Visiting Europe by train instead of plane

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

For travel , locomotion beats jet propulsion

Thinking about your next trip to Europe? Try the train instead of the plane and you could skip the airport queues, relax en route, and make big CO2 savings.

With the growth of Europe's high-speed rail network, you don't have to be Michael Palin or a backpacking student to contemplate long-distance train travel. In fact, travelling city centre to city centre and cutting out the misery of airport check-in, it can even be quicker than the plane on some trips. A rail trip could mean you save as much as 90% of the CO2 emissions from your journey.

Yet, despite over 50% of us saying we are more concerned about the effects of flying than we were five years ago, only 8% of us actually fly less. In fact, during the next 30 years, predicted air travel will create an extra 3000kg CO2 emissions per person, the equivalent of driving a petrol car for an entire year. Scientists claim we need to reduce emissions by that amount to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

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Photo: Visiting Europe by train instead of plane

CO2 saving: 100kg (Amsterdam), 415kg (Malaga)

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It's Not Easy Being Green: holidaying in Europe by train

Travel guru Toby Sawday heads for Spain on the train with a young family reluctant to bid farewell to the convenience of quick and cheap flights

In this article:

How will it make a difference?

  • If UK holidaymakers took just one holiday by train instead of the plane, it would save around 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 each year. This would be enough to meet 3% of the UK government's CO2 targets for 2020, if the targets included aviation. For those of us who fly, it's common to take two weekend breaks and an annual holiday in Europe by plane. If we swapped an annual holiday in Italy and weekend trips to Prague and Madrid for the train it would save a massive 700kg of CO2 - that's as much as insulating your cavity walls
  • In fact, during the next 30 years, predicted air travel will create an extra 1,000kg of CO2 emissions per person (compared to the year 2000). Scientists claim that by 2050 we need to reduce each person's average emissions to that amount to avoid the UK's contribution to dangerous levels of global climate change.

In 2006, the most popular European flight destinations from London were Malaga and Amsterdam. Both are accessible by train. The table below shows the practical issues, the cost implications and the likely emissions savings.

RouteBy trainBy planeSaving by train
London to MalagaCost:170 rtnfrom 30 rtn
Duration:24 hours7 hours
London to AmsterdamCost:from 80 rtnfrom 70 rtn
Duration:5 hours 40 mins4 hours 50 mins

(Based on average cost and timings, including airport transfers and check-in. Accurate at the time of writing, these may vary.)

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What's the debate?

Pub Fact

  • Flights on the London-Paris and London-Brussels routes generate ten times more carbon dioxide emissions than Eurostar
  • An experiment has shown that passengers taking a plane from Heathrow register the same levels of cardio stress as parachutists jumping from aircraft
  • 87% of long distance rail passengers are satisfied with their journey
  • An advert for a budget airline was banned for claiming their flight from London to Brussels was faster and cheaper than making the journey by Eurostar
  • In a recent survey, almost 40% of people claimed celebrities set a bad example with their jet-set lifestyles

"But aren't high-speed trains just as bad as planes?"

High-speed electric trains require a lot of energy, but their emissions depend upon how the electricity is produced.

It is hard to be definitive about CO2 savings from train travel because trains vary in different countries and draw power from electricity grids using different fuels. Also, trains require tunnels and track that cause a lot of emissions during construction. It may even be that in the worst case of a new high-speed train requiring extensive tunnelling, the trains may produce as much CO2 per mile as some flights - though Eurostar, which runs services between London, Paris and Brussels, claims the lowest CO2 emissions of any high-speed rail service, in part because France generates almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy rather than fossil fuels. (Of course, if you're opposed to nuclear energy, that just introduces another ethical dilemma.) Swedish trains produce close to zero , because they mostly run on renewable energy such as hydropower. In the end, the environmentally safest thing to do is to take slower, local journeys, rather than fast, long ones.

There is also debate about how much extra climate impact emissions from planes may have at high altitudes.

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What's stopping me?

"I'd take the train if I could afford to"

You and 80% of the population, according to a National Consumer Council survey. Eight out of ten people said they would travel by train more often if it were cheaper, while seven out of ten had decided against a train journey at least once because of the ticket price. See How do I do it? below for tips on finding lower fare prices.

"Who's got the time for the train? I need to get there pronto"

Hold your horses. A race by journalists at the Telegraph confirmed that London to Paris is indeed quicker by train.

"I'd get really bored"

Many of the new high-speed trains in France have spacious restaurant and bar carriages to wander through, and wi-fi internet areas, so you can work or check emails. Eurostar's ski train, which takes you right to the heart of the French Alps, even has an all-night sound-proof disco carriage.

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How do I do it?

  • Plan your route: The Man in Seat Sixty-One and International Rail Planner are useful
  • Book way in advance for the best prices - a rail pass might be cheaper. Try the Guardian's cheap train travel tricks
  • Booking trains takes longer than booking flights. Agents can take the hassle out of complex arrangements, for a small fee
  • Passing through Paris? Pack a French food and wine hamper at Saint Quentin Market near Gare Du Nord station for your onward journey - it's cheaper than the food on the train
  • Design your own 'travel remedy kit' (University of West England) to help the time pass and get the most out of your journey. Reading, making notes, or writing letters or a diary can help enrich your experience
  • Take a travel pillow for dozing
  • Finally, if you're stuck for ideas on somewhere to go, check our list of holiday destinations (below)

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Holiday ideas


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Dave, London 2009-05-23

I recently traveled from London to Barcelona by train. Previously flown, but this time arrived refreshed, right into the city centre by 9am. Way to travel!

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Cavity walls
A wall comprising two layers of brick or block separated by a cavity (gap). This air space acts as an insulator, but does so more effectively if filled with an insulating material, such as plastic foam or natural materials like wool or recycled newspaper.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are the deposits of crude oil, natural gas and coal formed by the decay, over millions of years, of organic material (plants, trees animals and bacteria). Because the combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon that has been out of the natural carbon cycle for so long (unlike with living or more recently dead organic matter, known as biomass) it affects the balance between stored carbon and carbon present in the atmosphere as CO2, a greenhouse gas.
Renewable energy
Renewable energy comes from natural sources that can be replenished and not permanently depleted - such as biomass, hydro-power, geothermal heat, solar power, wind power, and wave and tidal power - and most of which do not produce CO2emissions. They are unlike fossil fuels, which took millennia to form and cannot be replenished. navigation


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