The Hot Topic: Choose the romance of trains over planes - and save the planet in the process
Air travel could account for 22 per cent of global emissions by 2050, whereas a train journey causes one-tenth of the emissions, as opposed to a flight on the same route. The affordability of flights, combined with their network and routes, already has, and could further endanger the planet. Now the romance of night and sleeper trains is being revived in a bid to tackle climate change.
In India, trains hold a special place in the hearts of its people. Most people in your family probably have special memories of train journeys that took them to their hometown or holidays, where they would often have stories of befriending strangers, sharing food with them, and ultimately experiencing the train ride as an important part of their travels. Many stories based in India, especially of the popular children’s author Ruskin Bond, have train journeys as their setting. Bollywood movies have train stations as central settings where important decisions are taken (think of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Jab We Met). Flying to places used to be a luxury that belonged to the rich, with the default mode of transport for most people being the train. And why not, since the Indian railways is one of the biggest networks in the world? Despite the massive delays, lack of services, and low-quality stations, trains were the way to go. Fast forward to 2020, and now taking a flight is so commonplace that a growing section of the population forgets the main purpose of travel - that it’s the journey that counts.
This has been a global trend, to be fair. Sleeper trains have been dying a slow death over the past few years; as of 2015, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s railways, stopped all night train services. Low-cost carriers completely took over the continent with major players like EasyJet, RyanAir, Wizz Air and Volotea providing flight deals that became too good to refuse. At the time of publishing this, a London-Milan return flight booked a week in advance costs less than Rs. 3000; the same for London to Frankfurt, and London to Malaga in the very south of Spain costs a little over Rs. 3000. Why in the world would anyone give up these great deals to waste more time and money?
Here’s why: air travel could account for 22 per cent of global emissions by 2050. A train journey causes one-tenth of the emissions, as opposed to a flight on the same route. The affordability of flights, combined with their network and routes, already has, and could further endanger the planet. Now the romance of night and sleeper trains is being revived in a bid to tackle climate change. Because how would Celine and Jesse have that amazing day in Before Sunrise if they were on a flight and couldn’t get off in Vienna?
Growing ecological awareness in people has given rise to flight shaming, as people continue to fly despite knowing how terrible it is for the planet. The answer to short-haul flights are night trains, the logic of which is simple - instead of sleeping the night away at your home and waking up early for your flight, you spend that night on the train and wake up the next day fresh and early at your destination.
Austria’s rail service ÖBB launched their own night trains, the Nightjet, and relaunched the Brussels-Vienna sleeper train route after years. The Swiss SBB confirmed plans to reintroduce night trains, as Sweden’s train service, Trafikverket, plans to revive night trains in response to public demand. Germany has cut rail fares by 10 per cent to encourage ridership.
When it comes to night trains then, the focus has to be on quality. Says Bernard Rieder, the spokesperson for ÖBB in this piece for Ozy, “The ecological argument is important, but doesn’t cut it alone. Competition is still focused on convenience, quality and price.” It’s similar to the argument for vegan meat - that it’s not enough that it’s sustainable, it needs to be tasty as well. These trains will then need to be super clean, convenient, and good quality in order to compete with low-cost carriers who promise to get you to your destination quicker. Rieder insists that the train ride needs to be an experience; indeed, one of the more popular train rides in Europe is the one from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, termed as the Santa Claus Express, which takes you from Finland’s capital to Santa Claus’ official resident village.
At the same time, the inconvenience of flights should be highlighted - trains require you to arrive at the station only a few minutes prior, while the airport demands at least a couple of hours, with intensive, annoying security checks. Most airports are located away from the city and take a much longer time to reach, especially in cities where there aren’t any airport trains, whereas railways stations are generally situated in the city centre. Trains provide a fantastic view and are easy to move around in, whereas airlines require you to sit tight.
Trains in India are still the preferred mode of transport for a large section of the population, so the question we need to be asking right now is: what can we do to encourage people to keep riding these trains? How can we make our trains better quality? How can we incentivize public transport? Instead of going the Western world way, how can we ensure our development is fair and sustainable?
Especially while travelling, the journey is what needs to count, and the idea of travel should be more than taking a flight and simply getting to a place to have a holiday. A few years ago, I did a 30-hour train journey from Delhi to Goa and its return. More than the place itself, some of the best memories were made on the train. There are fantastic routes in every country that can be taken by train, and it’s time we begin considering these alternatives. And if in the process you end up having a Before Sunrise day, who are we to deny the romance of trains?