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Train travel is a gem waiting for rediscovery

Slow travel makes the whole experience far richer, as discovered by environmental scientist Alexandra Jellicoe on a recent trip to Italy.

FlightFree UK
10 Jul 4 min read

It’s not often you get bumped up to first class for a tenner. I can’t believe my luck. The seats are like armchairs and pivot so you can recline into a perfect sleeping position. The pull-down table so generous I have plenty of space for my laptop, a coffee and a sandwich without having to channel my ninja skills, ready to catch a falling object at any moment. I managed to book last minute and the cabin is almost empty, the temperature perfectly controlled to ensure maximum comfort and I can stroll next door anytime I like for a hot meal. Oh, and did I mention the view? Train travel around Europe is a gem waiting for rediscovery.

I’ve been on a retreat at Villa Lugara near Baiso, Italy. I don’t envy my holiday mates on their return home, flying Ryan Air from Bologna to Bristol. Squished in like cattle, made to wait for two hours on the hot tarmac without explanation of the delay and refused free water. Modern air travel has been perversely designed to be endured rather than enjoyed. Tell me, when did you last enjoy a flight?

Perhaps this is the right time to mention that Ryan Air has recently joined the fossil fuel crew as one of the top ten most polluting companies on the planet. The latest research reveals that it’s not only carbon emissions are causing global heating: contrails left by aeroplanes are now so wide spread that their warming effect is greater than that of all the carbon dioxide emitted by aeroplanes that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the first flight of the Wright brothers. My choice to travel by train rather than fly has saved 480kg Co2 from the atmosphere. Currently, there are over 100,000 flights around the world every single day which melts Arctic ice the equivalent size to approximately thirty-seven Empire State buildings. Choosing NOT to fly has a powerful impact.

Slow travel is set to make a comeback. Travel that reconnects you with place and culture. If I didn’t have to whizz back to the UK to be with my young children, I would have stopped a day or two in all the places I’ve had to catch connecting trains – Paris, Turin, Milan, Bologna. Lingering to imbibe each cities’ culture, welcoming uncertainty as I navigate my way through unmapped streets and stumble over half understood conversations. Each city entices me to stay longer.

This is not a holiday, this is akin to being the protagonist of a Hemmingway novel.

The booking engine Rail Europe (formerly Loco2) offer a simple Europe-wide city to city search of alternative travel routes including overnight sleepers (expensive), high speed day trains (cheap) and every alternative you can think of in-between.

Trains are the lowest carbon emission form of easily accessible public transport. As a passionate traveller, mother and environmental scientist I’ve completely reimagined how to explore the world. A holiday is no longer a jet to Mexico to lie by the beach for a week nor a quick weekend in Rome. I’ve rediscovered travel as something to be savoured rather than an inconvenience between home and holiday. And this excitement has been triggered by a compulsion to discover new ways to live in a world so damaged by modern lifestyles.

Reduction in carbon emissions is critical to reduce global heating and whilst air travel may always be with us, it can no longer be the default mode of international transport. In order to prevent global heating in excess of 1.5 degrees we need Government action now, but we also need to reimagine our lifestyles. For many, modern travel lacks soul and adventure – jetting around the world in search of sun without engaging with the local people and culture deprives not only the traveller but also the destination community. The trend is economically non-specific and all are affected from the package holiday tourist to residents of vast complex five-star hotels. Slow travel immerses you in local culture and all are enriched.

I have to cross Paris from the Gare du Lyon to the Gare du Nord to catch my connecting train to London. Europe is experiencing a freak heatwave. I step down from the TGV and the 45-degree heat brings back memories of working in Sub-Saharan Africa. This oppressive weather makes it impossible to think and the city isn’t designed to withstand desert temperatures. As an environmental scientist my expertise is the provision of safe water to remote global communities. I’ve worked with indigenous tribes and small island developing states, both of which have been battling the consequences of climate change for decades. Yet little has been done to protect these vulnerable communities. Many have lost their homes and become aid dependent. As the consequences of unpredictable weather systems now threaten my own children, I feel that it is my duty to dedicate my life to protecting them – I may make little difference but I’m essentially an optimist, and hope is catching.

This summer we’re spending a month in France. We’ll take the kids by train, stop off in Paris, Lyon and Annecy. My eldest is always questioning the difference in local customs to ours and it’s this breadth of understanding and enquiry that I hope to inspire in all of my children. Travel, real travel, promotes empathy, compassion and tolerance of others, emotions that are severely under threat in modern society. If we’re lucky we may even pick up a little of the language too.

Alexandra Jellicoe runs environmental magazine/blog Monkey Wrench, where you can read an expanded version of this article.

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