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The consolations of rail travel

Travelling Europe by train is not just more responsible than flying, it offers a different philosophy of travel.

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A new word entered the Swedish language in 2019: flygskam. Pronounced fleeg-skam, it means “flight shame”. It describes the growing social stigma attached to travelling by air rather than train, which produces roughly a tenth as much carbon dioxide over comparable distances. Train journeys in Sweden are reportedly up by 8 per cent, consistent with a pan-European trend. But those numbers contain a second shift: trains have generally been considered competitive with flying when the travel time is under four hours, but increasingly people are taking longer rail journeys too. Most famous among them is Greta Thunberg, the figurehead of the Fridays for Future climate marches, who even before her transatlantic voyage travelled from her home in Stockholm to Rome, Paris and London by train.

I joined the movement (if you can call it that) as much by accident as by design. I had always enjoyed rail travel and taken trains where they were convenient. But covering European politics and criss-crossing the continent by air, I felt a growing sense of guilt at all the flights I was taking. More selfishly, I was also exasperated at the sheer incivility of air travel: the hassle and hectoring of security control, the airless terminals, the bad food. So in recent years, and particularly in the past 12 months, I have attempted greatly to raise the bar required to justify air travel to myself.

That decision has led me to shuttle regularly between London and Brussels, Brussels and Berlin by train. I have traversed central Europe from Sweden to Hungary by rail; taken six trains over the Alps; crossed France from the Channel to the Mediterranean; Spain from the Basque Country to Gibraltar; and Georgia from Tbilisi to the Black Sea. Once I even travelled by steam train to a political rally held by Angela Merkel.

In boasting about all of these trips, I am, of course, committing tågskryt (togs-croot), or “train bragging”, an offshoot of the flygskam movement and a semi-ironic hashtag on Swedish social media. Yet the experience has persuaded me that as superb a pair of reasons as flygskam and tågskryt are to eschew planes for trains, they are not necessary. Because rail travel in Europe is more practical, enjoyable and personally enriching than many people realise.

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The supposedly crushing advantage of flying is time. Planes are faster. So much so that even factoring in getting to the airport, checking in and waiting, then disembarking and travelling on to one’s destination, they are generally deemed unbeatable over distances above 500km. On this basis, for example, you should take the Eurostar from London to Paris and Amsterdam; but not to Vienna. Yet like many others I have found that on much longer journeys, too, trains can be more efficient. Time in airports and planes is almost wholly wasted: if you are on holiday, they are the opposite of relaxing; if you are on business, they make lousy workspaces. By contrast Continental trains, which are mostly better than British ones, are generally calm, comfortable and increasingly internet-connected – making it possible to read, work, watch a film or have a decent conversation. The practical value of eight hours on trains beats four hours taken up with catching a flight and four at liberty.

Night trains stretch the numbers even further. The rise of budget airlines led to  many of these routes being closed, but they are now experiencing a revival. Austria’s state railway company ÖBB has led the way: buying dozens of sleeper carriages from less far-sighted operators and building a network of 26 (and rising) night-train routes. Berlin to Vienna and Munich to Rome are back, for example, with Vienna to Amsterdam returning next year and Vienna to Copenhagen, Stockholm to Prague and London to Basel all mooted for the near future.

That brings journeys of a whole different magnitude into contention. Take Berlin to Rome, a mighty trans-European schlepp of 1,200km. It is possible to leave the German capital at 4.05pm, change at Munich and arrive in Rome breakfasted, showered and ready for the day at 9.22 the following morning; little different, in practical terms, from taking an early-evening flight and staying in a hotel, but with far more useful time.

And that is without factoring in the undeniable romance of night-train travel: I recall leaving Paris’s Gare de Lyon one rainy March evening, the grey houses and streets of the French capital glistening in the chill, tucking into my bunk as the soporifically soft ba-dum-ba-dum of wheels on rails lulled me to sleep, then opening the blind in the morning to be dazzled by the electric blue of the sky, the sun glinting off the Mediterranean and palms swaying by long beaches as the train trundled towards Nice.

Those with disabilities, older people, lone women or families with children may understandably find the prospect of long and overnight rail travel less appealing. But trains and stations are increasingly well-equipped. ÖBB has women-only compartments and is developing new sleeper carriages with mini one-bed compartments for single travellers. And several European rail operators, including Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, offer family carriages and even play areas on long-distance trains.

