climate change energy sustainability transport

Taking the train

My wife and I booked our summer holiday over the weekend. We’re trying to avoid flying, so we’ll be taking the train to Avignon, in the south of France. It’s our third train holiday, after La Baule and Edinburgh. We’ll get the train from St Pancras, changing in Paris, and the journey will take around seven hours.

In this particular incidence, flying would take around the same time and be more expensive. It would definitely be more hassle. There’s a direct train to Avignon in the peak summer season, while flights go from more obscure UK airports like Exeter or Southampton.

Usually however, flying is to all intents and purposes a better option. It’s cheaper, faster, and almost always more convenient. There are a whole range of airlines and price options to choose from. If you are booking a package holiday, or using a travel agent, you have to fly. Only expensive specialist agencies do train packages, so you’ll have to put it all together yourself.

And yet, if there’s one thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, it’s stop flying. One short-haul and one long-haul flight a year will double your CO2 emissions. It’s the ultimate example of an ‘externality’ – the environmental cost of flying is in no way reflected in the price of a ticket.

This is largely due to the Convention of International Civil Aviation, which came into force in 1947. Under the auspices of the UN, the ‘Chicago Convention’ laid out principles on the use of airspace, the legal rights of pilots and passengers in transit, aircraft registration regulations, and so on. To avoid the complications of refuelling in other countries, and to encourage this new industry, it was agreed that there should be no tax on aviation fuel.

A lot has changed since 1947, but there is still no tax on aviation fuel, meaning the oil use of the aviation industry is subsidized. If aviation fuel was taxed at the same rate as the petrol you put in your car, a flight to Sydney would cost an extra £714 in tax. Instead, passengers don’t pay a penny. This is why, living as I do within walking distance of Luton Airport, I can fly to Berlin or Paris for less than it costs me to catch the train the twenty-five miles to London. In a world facing climate change, this is absolute insanity.

So far the aviation lobby and the government has resisted every call to tax air travel. It has to be done together, internationally. If the UK was to apply taxes unilaterally, nobody would transfer at UK airports, and it would cost the economy millions. It’s an all or nothing deal, and that’s what makes it so politically difficult.

Last week, 49 poor countries at UN talks in Bonn called for a 1% levy on air tickets, to help them adapt to climate change. This is the reality of air travel – consequence-free convenience for some, and drought and starvation for others.

And that’s why we’re taking the train on holiday.

  • If you want to take the train too, the man in seat 61 will get you where you want to go.


  1. I live in London and travel across Europe frequently using the trains. Not only does this reduce my carbon footprint, it adds a great sense of adventure.

    As a train enthusiast I always use, it offers the most extensive range of train tickets throughout Europe, but you can plan your journey starting here in England.


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