Some people say train travel is romantic. They clearly haven’t travelled on a fully-packed night train at Christmas. Overtired babies, irritable children, blocked toilets and snow drifts bringing everything to a halt can really test your patience. However, while I don’t think train travel is romantic, if everything runs smoothly – and quietly – it is convenient and can be extremely scenic. Just remember to take ear plugs, hand sanitiser and extra toilet paper. And a fully-charged reserve of patience.
The beauty of train travel is that you can go to sleep as you leave one city and wake up in the centre of another several hours later. And I do mean sleep; you lie flat in a half-comfortable bunk bed; not like economy class on a plane – I still haven’t managed to sleep comfortably sitting up. What about you?
The other reasons I love trains are reserved for daytime travel. You can gaze with curious eyes as the scenery unfurls on the other side of the window. You can listen to music, listen to other people’s conversations, read a book, watch a film on your phone, work on your laptop, daydream and transport yourself into another place entirely, almost all at once. It’s the only real way to multi-task successfully.
I’ve been travelling by train since I was a teenager, and on sleeper trains for the past decade. I’ve travelled across India, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy by train. I’ve never (until recently) owned a car so I’ve commuted by train, visited friends by train, accessed hiking trails and ski resorts by train.
In the early years this was because I had very little money and couldn’t afford a car. It had more to do with price and convenience. Then I lived in well-connected cities London, Sydney and Stockholm, full of public transport and where cars were more of a nuisance and a hassle.
However in the past five years or so, I’ve travelled by train to reduce my impact on Planet Earth.
According to figures from Defra in the UK, the average per-person emissions from a long-haul flight are 102g per kilometre. By rail, it’s just 41g/km. More efficient trains, like the Eurostar, emit just 6g of CO2 per person per kilometre. While it’s true some planes are better than others and some trains are worse than others, the overwhelming truth is that travelling by train is less impactful on the environment.
Cars are more problematic. It depends on the age, size, efficiency, fuel and driving style, not to mention that fine balance of filling it with people but not so much that it gets too heavy and emits more CO2. But using those same Defra figures, a one-person journey in a diesel car emits 171g of CO2 per person per kilometre – more than air travel. If there are four people in that car, however, the per person rate goes down to 43g, comparable to that of a regular, not-so-efficient train.
It’s not always possible to travel by train, but when time allows and when your destination is a city (especially if you’re not leaving the continent) then rail travel is, on average, the best way to go.
Here are my hard-earned insights for getting the most out of long train journeys:
1. Book in advance to get the best rate. And always make a seat reservation, even on short connections.
2. Allow plenty of time for transfers. Don’t just go on what the app/website schedule says. I once missed a Deutsche Bahn night train connection in Hamburg because my Danska Bahn train from Denmark was delayed. Because long-distance, multi-country journeys are with a variety of train networks, one train won’t wait for the arrival of another. Even if you book a through-journey with your local agent, if one train is so delayed that you miss the next, that’s your problem and you generally have to re-book. At quiet times this isn’t usually an issue. But at Christmas… Well, let’s just say it’s always better to have more time than you think you need.
3. Research your route options on a map. Sometimes train companies won’t give you the best/shortest route. They’ll show you a route that minimises congestion, even during low-peak periods. Be prepared to get creative on your own.
4. Although many trains sell food or have on-board restaurants, I still advise taking your own food and water. And always carry some local currency if you need to buy snacks. In some countries, cash is still king.
5. Take ear plugs. Trust me on this. You’ll appreciate them on night trains.
6. For the best night’s sleep (i.e. with minimum disturbance), sleep on the top bunk. You usually get more baggage storage too, as there’s a shelf over the door.
7. Remember a lock. Most people on trains are honest and friendly. But you don’t want to risk your stuff getting pinched while you’re power napping. Lock your stuff and put valuables in bags around your body or under your feet.
8. Talk to your neighbours. Aside from maybe learning a thing or two and making a new connection, if you need to go to the toilet, you can then ask them to keep an eye on your stuff.
9. Be patient and don’t get frustrated if things take longer than expected and if there are delays and missed connections. It’s all part of the adventure. If you do get nervous, speak to the conductor and make them aware of the fact you have a connection to make. Quite often, other travellers are in the same position.
10. Be kind to fellow train travellers. Help people on and off trains if they need it and keep music, phone chat and phone notifications to a lower volume.
On my most recent journey, from a ski resort in Austria back to Milan in Italy, I travelled with ÖBB, Austria’s national train network. The last-minute booking cost €89 for the nine-hour journey to Milan. And according to their app (which is good, by the way), I saved 121.9kg of CO2 compared with doing the same journey by car. Plus, according to Via Michelin, this journey by car would take anyway between 6 and half and eight and a half hours and cost between €70 and €115 for tolls and fuel. So even aside from the climate benefits I’m not losing any money and I’m definitely winning on the hassle front.
I can’t do all my journeys by train. Northern Italy is not the best place for a climber, hiker and snowboarder to get around by public transport. But every car journey I can swap for a train journey and every car journey I can carpool poses a lower impact on the planet.