I used to lead American high-school tours of Europe, many of which involved night trains. Some groups were sceptical of the idea. The memory of 30 New Jersey teenagers and teachers refusing en masse to board the sleeper to Paris at Barcelona’s França station, ten minutes before departure, will not leave me fast. Yet this scepticism invariably turned into thrill at the adventure of it all.

If planes do not beat trains for convenience, what about price? Even the keenest rail evangelist has to admit that, particularly at short notice, trains can be pricier. But rail travel on the Continent is less extortionate than in Britain and tickets booked in advance can be surprisingly cheap. And the true cost is not always reflected in a direct comparison of ticket prices. On trains one does not pay extra for luggage or face other supplementary charges. Children and teenagers often travel for free or on reduced fares. And taking a night train can remove the need to book a room.

Train food is also usually cheaper and better than at airports and on planes. Many long-distance Continental trains, unlike most of their British counterparts, have kitchens and full-service dining cars. My favourite is the one on the Hungarian trains that run from Berlin via Prague to Budapest, its multilingual menus reminiscent of the cosmopolitan, intermingled central Europe of the early 20th century. I challenge you to tuck into a bowl of goulash/gulyás/guláš/gulasch while your train winds through a snowy Bohemian forest and not conclude that a hint of Stefan Zweig’s old Mitteleuropa lives on.

The dining car is one option. Another is the fine art of the train picnic. Rare is the big European railway station that is not ten minutes’ walk from a shop or market where one can buy a decent spread of bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit and so forth.

It is at this point, as I drift off in reveries of salami sandwiches washed down with sweet-bitter chinotto as the TGV from Turin to Paris twists through the French Alps, that the next major advantage of rail travel arises. To take the train is more practical and often more affordable than to fly. But it is also to adopt a different and more rounded philosophy of travel.


Places with stories to tell: a railway station in Munich, Germany, at dawn. Credit: Damian Levingston/Millennium Images, UK

Trains have always been bound up with people’s sense of time and space. Their emergence in the 19th century prompted the establishment of standardised time zones (in Europe as in America) and a backlash from those who resented the industrial hurrying up of life and the degrading of place and order that they seemed to herald. The railway “causes distances to diminish”, complained the revolutionary French economist Constantin Pecqueur in 1839: “Lille suddenly finds itself next to Lourves; Calais to Pontoise; le Havre to Poissy.” Karl Marx called it nothing less than “the annihilation of space by time”.

The notion that train travel can change one’s perception of things continued beyond the railway’s early years. In the opening of The Magic Mountain, his 1924 masterpiece, Thomas Mann describes the protagonist Hans Castorp taking the train from Hamburg to the Alpine sanitorium where the novel plays out:

Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded the powers we generally ascribe to time… [It] sets us bodily free from our surroundings and gives us back our primitive, unattached state.

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Mann’s description captures something that the railway’s early critics missed. Trains can be fast, but there is nonetheless a meditative quality to travelling by them. Not always, of course: a train laden with boozy commuters is no one’s idea of a sanctuary. But take a long-distance train through France or Germany, Spain or Poland. Wait for the hubbub of people finding their seats and storing their luggage to die down. Gaze out of the window as the landscape, dull or beautiful, moves by and you will find yourself in a tranquil middle space: the hills, roads and fields outside stimulating enough to provoke thought without being so distracting as to interrupt it. A common observation of keen European rail travellers is how many ideas or solutions come to them on trains.

Such trips are also a good time to lean back and read. The philosopher Walter Benjamin was a proponent of consuming detective novels on train journeys, writing in 1930: “snuggled into the passing countryside, as though into a streaming scarf, we feel the shudders of suspense and the rhythms of the wheels running up our spine”. He asked: “When else is [the reader] so focused on reading that he can feel with some assurance the existence of his hero intermingled with his own?”

Trains may once have accelerated life but in our digital world they have the opposite effect: they slow one down. To see the landscape rolling by, or at night to see the lights passing and feel the wheels turning beneath one, is to travel consciously, mindful of the distance one is covering. Carl Honoré, a “slow travel” guru, writes:

When we travel in roadrunner mode, we miss the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. We lose the joy of the journey. And at the end of it all, when every box on our To Do list has been checked, we return home even more exhausted than when we left.

Long-distance rail travel militates against that malaise. It imbues a destination with a significance that it would not have if one dropped in by plane. It provides a glimpse of the connection between two places; say, between mountainous Tbilisi and subtropical Batumi, and the gradual changes in the Georgian landscape along the way.

