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Podcast series episode 2: skiing by train

In the second episode of our 2020 podcast series we talk to SnowCarbon founder Daniel Elkan about why travelling to the slopes by train is always better than flying

FlightFree UK
04 Feb 7 min read

This is the transcript of our conversation with ski journalist Daniel Elkan about the benefit of travelling by train. You can listen to the podcast, and access the rest of the series, here.

ANNA

February half term is a great time for skiing (it's also a great time to be ill, so please forgive my voice!) If you’re one of those people heading off for a ski trip, you might be thinking about which flight to take, but have you considered taking the train? Daniel Elkan has been hitting the slopes by train for over a decade, and he set up the website SnowCarbon to help other people do the same.

DANIEL

When I first started skiing I didn't have a clue about how to get the Alps. My friends told me to turn up at Gatwick at 5am, so I did, along with thousands of people looking grumpy and shuffling through queues. I assumed it would be a quick journey because it’s only a 90 minute flight, but the whole journey must have taken about 10 hours. I couldn't believe it!

The next time I went skiing I thought, it can’t possibly take that long again, but it did. As we were approaching the resort on the coach from the airport I noticed a railway track and which made me realise that it might have been possible to get here by train. I asked the people in the resort but no one seemed to know how long it would take.

When I got home I went into my loft and found an old European rail timetable from an Interrail trip and saw that I could reach the resort in Italy by taking the Eurostar and a TGV, and it looked as though it would take about the same amount of time as we spent flying.

ANNA

In our modern society, the default is to fly, so it doesn’t even cross our minds that we can travel by other means. Everything is skewed towards that flight when we book holidays, from adverts to the booking systems to the information given to you by your package provider. This all contributes to the social norm to fly, which is what we’re challenging with the Flight Free 2020 campaign.

The Interrail map had shown Daniel that train was an option, and had inspired him to start organising ski trips by train for him and his mates. But finding out the how to book the journey was the difficult part. Nothing was joined up. That’s what led to him setting up the website SnowCarbon, a guide to how to travel to the ski resorts by train.

DANIEL

I set up the website 10 years ago, but I'd been writing articles about how to get to the ski slopes by train for about five years before that as a freelance journalist. The main challenge was always finding out the different elements of the journey, so I wanted to create a platform that had all that information in one place, and make it really inspiring by showing people what the journeys are like, where you can go, and sharing other skiers experiences. On Snowcarbon we have a section called Your Stories where people write into the site and talk about what they thought of the journey, which always has really useful tips and insights from other people. It’s very much a community feel, by skiers for skiers.

ANNA

A quick glance at the website reveals there's a whopping carbon saving with each train journey – about 90%. But Daniel quickly found out that wasn't the only benefit. As well as the carbon reduction, travelling overland is just a much better experience than flying.

DANIEL

The initial motivation was environmental, but once we started doing the journeys I realised how much fun it is to spend time with your mates on the train. The journey there really becomes part of the holiday. People would ask us how we got to the resort and we’d say we came by train, and they would say, yes, but where did you fly to, and we’d say, we came all the way by train. That moment of realisation was always good to see! When we told them how long it took, they would say, we need to do that next year!

ANNA

Picture the scene: you're on the train, with your mates, and you’ve got this huge chunk of time together, relaxing rather than standing in a queue, there’s loads of space, especially if you get a table seat, you can play games, have a chat, read, visit the cafe bar, bring bubbles, and all the time this incredible landscape is scrolling past the window.

DANIEL

There's a good vibe on the train. When you see kids on board they're not screaming, they're engaged and having a good time. Every year I go with a big group and by the time we get to the chalet, everyone’s bonded and everyone’s had a great time.

When you travel by plane it’s just one long conveyor belt of stop/starts, queuing, baggage, cramped flight, cramped transfer. There’s no time for you to do anything, certainly not for it to feel like part of the holiday.

ANNA

Back to the environmental impact: The SnowCarbon website talks about taking better care of our planet and minimising our use of fossil fuels and resources. Even though there are many sustainable ways of travelling to the Alps, most skiers fly or drive. So what *are* the environmental benefits of going by train? And should we even be skiing at all?

DANIEL

Carbon emissions by plane are about 110kg CO2 and about 12 or 13kg by train. So that's a 90% average reduction. Studies show that 57 - 63% of the emissions of the entire ski resort are created by the journey there, so the thing that transforms your carbon footprint the most is to change the way you travel.

Everything you do creates carbon. Skiing is an amazing activity, to get out into nature and be active. For the pleasure that it gives, it isn’t particularly carbon intensive vs other kinds of holidays.

