Those air heads are off the rails

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department.

It is rare that I am seized by the desire to grab a complete stranger and urge them to change their ways. I don't consider myself to take the moral high ground on many issues. I eat animals even though I'm aware it would probably be more ethical to stop, and I regularly pour massive quantities of oil on to previously unpolluted stretches of countryside (in the light of the recent Twitter joke trial, I should probably place on record immediately that the last remark was humorous, with no basis in reality). "Live and let live" would be my philosophy, if I didn't come from a generation too vacuous and addled by MTV to have philosophies.

But this week I found myself overhearing (by which I mean deliberately eavesdropping on) a conversation in a café. A businesswoman was looking ahead to a trip from London to Manchester. "I was all set to drive," she said proudly, "and then I thought to myself, what about the plane?! Booked myself a flight. Only takes an hour. Brilliant. It's got to be the best way to travel up and down the country."

Completely nuts

“What about trains?" I longed to scream at her. "Think about your carbon footprint. Think about the ridiculous false economy of flying to and from isolated airports miles out of town, against the ease of gliding into Manchester city centre! Ask yourself whether you really want to climb thousands of feet into the air, only to begin your descent before you've managed to get the packet of pretzels open!"

I would like to report that I did yell all these things at my fellow diner, but honesty compels me to admit that I lost my nerve. However, I gave her a searching look that communicated all of the above. I would be surprised if she hadn't left the café and immediately started rebooking her travel.

This is not really a moral stance at all, though. I'm just amazed at the number of internal flights that take place every day, and the number of people who can be bothered to go through the tedious routine - shoes off, laptop out of the bag, queuing for a taxi at the other end - when they could be on a train. Even flying to Paris seems bizarre to me, when the infinitely more romantic Eurostar awaits. But flying London-Manchester? Or for that matter London-Glasgow, or London-Newcastle? It's not just using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it's doing that when there is a perfectly good nutcracker on the table right next to you.

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department. You can plug in your laptop and get things done. It's cheaper, provided you book in advance, which in the age of the internet surely doesn't present a big obstacle to the sort of web-savvy business-folk who are making these journeys. You arrive smack-bang in the middle of your chosen destination, rather than at an airport sheepishly bearing the name of a city situated more than 100 miles away.

It's at least as time-efficient: the time plane travel supposedly saves you is nullified by the getting-there-early and the hanging around at the other end. And, yes, it is a lot more environmentally friendly. All right, the world may be doomed anyway, but do we really have to rub it in by using carbon-hungry planes to fly us up the road?

Plane stupid

Then there's the idea that trains are somehow too unreliable for the hotshot traveller. Perhaps at one time this was true. But having spent almost every minute of my waking life since 2002 on a train, I can assure you that they are now at least as reliable as planes, and you don't have the suspicion that they might plummet out of the sky. All train operators have got more punctual and efficient in the past few years: that's not based on statistics, but on experience of visiting every station in the United Kingdom. It's more than five years since I was delayed for more than an hour on a train. Can you really tell me that planes beat that?

I apologise for venting here what I should have taken out on that hapless business traveller in the café, but it really is time we all got on trains more. I'm writing this in first class from Edinburgh to London: it cost me £29. We've had breathtaking coastal views all the way. I've got a lot of work done. I'm thoroughly relaxed. Actually, on second thoughts, leave this for me. Don't you dare book a train ticket. You keep getting on those aeroplanes. I'll wave at you from my deserted luxury carriage. You won't see me, of course, because you'll be in a cloud, or in turbulence, or watching part of a film that will be interrupted when you land, or congratulating yourself on the time saved.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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Poem: "When the Americans came"

“Do you have vampires around here?”

When the Americans came,

they didn’t take to our gardens:

the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,

foxgloves growing among the runner beans.


“Do you have vampires around here?”

a visitor from Carolina asked me.

It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,

nodding wisely as though apologising


for the ill manners of King George,

the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.

But come the softe sonne,

there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,


forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,

lettuce and spring onions for a salad.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat*


I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,

and didn’t care to listen to a boy.

They preferred the red rosehips

we used for making wine.


Danced outside the village church

round the maypole Jack Parnham made.

Now they’re gone,

the wild garlic has returned.


* W B Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


William Bedford is a novelist, children’s author and poet. His eighth collection of verse, The Bread Horse, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood