My year of train-bragging

In 2019, ITF shipping expert Olaf Merk decided to live up to his own recommendations on cutting transport CO2. So for all his professional trips, he tried to avoid air travel and use the train instead. Did he manage, and what did he learn?

By Olaf Merk

For many years I was a frequent flyer, with an average of 35 trips annually. Then three things happened: Greta showed how to walk the talk; I had an accident that made it impossible for me to take a plane for four months; and Paris suffered a record heat wave that once again illustrated the urgency.

It was time to live up to my own recommendations. As a transport expert, I have been advocating drastic reductions of transport CO2 for a long time.  Now I decided I would no longer take the plane for travels within Europe.  And so, of the 17 international trips I took for my work in 2019 (of which 16 were within Europe), I made 13 by train.

What did I learn from this?

Welcome to your comfort zone

The first lesson: taking the train instead of a plane is not that hard. Expect more space and more freedom to move around. Some trains also have very pleasant dining cars. On a more metaphysical level, train travel offers the feeling to be connected to the countries that you cross. You are actually travelling, not just being moved from one place to another.

Of course, a train ride often takes longer. To get from Paris to Copenhagen took me 15 hours, and 11 hours to Rome. The links could be faster – astonishingly, relatively few European capitals are directly connected by rail connections.  

And there are quite a lot of weak links: taking the train to Copenhagen meant in practice taking three different trains, a ferry and a bus. It would have taken me two full days to get to Tallinn by train and bus from Paris, so I decided to fly instead. My excuses for the other non-train trips also somehow illustrate the vulnerabilities of train travel: a national strike and flooded rail tracks in southern France.

Travel longer, lose less time

Trains take longer, but I did not have to waste time going shuttling to and from airports. For obvious reasons most airports are located outside most cities, far from where you need to be, whereas train stations almost always lead directly to city centres. No need either to factor in time to work my way through gigantic airport shopping centres.

Changing trains is also less time-consuming than changing plane, too – not to mention that trains (usually) don’t require queuing at the security check or for boarding. Of course a ten-hour train journey wears me down. But, on balance, I find it is less stressful than air travel. The prospect of spending more than a working day travelling – even if you can actually work more effectively during train travel than during flights – makes you think twice whether you really need to make this trip, or whether tele-conferencing would not be a better option.

The price is not right

Lesson number three is that the price is not right. The main drawback of train travel is that it is often more expensive than travelling by plane. There are some noticeable counter-examples, but not enough. And as an employee, I am obliged to pick the most economical travel option – and in that logic, train travel involves extra costs that the organisation I work for needs to avoid. The same is the case for many other organisations.

I paid the difference in price between the train ticket and what an airline would have charged me. But I fear we cannot depend on the altruism of frequent flyers to see a massive shift to rail.

Bragging is contagious

The nicest part of train bragging is that it is contagious. There is a whole online community of co-braggers that are more than happy to support their peers. And so your example might well inspire others. I was excited when a German executive told me about his own shift to train travel a few months after I had shared with him my own conversion. All these small behavioural changes are starting to become visible at the macro-level: in countries like Sweden and Germany, air travel volumes in 2019 were down.

Yet, not everyone was equally enthusiastic: I also encountered sceptics when I outed myself. Some denied that planes have bigger carbon footprint than trains. Just to get this out of the way: in almost all circumstances, train travel is less carbon intensive than air travel. In the parts of Europe where trains are still dirty, they can be electrified; and electricity is becoming quickly cleaner in Europe. This in contrast to aviation: there are no immediate solutions to reduce aviation emissions except reduced demand. The most direct option that frequent flyers have to limit their carbon footprint is to fly less and shift to rail travel.

Picking up speed

What is my personal conclusion? Employers should encourage staff to travel less, and if they have to travel, travel by train. The costs of greenhouse gas emissions should be taken into account in the price comparison of travel modes, not as an afterthought via a carbon offset from a separate budget. Ideally, it should also cover other climate change impacts, such as radiative forcing, high for aviation. Employers should also make sure that flights for work reasons won’t be counted towards personal frequent flyer cards, which will incentivise their staff to fly more.

Train operators can also do better. More attention to customer service rather than on stacking as many people as possible in a train will make train journeys more attractive. They can improve service in train stations for frequent travellers; maybe develop a pan-European frequent rail traveller programme. There is huge potential in better integration of rail services with airports and aviation networks, too. Some airlines have started to realise this.

Competition among railway operators also helps, as do governments committed to a modal shift towards rail. They should accelerate the upgrading of missing links: I found Hamburg-Copenhagen, Lyon-Turin and railway connections to the Baltic states a pain. In parallel to investing in high-speed rail, governments should close loop-holes that keep the price of flying so low – aviation fuel, for instance, is not taxed at all.

If I can take the train most of the time, I guess almost everyone else can. After one year of bragging I know one thing for certain: The train with destination “low-emission transport” has left the station. For now, its pace is accelerating but still too slow. Together we can turn it into a high-speed train.

Paris: Managing the Shared Mobility Révolution

Shared Mobility in Practice

In Paris, the shared mobility revolution is well underway. We examine how Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ town hall, is trying to get a grip on the situation.

By Emma Latham-Jones and Will Duncan

Over 20,000 dockless trottinettes eléctrique, or electric scooters, have sprung up around the French capital since June 2018, quickly becoming a common sight on the city’s Haussmannian streets. Renting one is as simple as downloading an app and punching in your credit card details. With the scooters seemingly available everywhere – on sidewalks, squares, and by the banks of the Seine – it’s become easy to whizz around the city at a silent speed.