ANNA

So changing that flight for a train has a huge impact, and there are loads of options for travelling by train. There’s the direct ski train from London all the way to the tarentais region of the French Alps. For other parts of France, and for Austria, Italy or Switzerland, you can travel via Paris, Lille, or Brussels and change from the Eurostar to the TGV, which is the French high speed train. Or you can catch the Alpen Express sleeper train to Austria, or the NightJet sleeper from Cologne. But, there's a real challenge here. Many people would say, I would love to travel by train – it sounds fantastic! But I just can’t afford it. The flight is £29 – that's just irresistible.

DANIEL

There's often an assumption that train travel’s a lot more expensive. The truth is, it’s not. In many cases, particularly at peak dates for family, going by train is going to save you money, but people don't think that so they just assume that the flights are cheaper.

When you travel by train, there are no charges for luggage, no charges for skis, you can take whatever you want on board, and the transfer are generally cheaper because the train station tends to be closer to the resort.

When you travel by plane, you see that £29 one way fare and it's very enticing, but you go through the system and you add your luggage, and your skis, the transfer and all those other extras, and you come out the other side with a price that is definitely not cheap.

ANNA

So, overall it’s either cheaper or close enough, and you’re going to have a much better experience, but even once we’ve made that decision there are still plenty of barriers in the way, especially with booking.

DANIEL

Very often, there’s just an assumption in the ski industry that people are going to fly. So most articles, websites and tour operators only mention where the nearest airport is and don't mention the train at all. People are being primed all the time to fly, and that has to change.

It’s vital that ski resorts/accommodations/tour operators communicate for every destination at least where the train station is, and how to get there from the resort. What is also crucial is that the train companies make it much easier for tour operators to include rail as part of the package. At the moment, the policies of train companies is pretty unfriendly towards the trade, and there are loads of tour operators that would love to be including train travel – it makes lots of sense for them, not just environmentally but in terms of enabling passengers to have a lovely journey.

ANNA

Can we as consumers drive this change? It seems recently the conversation is really starting to shift away from air travel, and awareness of the carbon impact from aviation has really gone up. What needs to happen now in order to make the most of this?

DANIEL

Over the past year I’ve seen a real transformation in the reasons that people give for wanting to go by train. The train has always made sense, from a practical point of view and an experience point of view, but now people are talking about how they don’t want to fly anymore and the environment is a big motivation. That gives great hope, but the supply of available trains & tickets can’t meet the number of skiers that would want to go by train, unless the industry sorts itself out.

Demand by consumers is an absolutely vital part of the picture, but we haven’t got time to wait for consumer pressure to make the changes people need. There’s got to be action from government, there's got to be action from industry, and there have got to be players being very active in saying that the system needs to change. We know that lots of people want to travel this way and lots more would given the option. We can’t wait for market pressure to change things – that’s not quick enough, given the environmental challenges we face.

ANNA

One of our favourite parts of the SnowCarbon website is the video of the Race to the Alps, a Top Gear style experiment to see if what Daniel says about travelling by train is really true. It’s a great watch, so here's Daniel explaining what it's all about.

DANIEL

I’ve been in so many conversations with skiers who can’t imagine that you can get to the slopes as quickly by train as you can by plane, so I challenged a fellow ski journalist, Neil English, to a race. We decided the destination would be a hot tub in a chalet in Méribel and we both set out from London at the same time.

I was going by Eurostar to Paris then a TGV to the Alps and he was flying from Gatwick to Geneva. He absolutely thought he was going to smash it – in the end there were 35 minutes between us, and we'd both had a very, very different journey. Neil played a brilliant Jeremy Clarkson, getting really frustrated at how long everything was taking, while I was chilling with a bottle of wine and a good book on the train.

ANNA

And there we have it! A thorough examination of a ski journey by train, which vs plane, comes out on top pretty much every time. It’s been brilliant hearing Daniel’s expertise and we hope it’s inspired you to get booking that train next time you head off on your ski holiday!

You can find out more at www.snowcarbon.co.uk, which has all those things Daniel talked about, including a ticketing tool to help you book, and stories from fellow skiers. Top tips are to start your planning early, so you really know what you’re doing, and you can get the best fares. You can also find relevant information on the website seat61.com, and there’s also the website Ski Flight Free.

Daniel’s personal recommendation is to get a rail map of Europe and put it up on the wall. They’re beautiful and inspiring, and make a great present. Thanks again to Daniel, and thanks for listening!

You can listen to the podcast, and access the rest of the series, here.

Credits: interview conducted and recorded by Anna Hughes. Intro voiceover: L. Sophie Helbig. Sound effects: Josh Hill.

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