Why we need a new golden age of European rail | Timothy garton ash
AAs the Cop26 conference begins in Glasgow, I reflected on what I can do to help tackle the climate crisis. Eat less meat? Buy an electric car? Exchange the old gas boiler for a heat pump? Take the train instead of a short-haul flight?
All of the above, of course. But as someone who has spent much of their life flying around Europe, the latter seems particularly relevant. About half of all flights in Europe are short-haul flights, defined by the EU as journeys of less than 1,500 km. A detailed study has shown that short flights on selected routes across Europe can generate up to 19 times more CO2 emissions the equivalent train journey. (Nineteen is from Zurich to Milan: the shorter the flight, the larger the excess). The UK campaign for better transport recently organized a ‘run’ from central London to Glasgow city center. The train passenger arrived two minutes later than the person who came by plane, and the CO2 emissions were estimated at 20 kg, compared to 137 kg for the flight. But, this being Great Britain, the train ticket cost twice as much.
This is not true everywhere. For example, in December I have to travel from Bremen, in northern Germany, where I speak on a Thursday evening, to Bavaria, where I have an engagement the following night. Until recently, I would have automatically booked a flight. Now I find that there is an excellent intercity rail link which allows me to connect Bremen to Munich in less than six hours. Yes, it takes a little longer than the flight, which would only take an hour and a quarter – and Lufthansa offers no less than five direct flights that day. But that doesn’t take into account the drive to the airport, check-in and waiting time, and then the long drive into town from distant Munich Airport. Unlike London-Glasgow, the train is also cheaper: â¬ 27.99 at the supersaver price.
In addition, the train journey will almost certainly be more enjoyable. None of those traffic jams on the way to the airport. No sweaty striptease at airport security, and you’re tired of waiting for your flight to be called. No need to cram into a narrow seat, wrapped in a metal tube filled with pressurized recirculated air. From the train, I will be able to watch the German landscape pass through my window, which is gradually changing; read and write comfortably, with good wifi (although an uneven mobile signal); get up, go for a walk and have lunch in the dining car. Then I can go out at the end of the trip, directly into central Munich.
I recently came across notes I took at a meeting of the then German Green Youth parliamentary party in October 1984. Green MPs, I noted, would in principle not use domestic flights to inside Germany. “Here we are, protesting against Startbahn West [a new runway at Frankfurt airport], says one, and then we walk away! My notes sound slightly amused, especially when someone confesses: “I take a Bundestag chauffeur-driven car to the pub in the evening!” But now I say to myself: if only the Greens’ approach had prevailed 40 years ago. Imagine that we have spent the last four decades favoring European rail links over short-haul flights. Today, as the Greens prepare to take their place in a new German government, you can bet your last euro that the airlines are quietly pushing, explaining the cost – also in lost jobs – of cutting them all too quickly. these short-haul flights.
Italy shows what can be done and the possible cost. Over the past two decades, he has to build an impressive network of comfortable, high-speed intercity trains. You can get from Rome to Milan in two hours and 59 minutes. The former national airline, Alitalia, however, is no longer. (Yes, I know Alitalia’s story is more complicated – but you get the idea.)
In an opinion poll conducted last year for my research team at Oxford, respondents in the EU27 and the UK were asked: ‘To help tackle climate change, would you support a ban on short flights to destinations that could be reached in the form? âAlmost two-thirds (65%) OK. One reason for the high level of support may be that relatively few Europeans actually make a lot of intra-European flights: 76% said they fly in Europe once a year or less. Frequent travelers like me are the problem. On our project site, we have a map showing how far you can travel from Berlin, Brussels and Paris in a train journey of up to 12 hours, including transfer time: from Brussels to Barcelona, ââfor example, or from Paris to Berlin. This 12-hour goal may be too ambitious. But a radius of, say, six hours away, set as a standard by individual travelers and employers, is certainly not unrealistic.
To move faster from short-haul aircraft to rail, we need to change on the demand side (that’s us), the supply side and the regulatory framework. The EU is trying to play a certain role here. I bet you didn’t know 2021 is the European year of rail. Brussels recently sent a Europe Express connection around the EU, although this rather highlighted some of the problems, as it required three different trains, one for the main European gauge, another for the Iberian gauge and a third for the Baltic gauge (that is – i.e. post-Soviet) in the Baltic States.
At least as important will be railway operators, reservation agencies and consumer lobby groups. It is still much easier to book flights across Europe than it is to book train journeys. However, one of the best places to start is with a slightly quirky website, siege61.com, run by a British train fanatic called Mark Smith. It tells you where to go online to make your reservation for almost any trip across Europe, adding expert advice on actual trains. For pan-European train reservations you can try raileurope.com and trainline.com, but both have significant geographic boundaries. Too often, you end up having to book on the various national rail websites, with the hassle of registration that comes with it.
Another positive development would be to relaunch long-distance night trains. The night train was once part of the great romance of European travel (brought up brilliantly and playfully in the Stephen Poliakoff scripted film Caught on a Train). There are few left. Bring back the night trains – and make those bunks more comfortable while we’re at it.
‘Let the train take the stress’ was a big advertising slogan of the 1980s. Forty years later, the state of the planet is forcing us to do it urgently – and, overall, that should be a pleasure too. .