I’m back from holidays this week, having taken the family on a bit of an adventure over the last fortnight. We went to Sweden to visit friends, finally taking up a long standing invitation. After a few days on their farm, we spent some time exploring Stockholm and Copenhagen on the way home.
Since we are committed to avoiding flying, we travelled by train. The journey took in five countries and multiple train connections, all of which were made.
There is no question that flying is simpler, quicker and cheaper – in return for ten times the carbon emissions. But it’s not a straightforward comparison, and here are some things we’ve learned from taking a long distance train holiday.
1 – The journey is the holiday. If we’d done this by plane, it’s a 2 hour 10 minute flight from Stansted to the nearest regional airport of Orebro. Even with travel to the airport, check-in times, and allowing several hours of post-Brexit/Covid summer chaos, you’d still expect to book out one day of travel at most. We took three days each way.
However, a flight is a means to an end, and that makes it an unfair comparison to a train journey. We have considered the travel days to be very much part of the holiday, planning breaks in places that we wanted to spend time in. Lunch in Brussels, dinner in Cologne and a chance to show the kids the cathedral. An evening walk through historic Bremen. The three days we took to get to rural Sweden were not wasted time on the way to the true destination.
2 – Long train journeys are logistically complicated. We were using Interrail passes for our travel, which means you’re essentially traveling on one ticket. However, plenty of trains needed separate seat reservations, and you couldn’t travel without one. Over the course of the journey we used many different train companies, all with their own rules. Long hours of work went into planning and booking everything – mainly by my wife – with detailed notes on connection times, departures and platforms.
We had to be on our toes too, because there were cancellations and re-schedulings in the weeks leading up to the holiday that threw our planned connections out. This was not joyless work – there’s plenty of anticipation in planning an expedition. But it was annoying sometimes.
3 – Train travel isn’t cheap (but neither is flying). No great news-flash there, and this was an expensive holiday by my family’s standards. It was made more affordable by the fact that Interrail passes are free for children under 12 – the last year we’ll be able to claim this particular benefit. But it’s not something we can afford to do often.
The relative affordability of aviation is an illusion though, when we consider the environmental harm that it causes. Ryanair can only offer its cheap flights to Sweden because the full cost isn’t reflected in the ticket price. The true cost of aviation falls on others, usually people who have never been on a plane. So we shouldn’t be fooled into simple price comparisons between rail and flying.
4 – Train travel is more rewarding – one of the great benefits of train travel is that you travel through a place rather than above it. Even if you don’t stop somewhere and walk around, you see it. You notice the landscape, the vernacular architecture, unexpected things like the shape of the pylons. There’s a continuity from one place to another. You literally see more of the world.
Our trip took us through a tiny bit of France, right through Belgium, up through Germany and across Denmark. We appreciated local foods and differences in language and culture along the way. Where a plane would have landed us straight at our destination, the train freed us to follow our curiosity. (I shall be boring you with future posts inspired by Copenhagen.)
Train travel itself has an appeal of its own, of course. For my son, who is a train enthusiast, there was endless joy in the variety of trains.
5 – It’s not for everyone all the time – A trip like this one isn’t necessarily the trip of a lifetime, but it isn’t going to be a regular event either. I’m not prepared to put that much groundwork into every summer holiday. Nor is it practical for anyone travelling regularly to Sweden. It’s been a great option for a family holiday, but this isn’t a climate solution for everyone as things currently stand.
I was thinking about what would make it a more viable solution at a bigger scale. More direct connections would help. Maybe a sleeper service that would reduce the journey time. That would make it possible for those making the trip more often. And as it happens, that exact service was announced last week. As of September you’ll be able to get from London to Stockholm in under 24 hours, using a sleeper from Hamburg.
The more people choose flight-free travel, the greater the incentive to bring in these sorts of services. The European Commission is also working on greater cooperation between operators, making it easier to travel internationally by train – including the need to book individual seat reservations. At the same time, we really ought to be pricing in the true cost of aviation, which would reduce the sector’s unfair advantage on price. That looks politically improbable in Britain at the moment, though other governments such as France, or indeed Sweden, are taking more ambitious steps.
With easier international train travel and more realistically priced flights, perhaps longer train journeys will be more common in future.