7 reasons why I’m swapping flights for train travel in 2020

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It seems we’re at a tipping point. We’ve been binge-flying. Some 70 per cent of UK flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population and flying is the single most carbon intensive discretionary behaviour we can undertake. And this really matters now. Australia is on fire. Or being hit by giant hailstones. Or engulfed in dust clouds. Climate change is truly upon us in all its terrible predictability. Yet don’t despair at flight-shaming – it’s time to look on the bright side. Seeing other parts of the world should be a joyous thing. In the immortal words of Bananarama ‘It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it’. This is not the end of travel, but we are going to have to change how we do it, how far we go, for how long and for how often.

I think we are entering an era of far fewer, perhaps longer trips, with many more of them taken closer to home or overland. Sleeper trains, once seemingly on the way out, are springing back to life across Europe’s best train journeys. It’s easier than ever to book trans-continental trains in one transaction at websites such as raileurope.co.uk. And at a time when we’re obsessed with control, there’s something truly magical about the randomness and serendipity of flight-free adventures.

Admittedly, having circumnavigated the world without a plane, I am a little obsessive. In 2019, I took trains to Berlin, Lisbon, Inverness (on the smart new Caledonian Sleeper), Barcelona (twice), Brussels (pre-Eurostar we used to fly there, remember?), Penzance and the Sail and Rail to the west of Ireland. Every trip was wild and wonderful for its own reasons. Let’s face it, you rarely get fascinating travel stories on planes. So here are seven reasons why we should all be swapping air fortrain travel in 2020. And beyond.

Here are seven reasons train travel trumps flying

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    7. The views

    Watch the world unfold in a constantly changing panorama from the comfort of your seat, regardless of cloud cover. You pass through places not just over them. The relationship with landscape is intimate not distant and the scenery on many brilliantly engineered routes is mind-blowing. The El Chepe railway that winds through the Copper Canyon in northern Mexico spirals over itself inside the mountain to gain elevation as it traverses dozens of spectacular bridges and tunnels. In Europe, the World Heritage Site Semmeringbahn in Austria performs similarly stunning feats through the Alps, while for a truly transcendental top-of-the-world experience Switzerland’s Glacier Express, which I rode during the notorious Icelandic ash-cloud downing of European aviation a decade ago, rides through deep billowy snow-fields and between tumbling rivers of ice. These journeys are genuinely extraordinary.

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    6. Independence

    On a train you can abandon the infantilisation of flight, in which we’re told to ‘Sit there, belt up, watch this, eat that and don’t get up unless you need to use the loo’. On a train you can wander about, stretch your legs, have a drink at the bar – which on many trains in Europe and around the world is amazing. I once took a sleeper train from Paris to the Oktoberfest in Munich which turned into a carriage-long party and ended up involving very little sleep. Not quite the ideal preparations for a day of pilsner and oompah.

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    5. Picnic

    Grab a table and enjoy a spread-out smorgasbord of your own choosing, perhaps with an appropriate wine. The legendary train travelling Man in Seat 61 Mark Smith notes: ‘Never travel without a good book and a corkscrew’. Instead of picking at hours-old reheated food from a foil tray with a plastic fork, I’ve eaten smoked omul fish and kussna sassiski (‘tasty sausages’ in Russian) on the Circum-Baikal railway in Siberia and tut (tiny dried white Iranian mulberries) with a Persian refugee on a Dutch sleeper train.

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    4. Meet new friends

    For a start, the picnic might help! There is something inherently convivial about sitting opposite folk that facilitates ice-breakers and conversation. I have made many new friends on long train journeys, especially on sleeper trains, sharing sweet Russian sparkling wine with raucous retired Fins and ex-special forces soldiers on the Trans-Siberian Express, and helped hoard contraband goods under hatches in the floor of the notorious smuggling train from Ulan Bator. You always smile, you speak if you can find a common language, or you gesture, gesticulate or sketch your way to connection and perhaps common understanding, although that’s by no means guaranteed.

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    3. Stations

    Railways hubs are not always the most salubrious of places but you can still enjoy their gritty authenticity and history. Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station is, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’. But equally the grand old age of rail has bequeathed us staggering architecture and fin de siecle delights in gorgeous terminals such as Le Train Bleu restaurant in Paris’s Gare de Lyon.

    Read more about historic train station architecture

    Beautiful train station architecture

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    2. The journey is the reward

    The holiday starts when you leave home, not when you touch down as the train is truly travelling not just transit. This is as much a mindset as a behaviour. Be open to the slow seduction of sliding through the world and all its flaws and beauty, not just soaring over it at 30,000 feet. Getting there really should be at least half the fun.

  • 7 reasons why Im swapping flights for train travel in 2020

    1. It’s better for the climate

    We are in a climate emergency and carbon emissions have to be reduces: we simply cannot carry on as we are, believing that our age of hypermobility – the right to fly wherever we want, whenever we want, however often we want – is never-ending. We need to get more grounded, in every sense, to the new reality. Traincations are the start and Greta Thunberg will love you for it.

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