Long distance trains - are they worth it?

On the move

I’m excited that the team at Better Century have invited me to make periodic contributions. In future weeks I am going to report and reflect on the challenges and joys of becoming an eco activist. It seems appropriate, as I am coming to this late in life and haven’t yet quite come to terms with the changes in my life.

Since becoming active in green politics and getting involved with Extinction Rebellion (aka XR), I’ve been feeling distinctly uncomfortable about my carbon-guzzling lifestyle. I guess you have too, because you are on this site, and what reasonable person wouldn’t be, now we know the awful scale of the problem.

My guilt is deep. I spent 20 years flying around Europe, ostensibly ‘for work’. The 1990s were a blur of constant flights to and from Moscow, and beyond into Siberia, as I joined the thousands of so-called consultants bearing the gospel of capitalism into the former Soviet Union. Ironically, one of the main reasons we were doing it, taking the dollar and the euro with us, was to cosy up to the Russians and ensure the flow of natural gas to Europe.

The noughties were spent making the most of Ryanair’s glory days, on the Birmingham (or East Mids or Liverpool) to Milan run, while my husband was working in Italy. I enjoyed being able to say ‘I live in Wolverhampton and Milan’. After all, not that many people could say that, and it sounded so glamorous.

So I have an awful lot of carbon to offset if I am to die absolved. My generation has been the biggest consumer, and the biggest beneficiary, of the technology driven by fossil fuels.

The thing is though, we fell in love with Italy, the country with the beautiful face and the ugly underbelly. We bought a little holiday house there, and we want to keep going there as long as our health and Brexit will allow. We are Europeans, and need regular fixes.

Last year we vowed to cut down the flying big-time, and tried our first journey by train to Milan. As I write this we are on the TGV from Lille to Paris, hurtling South to our rendezvous with the Italian night train, that will get us in to Stazione Centrale at 6 tomorrow morning, less than 24 hours since closing our front door behind us.

It’s expensive, compared to flying, and although it’s fast, if speed were your major concern you wouldn’t do it. However, recent experiences of airports and the sheer inhumanity of mass aviation have helped push me towards the train. Having been bumped off a flight last year and kettled in a corner of Birmingham Airport for two and a half hours without a drop of water or a word of information, I have decided that it’s worth slowing it all down to feel more human. In a train you can see the landscape changing, you can feel the miles disappearing under your seat.

The London to Paris leg of the journey can’t be faulted. I am probably going to be chaining myself before long to an ancient oak tree doomed to fall to HS2. But I’m so glad they built the Channel Tunnel long before we started stressing about global warming. Even going the slight detour via Lille is OK, because you get a leg stretch and a French sandwich in the middle of the journey. French trains are clean, quiet, and elegant. Rather like most French people.

The facilities on the night train leave a little to be desired, even though the Thello trains have been refurbished not so long ago. Cheap and cheerful are the watchwords here. But at euro 29 for a sleeping berth in a spotlessly clean compartment with three charming co-travellers, what’s not to like, honestly? Last time, in the restaurant car, we enjoyed a tasty dish of lasagne washed down with hearty red wine, and made firm friends with a delightful couple from Cardiff, before collapsing into ‘bed’ at 11.

Picking up the writing a few hours later and I have found that there is something not to like. Between them, the four other people in our compartment have six enormous suitcases between them. What is going on? What kind of existential anxiety drives people to travel with so much stuff? I muse on this as I drift off to a fitful sleep, and make a mental note that addiction to stuff will make a good topic for a future post.

In a few hours we will be in Milan watching the rising sun kiss the marble of the Stazione Centrale. I understand that the carbon impact of my journey is about 10% of the impact of flying. It’s worth the time, if you can spare it, and the minor discomforts.

If you would like to research your own possible European train adventure, the website Rail Europe (formerly Loco2) offers a one stop planning and booking hub.


Like you, I have had great opportunities to travel and am aware of the contribution I’ve made to the current state. I’m looking forward to more train travel in the future so this was well timed. Enjoy your trip :grin:

It sounds like with a small change of mindset and a little extra time you can make the journey an exciting part of the holiday! I agree that the airport and flying experience is something I’d rather avoid and taking an overnight train with dinner sounds like quite an adventure. I had no idea there was such a great difference to flying - only 10% of the impact!

What was it like sharing a compartment with four other people? Is there an alternative to book a private compartment for a higher price? Sounds like the sharing compartment was a bargain.

Hi Juliet! It does feel like an adventure, especially the first time. But enjoyable. You can pay more for a two berth or even a single compartment. But there seems to be a convention that it’s lights off and everybody quiet by 11. There are plenty of staff on board too to deal with any ‘issues’ and they really seem to want people to have as good a journey as possible. I travel in tunic with a vest underneath and leggings. So I just take off the tunic and lie down like that. You get a fresh clean sheet and fresh pillow, your own reading light and a bottle of water in an easy to reach place. If you really can’t sleep, the bar stays open all night! It’s really no worse than a long distance flight and quite a lot better than some i have been on!