’ve rediscovered travel as something to be savoured rather than an inconvenience between home and holiday. And this excitement has been triggered by a compulsion to discover new ways to live in a world so damaged by modern lifestyles.
Reduction in carbon emissions is critical to reduce global heating and whilst air travel may always be with us, it can no longer be the default mode of international transport. I’ve signed the FlightFree2020 pledge but I’ve stopped flying immediately. In order to prevent global heating in excess of 1.5-degrees we need Government action now but we also need to reimagine our lifestyles and embrace limitations as a gift. For many, modern travel lacks soul and adventure – jetting around the world to access a little more sun but not engage with the local people and culture deprives not only the traveller but also the destination community. The trend is economically non-specific and all are affected from the package holiday tourist to residents of vast five-star hotel complexes. Slow travel immerses you in local culture and all are enriched.
I had to cross Paris from the Gare du Lyon to the Gare du Nord to catch my connecting train to London. Europe was experiencing a freak heatwave. I stepped down from the TGV and the 45-degree heat brought back memories of working in Sub-Saharan Africa. The oppressive weather made it impossible to think and Paris isn’t designed to withstand desert temperatures. As an environmental engineer and scientist my expertise is the provision of safe water to remote global communities. I’ve worked with indigenous tribes and small island developing states, both of which have been battling the consequences of climate change for decades yet little has been done to protect these vulnerable communities. Many have lost their homes and become aid dependent. As the consequences of unpredictable weather systems now threaten my own children, I feel that it is my duty to dedicate my life to protecting them – I may make little difference but I’m essentially an optimist and hope is catching.
Pollution comparison analysis of flight, car and train travel for my trip
Slow travel with all its benefits is one method of making a difference. I want to visit other continents with my family and we will but slowly. A flight just once every few years to Asia, Africa or the Americas and to have thoughtfully arranged our lives in such a way that we can spend quality time exploring all those places have to offer. Immersive travel is fundamentally important to awakening local conscious to global issues. I’ve lived and worked abroad all my life and it’s my sensitivity to other cultures and the people living there that has instilled in me a horror of some of our most mindless modern lifestyle practices. Fast fashion and rampant consumerism are destructive at a planetary level but these issues are rarely discussed in the media and if they are not often in a way that evokes sufficient empathy to inspire a majority to make personal change. With this in mind I will always be an advocate of more travel not less. And more reading too but I’ll leave that discussion for another blog post.
Currently, cheap aviation predominates the UK travel market. It’s unfairly subsidised and protected from standard taxes whilst train travel is poorly managed with year on year fare increases to pay the dividends of unnecessarily large senior management teams and their Boards of Directors. On top of which 15% of the population take 70% of the flights, a large proportion of which are for people travelling to their second homes. So, we have to ask ourselves, who is really benefiting from cheap flights?
Luxembourg’s progressive environmental democratic leader, Xavier Bettel, has made all public transport free. It’s an astonishing visionary policy with two climate change busting outcomes, reduced use of personal cars and flight, both of which are the lion’s share of the 27% of carbon emissions attributed to global transport. I’d like to tell you about the positive health repercussions of such policies, too many to append to this article but as a heads up – they’re huge.
Rather than address untaxed aviation fuel and tackle international treaties so complex witchery is required to untangle them (although some are trying so please do sign the petition below), we could simply embrace simplicity and redirect public resources from aviation and the road network into supporting an unprecedented scheme that would provide free (or at least very inexpensive) transport for all. It’s not a radical idea, it’s just common sense.
This summer we’re staying close to home and spending a month in France. We’ll take the kids by train, stop off in Paris, Lyon and Annecy. My eldest is always comparing local customs to ours and it’s this breadth of understanding and enquiry that I hope to inspire in all of my children. Travel, real travel, promotes empathy, compassion and tolerance of others, emotions that are severely under threat in modern society. If we’re lucky we may even pick up a little of the language too.