Then there are the stations. Airports are mostly anonymous, commodified, utilitarian spaces; the epitomes of what the writer David Goodhart calls “anywheres”. Railway stations can be bland and mall-like too, but more often they are somewheres. Old places of arrival, encounter and departure, they have stories to tell. Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof saw Lenin’s sealed train stop briefly, war-weary German soldiers rushing glasses of beer up the platform to pass to the Russian revolutionaries they had heard wanted to end the conflict. It is in the “salle des pas perdus” at Antwerpen-Centraal that readers of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz first encounter the mysterious architectural historian of that name.

Plenty of stations have witnessed human trauma: Berlin’s Grunewald has a memorial at Platform 17, from which most of the city’s Jews were deported east to the Nazi camps; Barcelona’s França saw Orwell arrive at the start of the Spanish Civil War and thousands flee at its end; Budapest’s Keleti was stage to a modern refugee drama in summer 2015 when Syrians and others tried to board westward-bound trains.

Stations, unlike airports, tend to be in city centres. Wander from Trieste Centrale and eat an ice cream on the Ponte Rosso; leave the Gare de l’Est in Paris for a stroll along the Canal St Martin; walk 15 minutes from Athens’s Larissa station to tour the National Archaeological Museum or have a drink in the anarchic Exarchia neighbourhood. Or enjoy the station itself: Atocha in Madrid has a tropical garden under its old iron vault, Prague’s unprepossessing postwar Hlavní Nádraží has a glorious art-nouveau upper floor and Helsinki’s Päärautatieasema is a triumph of romanticist modernism.

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Train travel in Europe is a wonderful thing. But it could be yet more wonderful. Three different groups have their role to play in making long-distance rail travel across the Continent the easier choice for the millions who might not otherwise consider it.

The first group is the train operators. Europe’s rail networks do not generally suffer from the disjointed mess of their British counterparts, but for cross-border travel they are not sufficiently well integrated. Ticket sales are fragmented, meaning travellers sometimes pay too much for a journey. Sometimes certain tickets can only be used on certain operators; miss your Deutsche Bahn train from Cologne to Brussels and you cannot automatically take the next one if it is run by the rival operator Thalys. Operators do not communicate sufficiently about delays and changes.

Jon Worth, a blogger and European train enthusiast, says fairer pricing and more transparent timetables require greater data transparency: “If you run a train on tracks in the EU anywhere, you must make the timetable for it, and the ticketing for it, available to third parties in an open data forma.” (In the meantime, a fine source of pan-European rail information and advice is the website the Man in Seat 61, seat61.com, run by the gloriously nerdy Mark Smith.)

The second group is employers. Compared with flying, train journeys are a more efficient, healthy, low-stress and green way to travel, all of which enlightened bosses should welcome. But they do sometimes take longer. Employees who can work flexibly and remotely, exercise some control over their work travel arrangements, go on fewer but longer work trips and take longer stretches of time on leave will all be far more likely to travel by train. Sensible workplaces should make all of those things easier.

The third and probably most important group is governments and the EU. Rail travel is rising in Europe as more and more people recognise its benefits, environmental and otherwise. But in a continent that wants to reduce its carbon footprint to net zero by 2050, far more will have be done to get travellers out of planes and into trains. A civil-society initiative launched in 2018 giving free Interrail passes to some 30,000 young Europeans is an appealingly idealistic start, but broader measures are also needed: campaigns such as Back on Track are calling for greater investment in rail capacity and in particular support for a massive expansion of the night-train network.

Britain’s government can play its own, very specific role by not sealing a moronically hard Brexit deal that would hold up smooth rail travel between London and the Continent with visa checks, customs controls and other such nonsense. But most of all, governments can use tax incentives to make rail clearly the more affordable option, for example by increasing aviation taxes on flights (ideally targeting those who fly many times a year) and (where judicious and progressive) subsidising train travel.

Finally, a broader cultural shift is necessary – one for which we are all responsible. I wish Thunberg and her co-marchers well in their attempts to make avoidable air travel a taboo. Yet there is also a positive story to tell about the advantages and joys of rail travel. Going by train should not be seen as a sacrifice but as a genuinely rewarding experience. Alongside flygskam belongs tågglädje (tog-glade-yuh) – “the joy of trains”. You could make a worse new year’s resolution than to pursue some tågglädje in 2020.

Jeremy Cliffe is the New Statesman’s international editor

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special