Saturday, 21 June 2008

Train Mad

Train Mad

Last year, after flying for less-than-noble reasons, I decided I would try a flight-free diet. Not that I was a binge flyer anyway, but after switching to green electricity, taking up cycling, buying organic, fitting energy saving light bulbs, etc, etc, etc a person on the path to a green life cannot ignore the impact of flying. “I fly because it’s cheap” doesn’t really add up when we consider the indirect costs of flying, they are nothing but cheap. So I thought I’d starve myself of flying for as long as I could handle.

I did make it last for over a year; all my personal and business trips were done by bike or public transport. Unfortunately, I had to break my flight fast in April when due to a change of plans, incredibly high last-minute train prices and lack of time, I ended up flying to Amsterdam to speak at a conference. Luckily, I could fly from Southampton airport, a small, easy-to-get-to airport. The design is quite nice, with a roof that allows so much sunlight to pass through that hardly any man-made light was on. Toilets had water saving features, recycling bins abounded and Flybe’s aircraft even had an energy rating! It appears that they have invested in more energy efficient planes and have reduced their consumption when landing and taking off, the bits that waste more energy. The aircraft rating was a bit of a one-off, I think they are the only ones doing it so what do you compare it to? A fridge? They give a rating for energy used in landing and take off, while in the air and fuel efficiency. The overall rating is “B”, well, my fridge is better! They also claim a person emits 72g/km for a short-haul flight. To top it I arrived at sunset after a quite enjoyable flight. I was almost fooled. Thank god the journey back was somewhat bumpy or I might have gotten attached to those metal wings.

Despite that minor indulgence, I decided to be firm and resist the temptation.
So here I am writing in Prague in this lovely vegetarian restaurant-cum-night club (I know!!!) waiting for my thai noodles. I arrived on Tuesday, a journey that went from Poole, to London, Brussels, Berlin and Prague to speak at a Bioplastic Conference. Sounds long, and it is, but it is also a very beautiful way.
This time I didn’t book a bed on the sleeper train so I didn’t fall asleep for very long as I happened to be in the party cabin: French Canadians, Scottishmen, techno and booze – I read a book just in case you’re wondering. It made me feel old!

The route from Berlin to Prague is magical. The train follows the river Elbe nearly all the way and crosses beautiful picturesque towns, rolling hills, lush forests and solar panels, many solar panels, a stunning amount of PVs on roofs. That’s what you get when the government really pushes for micro generation. In Germany, you can get a low interest long-term loan to buy solar panels and then, when you sell surplus electricity to the grid, the energy suppliers are legally required to pay you four times what you would pay to buy electricity from the grid. You can actually make money! Freibur, in the south of Germany, generates as much solar power as the whole of the Great Britain!

Another sweet thing about trains is that they are always full of interesting people. I’ve met an Opera singer from Serbia, a vegetable oil lobbyist from Brussels, a physicist working with one of the biggest super-computers in the world and many more. You actually have time to engage in meaningful conversation over a meal at the restaurant car. Just the idea of a restaurant car is lovely in itself.

But train-life is not always perfect. I lugged my family on a slow night train trip from Paris to Venice… fifteen hours! Six bunks to a cabin! No one could really appreciate it, especially because the party cabin on that wagon was right next door and the walls are paper thin. Sleepers train in the UK win hands down and you get the lovely train host to knock on your door 30min before the station with breakfast, so you have breakie in bed looking at the amazing scenery out of the window! I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me feel.

Then there are the bridges and tunnels: monuments to great engineers and architects. There’s the lovely bridge between Dundee and Edinburgh, the amazing one between Copenhagen and Malmo and scores more. The tunnel under the English Channel can get you considering that engineering feat for the length of the crossing. I was lapping happily at the alpine scenery last month when the train went into a tunnel. I decided to time it because it seemed quite long. Well, we were in for nearly 20 minutes. Wikipedying later I found out that’s the second largest train tunnel in the world. Magnificent!

To finish this ode to train journeys, I’d like to express my love for the architecture of train stations. Paris Gare de Lyon, Gare du L’est e Gare du Nord are stunning. Dresden’s station intricacy of wrought iron is delightful and St. Pancras smells beautifully new and old at the same time. If you ever have time to while away in St Pancras, get the vegan blueberry muffin from Le Pain Quotidien to eat on the journey.

Next time you go on holiday, make the journey part of the trip and take the train! Just be careful not to get train-mad like me and so fed up that I decided to fly back home tonight!
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