I woke up several times during the night last night. A few times because of the fluctuations in temperature: the heating couldn’t be turned up or down, so instead was being turned off and on again every once in a while when the carriage got too hot and then when it got too cold. Another time because I drooled on my neck pillow. And a final time when someone stepped on my bare toe with the heel of her shoe.
This is how I spend two nights a month: sprawled in a chair on the sleeper train between London and Edinburgh, part of a longer journey to get me from Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where my husband is a post-doc, to Edinburgh, where I’m doing my PhD. The rest of the trip involves a 3 hour train between Nijmegen and Brussels, changing in Roosendaal, and 2 hours on the Eurostar between Brussels and London. The whole lot takes about 12 hours door to door.
Why would I willingly subject myself to such an arduous journey twice a month when I could make it from city to city using the modern marvel of air travel in a mere 5 hours (including travel to and from airports, queuing for security, and browsing WH Smith’s book collection without any intention of buying anything)? I’m glad you asked. It turns out that if I took a return flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam (a 830 mile trip), I would be responsible for 0.11 metric tons of carbon emissions. But a round trip by train, covering a distance of 1500 miles, puts me in debt by 0.04 metric tons. Over the course of a year in which I make the trip every month, that’s a saving of nearly a ton of carbon.
My PhD is in environmental ethics, so the decision to travel by train instead of plane was a simple one (otherwise my conscience would be gnawing at me unbearably and I doubt I’d be able to look my supervisors in the eye). But, despite my uncomfortable sleeper train experiences, taking the long route instead of the convenient one has really cemented my belief that train travel is just superior to flying. Here are my reasons, some of which apply to train travel in general and some of which are specific to my journey:
- If the train bumps or rattles or makes other weird noises, I hardly notice. If a plane does that, I immediately start making my peace with a god I previously had no belief in.
- Turning up a maximum of 20 minutes before departure. I am someone who is perpetually cutting it fine when it comes to being on time. I do not like having to turn up several hours in advance of a main event. Even on the Eurostar, I find that I go through security quicker if I turn up later than the recommended 45 minutes prior to departure, since by the time I reach security everyone else has already gone through it.
- Going through London means I get to stop off there for weekends quite regularly to see my family and friends, which has the added bonus of breaking up my journey into two more manageable chunks. If I were to fly, I’d bypass London entirely and my life would be poorer for it.
- Trains are just more comfortable. Okay, not all trains. I find Cross-country ones weirdly humid, and on First Great Western I’ve often wondered if the other passengers decided to have a food fight before I got on. But the ones I take between Nijmegen and Edinburgh are usually pretty clean, with much larger and comfier seats than one can get on a plane in economy class. Also if you’re sitting next to someone with a cold, there are ways to escape them on a train. Not so on a plane, where their germs are just getting mixed up with everyone else’s and recycled through the air-conditioning.
- Lounge and cafe cars. My favourite thing to do on the Eurostar is spend most of the journey in the cafe car sipping sparkling wine and eating overpriced French snacks.
- Thinking time. Train journeys are a slower alternative to plane journeys (except horrendous long-haul flights of course), and that means more time to fill between start and end point. For me, this has been invaluable thinking and daydreaming time. Watching the Dutch countryside slide past the window for several hours helps my brain to slow down and relax enough to work out thesis problems that might otherwise vex me for days.
Environmental ethicists talk a lot about the ways humans can forge a positive relationship with nature. Often they’re referring to spending time in nature, literally getting our hands dirty, but in our everyday lives, I think this can also mean finding value in the changes we need to make to have less impact on the planet. Environmentalism needn’t all be about sacrifice, the things we can’t or shouldn’t do. It can and should be about gaining something too. So while some people might consider my extensive train journeys to be a sacrifice of convenience, for me it actually makes travel which is necessary for my life right now much more enjoyable than it would be otherwise (despite the fact that I sometimes think the sleeper train should be renamed the sleepless train). But it’s nice to have a massive carbon saving as motivation too.