Travelling by train, I’m an aficionado. Of course, I am not referring to the morning commute, when all the bad-mannered people on the train make you question humanity as a whole. I speak of the beauty of long-distance travel. When I take off my shoes, put my feet up and enjoy the slowly changing landscape, that to me is the ultimate joyride. During such a journey, even those unavoidable delays due to railroad works won’t bother me much.

For a moment I escape the rat race imposed by the use of social media that increasingly pressures its users to project a ‘perfect’ life online. For a couple of hours, I stop chasing another incredible picture in yet another country, thus trying to increase my virtual status, measured by the number of ‘Likes’ on Facebook.

Instead, I use mindful travel as the ultimate break for the strained ego.

International travel

For me, the perfect getaway is riding an old-fashioned six-person cabin with the slightly musty smell that keeps the memory of previous passengers and years of inadequate cleaning alive.

At night, nothing beats the magic of transforming the cabin into a moving hostel. Of course, I hardly wink an eye due to the sounds of continuous stopping and departing at consecutive stations. Not to mention the noise produced by my fellow passengers, which keep me awake all night. But hey, what could be better than crossing the border, realizing I just entered another country without having to spend hours in the departure lounge of an airport?

All my belongings are at hand and when hungry I head to the restaurant carriage for a snack and a drink. Followed by the luxury of having a toilet on board, not having to interrupt my travels for a quick trip to the powder room.

A book, a conversation with my fellow passengers, I let my mind go blind and hours later I arrive at the very centre of a new destination.

De salon van Al Andalus


The train journey as the destination

Even with no end goal in mind, the journey itself can be enjoyable. If I ever have too much money and time, I will take the train as my destination. Not just any train, of course, my transport of choice will be the ‘Orient Express’ or alternatively the Spanish equivalent ‘Al Andalus’. These luxury passenger trains are strictly for those who do not shy away from the high price tag attached to a moving five-star hotel.

Starting upon arrival when dedicated cabin staff welcomes passengers with a friendly smile and a glass of champagne. The pampered traveller will make a multi-day ride enveloped in glamour: cabins are decorated with art deco, mahogany marquetry and fresh orchids.

This is a venue where you still want to dress for dinner.

For me, a passage in this type of train can not go slow enough. The lazy rhythm of the clattering cars stands in stark contrast to the pace of the ultra-modern high-speed train, which is another favourite of mine.

High-speed train

With an average speed of over 200 kilometres per hour, I whizz regularly from my abode in Malaga to Madrid. In two and a half hours, I am 500 kilometres away. Despite the high speed, such a train ride can be relaxing, with comfortable seating, the latest films onboard and a dining car at my disposal. And not unimportant, even though in general tickets for the high-speed train can be costly, with some advance planning such a trip (at least in Spain) does not need to be expensive as Renfe (the Spanish Railway) offers considerable discounts when booking well in advance.

train station Groningen waiting room
train station Groningen waiting room

The price of mobility is steep

Of course, or not really, of course, almost all other forms of travel are cheaper than travelling by train. It is not uncommon to fly more than 2000 kilometres for 20 euros with some European price fighters. Within a couple of hours, one can swap miserable weather for or a beach bed in the Mediterranean.

However, flying is far too cheap and that is unsustainable (source).

I know, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. I am guilty of buying weekend return tickets at rock bottom prices, and I certainly will not pay more than necessary. Yet, I argue that plain tickets should be expensive and here is why:

According to the ‘Volkskrant’, a Dutch newspaper, airlines are one of the most heavily subsidized industries:

  • There is no tax on kerosene. To give you an idea, a litre of petrol at the pump costs 1.60 euros, which includes 1.05 euro excise duty and VAT. Thus, tax-free kerosene gives the airline industry worldwide each year an estimated benefit of $60 billion euros. Per passenger, on a transatlantic flight, this amounts to $108.
  • Furthermore, there is no VAT on tickets, thus leaving the various European treasuries short on tax revenues of 7.1 billion euros per year.

Cheap flights are detrimental to the environment

Subsidizing aviation has several undesirable consequences. The large crowds in cities like Barcelona and Venice are (mainly) due to the ridiculously low prices for airline tickets.

Previously a stag party was celebrated at the local pub, nowadays, no less than a drunken weekend trip to Amsterdam is the norm. A friends’ weekend is, of course, a lot more fun in Berlin, and naturally, you want to see that away game of your favourite team against Benfica in Lisbon.

More importantly, the environmental costs of cheap flying are steep.

train station Copenhagen
Trainstation Stockholm
Trainstation Stockholm
German railways

Ecological footprint of travelling

  • Kerosene-guzzling air travel impacts the environment as much as 7 to 11 times more than the same trip by train. The difference is greatest at a short distance (less than 700 kilometres).
  • Furthermore, a flight will contribute 2 to 4 times per person more to the greenhouse effect than the same trip by car. Here too, the difference is largest in the short distance.
  • Of course, the difference is smaller if the car needs towing a caravan or if there is only one person in the car.

Government grants

So dear government, if we as a country (or preferably within the EU) want to subsidize mobility, spend that tax money on the railways instead of air travel. Make the train affordable, ensure that the railways are in top condition and that international trains are compatible.

The Environment and the Traveller will thank you in the long run.

Practical tips

  • Most international tickets can be purchased online. Note that seemingly the cheapest option is not always the most economical. For instance, the site ‘Go Train’ uses questionable tactics. The company sell tickets that suddenly increases the price when in the midst of the booking process, supposedly because the train company had just raised the fee. Coincidentally, this applies to all tickets and at all times. I suggest you take your time and continue your research online.
  • Occasionally you can buy a first-class ticket for a small fee. For instance, we found that some upgrades to first class in Denmark only costs a few crowns.
  • A good budget alternative to train travel in Europe is the Flixbus. Tickets are cheap, reliable, and there is free Wi-Fi on the bus.

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