Air travel has become the default mode of international business travel, but the greener alternative is to take the scenic route and go overland. Khaled Diab discovers the joys and challenges of cross-border train travel.

Travelling by locomotive to attend the launch of a project called ‘LOCOMOTION’ carries a certain poetic symmetry. As someone who is both concerned about the environment and travels by air regularly, I am acutely conscious of the large carbon footprint this involves.

At the European Environmental Bureau, where I have now been working for a couple of months, there is a policy in place to reduce the number of flights taken by staff by mandating overland travel when the distance is up to 1,000km.

At the EEB, not only are we a multinational network, we also work on many cross-border projects and initiatives with diverse partners from across Europe and beyond. Most of our contacts with our partners in other countries occur virtually, via email or using teleconferencing facilities.

However, travel abroad is necessary in certain cases. But what constitutes necessity and in which cases is a question that requires reflection and debate, not just in the business world, but also among environmental NGOs and civil society collaborating on global issues.

Journey or journée?

To minimise the environmental impact of a longer work-related trip (nearly 1,500km), my colleague, Nick Meynen, suggested we travel from Belgium to Spain by train, and planned the itinerary for us. “By taking the train we practise what we preach: we drastically reduce our emissions,” Nick explained.

Image: Khaled Diab

We ended up travelling through three countries, crossing three different language zones in the process. But this was not the most ambitious journey of recent times at the office. A couple of my co-workers, including Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, recently went from Brussels to Helsinki, a distance of more than 2,300km over land and sea.

The English word journey is derived from the French ‘journée’, originally implying the distance travelled in a day. Both my journey and my journée began in the Belgian city of Ghent, where I boarded the train to the airport but, unlike on other work trips, it was not my destination. Instead, Nick and I took the high-speed TGV train to Paris.

Following a quick ride in the stifling summer air of the Paris metro and a dash down a tree-lined avenue, we were on to the next phase of our overland work odyssey – a long train ride from the French capital to Hendaye, in the French part of the Basque country. From there, after a quick dinner at a friendly local eatery, we boarded the train to Lisbon, for the final leg of our journey to the university town of Valladolid, which had once been Spain’s capital but has since become a relative backwater – something which lent the town an extra tranquillity and charm during the touristic mayhem of Spain in summer.

By travelling over land, we were both figuratively and literally taking the scenic route. Although the bird’s eye view from an aeroplane of the land or sea far below is imposing, impressive and magnificent in its magnitude, on terra firma, the resolution and detail are far greater.

A different kind of landing

From the large, panoramic windows of a train, you get to witness the changing scenery and backdrop in all its glory and inglory, even if it does whiz past at speeds of up to 300km per hour – bustling urban cityscapes giving way to rustling rural landscapes, the regimented rectangles of farmland giving way to the feral freedom of woodland. Although we were not on a plane, we did gain altitude, rising from the flatlands of the low countries, reaching our cruising altitude in the Pyrenees, before descending towards our destination.

Image: Khaled Diab

Unlike on an aeroplane, where there is scarce chance of missing your destination, there was a very real risk that we would fall asleep, miss our station and end up in Lisbon (one could make worse errors, of course). To avoid this possibility, Nick and I chatted in the restaurant car, which appeared to be stuck in a time warp, set somewhere around the late 1970s or early 1980s. Around us, like a retro whodunit set on a train, at least one chevron moustache sat around the bar and a mysterious American couple were engrossed in drawing cryptic sketches and speaking in stage whispers.

As if fearing it would be transformed into a pumpkin, our train arrived at our station a little before midnight and we were checked in and inside our rooms just in time for us to have managed to fit our journey into a single calendar day.

The challenges of green travel

Although travelling over land is better for the environment than air travel, it does come with numerous challenges. One major challenge is that it requires considerably more time than air travel, except for journeys that can be done by high-speed train over relatively short distances, such as Brussels-Paris or Brussels-London, which are actually faster than taking a plane, when you factor in the waiting time. “The main challenge is not the travel itself, which in fact is more comfortable than taking the plane. It is explaining to your kids that you will be away a bit longer but that you’re doing this for them,” admits Nick.

When the distances become greater, the time difference between air and land widens. In the case of our trip to Spain, I estimate that, everything included, it took more than double the time by train as it would by aeroplane, from door to door. In the case of Jean-Pierre, who travelled to Helsinki from Brussels, the difference was even greater. It took him two days over land and sea to cover the distance that a plane would have leapt across in two and a half hours.

However, raising the bar in this way could force an institutional rethink of attitudes to international travel. “Stricter rules would make it easier for staff and organisations to identify the trips that are really important, worthwhile, and that they are excited to invest the time travelling to,” suggests Jean-Pierre.

Not all employers would be sympathetic to their staff being on the road for so long, even if modern-day transportation allows them to work en route. For instance, quite a few of the trains we took during our trip to Spain had WiFi, enabling Nick and I to have an almost regular day at the office, complete with a face-to-face meeting during which we planned our interventions for the conference.

Another consideration is cost. In the early decades of air travel, flying was expensive and reserved for the so-called ‘jet set’. Today, thanks to the failures of our economic model, air travel in Europe is more often than not cheaper, not just faster, than travelling long distances over land. Moreover, getting affordable rates on trains often requires booking months in advance, which is not always possible for work-related travel.

Even though Nick was at pains to try and work out the relatively complex logistics early on so that everything could be booked before it became unaffordable, our overland trip to Spain ended up costing about twice as much as our return journey by air, which we took because there were no viable options for travelling back at night (here is a handy planning resource).

This highlights one of the central conundrums of trying to travel more sustainably: individual effort can only get us so far without systemic change.

To remedy this, European governments must urgently scale up efforts to make transnational train travel more affordable, more connected, faster and more convenient than it presently is.

“Policy-makers must boost investments in rail networks, as well as removing subsidies for airlines, airports, and kerosene. Europeans urgently deserve access to affordable public transport and the real cost of flying on the climate must be reflected in the ticket price,” concludes Jean-Pierre.

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