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.

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