Ashamed of flying because it worsens your carbon footprint? You’re not alone if you want to ride the rails — as I recently did when my life took a turn.
(French countryside viewed from a TGV fast train. Video and photos by Sarah Edmonds)
By Sarah Edmonds
I am suffering an acute case of flight-shame.
Yes, that’s a thing. The Swedes, with their skill for coining simple terms for complex and timely phenomena, have made it one. To them, it is flygskam.
To me, it is the squirming guilt I feel when I board a form of transportation responsible for 2-3% of annual carbon emissions worldwide while grim headlines about the growing impact of the climate disaster dance in my head.
Nor am I alone. Public renunciation of flying by high-profile climate campaigners such as teenage phenom Greta Thunberg and her opera singer mother, Malena Ernman, has led many Europeans to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to ride the rails than take to the air.
“I’ve known for years that travel by air was not sustainable,” said Susanna Elfors, a PhD in Urban Studies and a passionate advocate for sustainability.
In 2014, Elfors created the Facebook group tågsemester.nu (literally, “train vacation”) to offer would-be train travellers advice. Membership spiked after Ernman gave up flying, and still further after Thunberg’s well-publicised train rides to the World Economic Forum and the United Kingdom.
Elfors and a friend have founded a company that organises group trips, holds rail travel meetups and is working with digital booking start-ups to make rail ticket purchases easier. Their dream is to one day own their own train.
Is train travel becoming mainstream again?
Britain’s Mark Smith, who in 2001 founded the award-winning train advice site seat61, has seen a change in the thinking around trains in recent years, along with a “massive” surge in visitors.
“Back in 2001, if seat61 users gave a reason for wanting to travel by train when they contacted me, they would say they were afraid of flying or medically restricted from flying, or just particularly liked train travel,” he said.
“Now if people give a reason, they say two things, almost in the same breath: They are fed up with the budget airline experience and want something better. And they want to cut their carbon footprint.”
The balance of these varies, he said.
“But they all say those two things, together. It’s almost as if train travel over longer distances is bordering on becoming mainstream again.”
Forgive me for train-bragging.
Elfors and Smith were years ahead of green movement newbies like me, who only recently started using beeswax-coated food wraps and cutting down on beef, but I feel all the passion of the convert.
As I read of the slow demise of the Great Barrier Reef and scroll through photos of fires in the Amazon and Arctic, I hang my head over the tens of thousands of miles I’ve flown over the years.
So please forgive me for making myself feel fractionally better by indulging in another made-in-Stockholm term: tågskyrt, or train-bragging, about my recent trip across a chunk of Europe.
I’ve always loved trains. Perhaps not as much as the internet-forged group I once met in Zimbabwe, who scour the world for steam engines to ride and photograph, and who that morning were trying to capture a particularly fine specimen trundling over the Victoria Falls Bridge.
But I love trains enough to have ridden five of the 10 fastest in use today: China’s Golden Phoenix, Japan’s Shinkansen, Germany’s ICE, France’s TGV and Britain’s Eurostar. Enough to have dragged family and friends aboard the Trans-Siberian for the six-day trip from Moscow to Vladivostok which, at 9,289 kilometers, is the longest train journey in the world.
From Murder on the Orient Express to The Girl on the Train, trains have figured in fiction as symbols — or engines, if you’d rather — of change.
Given that my journey from Cham, Switzerland, to London marked a significant transition in my life — my departure from a company I’d worked at for 27 years, and a country I’d lived in for four — it seemed right to use a mode of transport freighted with this kind of symbolism.
Luckily, I was in no hurry. My nearly 1,000-kilometer trip ate up nearly 11 hours — despite the fact that two legs were on fast trains — versus nine in a car and three-and-a-half if I’d used a plane.
But according to Ecopassenger.org, a website created by the International Railways Union (UIC), my journey added just 17.5 kilos of carbon dioxide to our beleaguered atmosphere, 588% less than a car journey that would have pumped out and 791% less than the 138.5 kilos if a jet had been involved.
I spent the trip ensconced in a seat far more comfortable than the one I would have had on an Airbus 320, and my view was of villages and patchwork fields rather than a wedge of grey wing.
According to a recent poll by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum (ahead of its Sustainable Development Impact Summit later this month), most travellers remain unwilling to go green if it costs extra time or money.
Only one in seven of more than 19,000 adults in 27 countries polled would choose a lower-impact form of transport than flying regardless of cost or hassle. Twice that number — 29% — would be on board if the alternative to flying was as convenient and no pricier than air travel.
The numbers are higher among the university-educated and, unsurprisingly, the young.
“My partner and I just recently went on holiday to Cornwall and took the train up,” said graduate student Shoshana Watson, 25, who lives in Canada and whose parents were green long before it became trendy. “For Canada, obviously it’s a bit tricky cause trains are expensive and Canada is big.”
According to a 2018 forecast from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global air travel looks set to double by 2037. And demand remains strong in Europe, despite the flygskam movement.
“Unfortunately, rail is very small in comparison with passenger air transport, and the trend in market share is not good for rail,” said Alice Favre, manager of the statistics office of the UIC.
Airlines are trying to cut emissions.
Even so, the airline industry is aware of its image problem. In July, Dutch airline KLM went so far as to create a slick campaign called “Fly Responsibly,” while many airlines offer travellers the chance to buy carbon offsets — contributions to carbon-reducing projects — although just 1-3% do so.
Chris Goater, assistant director of corporate communications for IATA in Europe, said the industry will embark on a global offsetting scheme next year as part of its pledge to lighten its carbon footprint.
“So passengers will be offsetting a portion of their emissions without even realising it,” he said, noting that carbon emissions per passenger are half what they were in 1990.
“That’s because each new generation of plane is about 20% more fuel efficient. But the big prize is sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which could cut emissions by up to 80%. At the moment, there is not enough production. We need more SAF, and quickly.”
IATA is urging governments to do all they can to help with this effort. Goater said improvements in air traffic control could cut emissions another 5-10% annually.
Still, with the first no-waste hydrogen train finishing up its first year in commercial use in Germany’s Lower Saxony region and with zero-emission passenger aircraft at least two decades off, travellers who can spare the time and money might feel easier joining me in a little tågskryt.
(For more News-Decoder stories on climate change, click here.)
Sarah Edmonds has been a journalist for nearly three decades. She spent 27 years with Reuters, as a correspondent, editor, bureau chief, regional managing editor and news operations manager. She has lived in seven countries, beginning in her native Canada, where she covered stock markets, telecommunications and media titans. In Washington, D.C., she led an award-winning economics reporting team through two full interest rate cycles, the 9/11 attacks and the start of two wars. After moving to Europe in 2006, she covered stories ranging from Iceland’s economic meltdown to the impact of global warming on the Arctic.