Parisians have been quick to recognise the potential of these new shared vehicles. The novelty of the electric e-scooter has swiftly given way to it being seen as a mainstream and significant mode of transport. As James Tapper wrote in The Guardian, “they’re cheaper than cabs, less effort than a bike and more convenient than buses.” They have a lot going for them.

Never have their benefits been more apparent than during December’s period of grèves – transport strikes – across the capital city. Zipping past tense car drivers stuck in traffic stretching out miles down Paris’ boulevards at rush hour, e-scooters defy both the public transport strikes and the increase in car traffic that’s accompanied it. For those otherwise stranded during the public transport turmoil, these e-scooters seem to be an early Christmas blessing.

But the sudden success of these new networks of scooters has created a dilemma for the city government. Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, ran on an especially green platform and has implemented a number of reforms to combat the city’s pollution levels and traffic congestion. While these new scooters appear to offer Parisians a greener way to get around the City of Light, their sudden arrival has been chaotic, prompting critics to label it an “invasion”.

From Bolt to Lime, the takeover of one-syllable brand names running e-scooter fleets is causing some serious problems. Tourists fly by silently through busy pedestrian areas. Disorganised clusters of scooters block sidewalks and doorways. The less-fortunate can be seen vandalised or discarded in an ugly heap. Tragically, Paris saw its first electric scooter-related death in June 2019, after a truck collided with a rider in the city’s 18th arrondissement.

The transport revolution is taking hold, but it’s causing some serious headaches.

Photo: martin_vmorris (CC), Flickr

Taking back control

In June 2019, Hidalgo declared an “end to the anarchy”. Her government established a new set of rules for shared electric scooters operating with Paris city limits, necessary “to assure road safety and to calm the streets, pavements, and neighbourhoods of our city.”

Riders were banned from rolling along the footpaths or through parks and gardens. Speeds were capped to 25km/h. The number of service operators would be reduced from twelve to an approved (and more manageable) three, and operators have been requested not to increase the number of scooters in circulation while the new national mobility law creates a more appropriate legal framework.

Perhaps the most significant intervention: scooters can no longer be abandoned on the sidewalks – possibly the biggest gripe amongst Parisians towards the new vehicles. E-scooters must be parked in legitimate parking spaces, the same used by cars or bikes. Paris will soon experiment with dedicated shared scooter and bicycle parking spots around the city.

The official Twitter account of the city of Paris

While Paris is in some sense, “cracking down” — these actions don’t really represent the big blow to shared mobility innovation that some may have expected, or feared. Free-floating scooters are in no way banned from operating in the city (like they are in London and Barcelona, for example). Clearly, Paris recognises the potential of free-floating shared vehicles. In fact, by calling for an end of the anarchy, the Parisian government has elected to take a leading role in the responsible management of shared mobility in its city.

“Under no circumstances should this mode of transport be pilloried,” assures a city press release. “[E-scooters] represent a new form of transport mobility and contribute to reducing the use of polluting cars. However, the City of Paris wishes to regulate this mode of transport more effectively to ensure road safety and calm streets and pavements.” 

According to Philippe Crist, Innovation Policy Analyst at the International Transport Forum, “Paris has established an ambitious regulatory framework in less than twelve months.” And in only 16 months, e-scooters were added to the Code de la Route. As a result, they are subject to the rules of the road, and there is now a ban on more than one person per scooter.

With the tender process well under way, the contracts for the three wining e-scooter service operators will be awarded from January 2020. This has prompted scooter companies to share more ambitious approaches to sustainability, declaring the creation of extra scooter repair facilities to extend the notoriously short lifespan. As they race to win the favour of Hôtel de Ville, they also rush to ditch gig workers and instead hire staff on permanent contracts.

Re-imagining the city street

“Why do these scooters often feel so anarchic? Because they’re whizzing down roads that aren’t designed for them,” says Crist.

“We devote a very large part of the road to a wall of steel — parked automobiles. If we managed public space better — if we adapted it to the needs and possibilities of today — it could be quite different,” he says.

Cities must look at how they can effectively regulate — and also benefit from — this kind of innovation. Like other city halls, Paris’ Hôtel de Ville recognises the extraordinary potential of shared mobility to reduce congestion and pollution, by encouraging the idea that owning a private vehicle is not necessary to have high-quality access to the city.

Disruptions like this invite us to imagine how cities could be. According to Crist, “we’re living in a very interesting time — something of a crossroads. We suddenly have so many more options in how we can get around, with an even greater promise for the future. But we haven’t yet thought about re-allocating space in the city to fit these modes.”

“Today’s roads are based off a 100-year-old model,” he points out. “How can governments adapt and lead to re-think the model for the next 100 years?”

ITF work has indicated that if widely adopted, some forms of shared mobility could halve the number of vehicle-kilometres travelled in urban areas, and reduce urban transport CO2 emissions by 30%. Free-floating e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility can help achieve these outcomes, but it’s crucial that governments take them seriously and recognise the potential they represent.

Cities such as Paris are well-placed to imagine and invest in the future of transport at this exciting time.

This article is part of a series on Shared Mobility in Practice, which looks at how cities around the world are incorporating innovative transport solutions in real life, today. See also: Los Angeles: Harnessing Data for Transport Innovation, and: China: Explaining Ride-Hailing’s Rapid Rise. Shared mobility is one of the transport disruptions explored in the 2019 ITF Transport Outlook.