Confessions of a fallen eco-obsessive

I have a confession to make. After four years of eschewing the plane in favour of trans-continental train travel, I have finally cracked. Back in October, while I should have been booking the train to Swizerland, I looked at the easyjet website, just for a moment ….. Such sweet temptation; a few clicks led to the revelation that a direct flight from Edinburgh to Basel takes less than two hours and would set me back a mere £25.99. Rather a contrast from the sleeper-Eurostar-TGV combination that has marked our in-law-visiting duties of recent years.

The choice of an 18 hour train odyssey to transport the family from Glasgow to Switzerland twice a year has been led by a conviction that plane travel is unsustainable, following some detailed scrutiny of my personal carbon footprint. And it has been brought to fruition through a combination of stoic determination and stubborn tunnel vision. It is not the transport experience itself, nor the additional time needed for the journey that is the main issue, but rather the herculean obstacle course of the booking process. The click-click ease of arranging direct aeroplane transportation simply does not compare with the sort of stamina, resolve and sheer bloody-mindedness that is needed to obtain a ticket for trans-european rail travel.

On the matter of reducing our carbon footprint, the project has been a success. Plane travel, though a small proportion of global carbon emissions, can be a very significant part of any well-travelled individual’s footprint. A return flight to Switzerland produces 0.7 tonnes CO2 for each person on the plane. Our family’s emissions from easily measured sources (gas, electricity, transport) are down by two thirds since 2005, mainly due to drastically changing our travelling habits, ruling out long-haul travel and taking the train to Europe, with additional reductions from avoiding the car.

We have also managed to make the journeys bearable on the whole, and almost enjoyable. A small laptop that plays DVDs keeps the kids from assaulting each other and prevents the worst irritations to fellow passengers, while the blessed sleeper transports us effortlessly from Glasgow to Euston, a short struggle from St Pancras International. The stop-off in Paris on the way home offers a break for kids to blow off steam and for us to see some of the sights before catching the evening Eurostar that conveniently connects us with the Glasgow sleeper.

The problem lies in the booking: the complex, time-consuming system, where prices are highly time-sensitive and each journey has its own booking horizon. October has become, for me, that dreaded season when the nights start drawing in, the clocks go back, and I have to start the monumental task of booking our Christmas trip to the Grandparents. It starts with researching and carefully inscribing in my diary probable release dates for each of the six tickets.

The first date to come round is for Eurostar, with a booking horizon of 120 days. I have never managed to get this early enough to get the best prices, but the past two years I have received free tickets in return for putting up with variously horrific Christmas travelling experiences, well covered by a gleeful media (2009: trains stuck in tunnels, 2010: queues and cancellations). Despite the past nightmare journeys, people seemed keen to subject themselves to more of the same, as all the cheap tickets have already gone. The return journey for only the London-Paris section would be more than £400. I checked the TGV tickets and the sleeper: both were unavailable, but there was good news. I could still get the cheapest TGV tickets for the outward journey: I would just have to log on at 5am on the release date.

Experiences from previous years have taught me that this release of tickets inevitably happens when we are on a half term holiday far from internet connectivity. Two Autumn breaks running have seen me crouched self-consciously outside a hotel and rental cottage respectively, suspiciously accessing unsecured wireless in the pitch dark. One of those times, I had mistakenly tried to buy the tickets at midnight (on a dark picnic bench in the rain), eventually discovering the release was 5am, and returning to the picnic bench hours before dawn. The prize, if you are successful, are tickets for the three and a half hour, high speed journey for just over £30, and the privilege of going through the process a week or so later for the return journey.

The sleeper is a vital part of our travel strategy, allowing us the illusion that our travel time really only starts when we slide out of our tightly tucked berths, chewing on a shortbread biscuit, and wander dazed into the bustle of Euston station.

There are some amazing deals if you can find them. A berth of the cheapest advance fare with a friends and family railcard costs £35.30 for adults and only £10.15 for children. Good luck with getting one though, if you are travelling with kids you cannot buy sleeper tickets online. You need to call the booking line at the moment of release, panic rising through the holding muzak, as you wait to find out if have won those few golden tickets. The stakes are high, after the first tranche of tickets, the price rises to £269 each way for the family. For our most recent Swiss trip, I had the deflating experience of missing out on the cheap tickets for both the outward, and return journeys. Of course, at this point I was committed to a date, set at the point I bought the Eurostar tickets.

If this is not making the booking of European train travel an attractive proposition, that is because it isn’t, unless you are prepared to pay serious money. Through tickets are available from London to many destinations in Europe, but these cost more because, by the time the TGV tickets become available, only the expensive Eurostar tickets are left.

Comparing booking the train, at a cost of between £776 and over £2000 for the family, and taking many hours, over a period of a couple of months, with the plane booking process is highly unfavourable . With only a few clicks, a return trip to Basel with luggage can be bought for £352. So, it figures that I would have to be an angel or a serious masochist, to go ahead with the train booking.

So, to assuage the guilt ?– well, I could donate the £450 difference in price to a project planting native trees to provide renewable energy for local fair-trade business start-ups, and spend the time I release proselytising on the benefits of a functional public transport system.

And that is what I am going to do.

If we are to get serious about one of our fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, then we need to make the train a realistic option. At present, to book the train to Europe is to submit oneself to a series of tests that even Hercules would balk at. It cannot be beyond the wit of man or woman to invent a more humane booking scheme.

With some collaboration and joined up thinking, we should be able to make a one-stop shop, comparable with the few clicks needed to book a plane, and with a pricing structure that is transparent and affordable. Then we are only left with the task of selling travel the slow way; and in my experience, this will be the easy part.

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