Thursday, 10 December 2009

'Sustainable holidays' - European long-distance train travel

When I was a young child in primary school, the first thing we always had to do, on the first day back at school after a holiday, was write an account of 'what I did in the holidays'. Even then, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I used to think that it was just a way for the teacher to keep us quiet and occupied while she got on with something else!

But now, here I am, not on the first day of term, and writing about my holiday. For some of you reading this, travelling across Europe by rail will be old hat - but for anyone still hooked on budget airlines and cheap short-haul flights, this is an encouragement to try something different.

To start with some facts and figures, you might want to look at QCEA's (Quaker Council on European Affairs) 'Ethical fact Sheet' on train vs plane. In summary, they point out that:
Flying is considerably worse for the environment not only in terms of CO2 emissions but also because of the effects they have due to the altitude they are released at. This is combined with the other greenhouse gases (GHG) that aviation release. Train travel is normally a greener option than flying. This is different however from saying it is green. For as long as train travel is dependent upon fossil fuels it will continue to contribute to climate change.
Further analysis of rail travel shows how its 'greenness' depends on the energy mix used to power it. I was travelling through France to Spain. Eurostar, for example, is estimated to emit 17.7g of CO2 per km, while British National Rail comes in at 60.2g CO2 per km. Electrified rail lines are as 'green' as their electricity supply. In France and Spain, the mix looks like this, compared to the UK:

Country   Nuclear    Renewables   Solid Fuels    Gas    Oil    Other
France      79%          11%                  4%                 4%      1%     1%
Spain        20%          17%                22%               30%      8%     3%
UK            19%            5%                38%               36%      1%     1%

The QCEA website uses Paris-Madrid return as an example for comparison - as that was one leg of my journey, this is very useful! Their flying estimates for CO2 emissions vary from 177kg through to 936kg, depending on carrier, class of travel, etc; with time taken, around 2 hours, plus travel to the airport and 2 hours check in time. The rail travel estimate is equates to approximately 15.6kg of CO2 - significantly less; though the time taken is, of course, significantly more. We took the sleeper train leaving Paris Austerlitz at 7.45 in the evening and arriving in Madrid Chamartin at 9.10 the next morning.

I haven't been on a long-haul flight since I returned from Harare in January 1986, after working in Zimbabwe for a year. And I haven't been on a short-haul flight since sometime in 1987 or 1988, when my then employer required me to fly from Birmingham to Edinburgh, and back, for a meeting. For about 25 years I have taken holidays almost exclusively in the UK, the only exceptions being a couple of trips across the North Sea, by boat, to visit friends in Denmark. So this holiday to Spain was a major change.

For some years I had thought, vaguely, that it would be nice to see the Alhambra sometime (if you'd like a more accessible introduction to the Alhambra, without wading through the official website's booking information etc, there's a good entry for the Alhambra on Wikipedia). Then I read Philippa Gregory’s novel The Constant Princess, about Katherine of Aragon, including a substantial first section about Katherine’s childhood in Spain, living in army camps as she accompanied her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, during the Christian reconquest. And of course the novel includes the taking of the Alhambra, the triumphant ride in, and then a long description of life lived in the palace. At this point I decided that I really wanted to see this place!

As I don't fly, I started investigating rail travel, my first port of call being, of course, the ever-useful 'Man in Seat Sixty-one'. It became rapidly clear that the most economic (and lowest carbon) option was to occupy a seat/bed in a 4-berth compartment on the Paris-Madrid sleeper. However, I was clear that I didn't want to share such a confined space with strangers, so I set about finding three friends who wanted to go too! We met up in London, took the Eurostar to Paris, the sleeper train to Madrid, had the inside of a day in Madrid (where we took a bus tour of the city and had a nice meal), then took the local train to Granada. Part way through the holiday, two of us went on to visit Cordoba, while two remained in Granada. We met up again on the train coming home.

As the journey wasn't entirely straightforward, and none of us had experienced web-booking of European trains before, we decided to use a travel agent specialising in rail travel. Recommended to us by green-travelling Friends in Wales, we booked through Ffestiniog Travel, who offered us an excellent service, obtained the seniors' discounts for the three of us who qualified, and gave us peace of mind. We booked the hotels ourselves.
Our whole intinerary looked like this:

23rd November:  dep London St Pancras 1404, arr Paris Nord 1726, dep Paris Austerlitz 1945
24th November:  arr Madrid Chamartin 0910, dep Madrid Atocha 1705, arr Granada 2141
29th November:  2 passengers only dep Granada 0945, arr Cordoba 1212
2nd December:   2 passengers only dep Granada 0945, 2 passengers join train Cordoba 1213, arr Madrid Atocha 1429, dep Madrid Chamartin 1900
3rd December:   arr Paris Austerlitz 0827, dep Paris Nord 1013, arr London St Pancras 1128

Spain itself was interesting in terms of sustainability issues. Granada has on average about 320 days of sunshine per year, so - very sensibly - there is lots of solar technology in evidence, both solar hot water and photo-voltaics on roofs and flat areas of ground. Spain overall is a leader in the application of solar technology, including electricity plants that work by concentrating solar power by mirrors, to generate steam to drive turbines. The most sophisticated of these plants also store solar heat by melting a vast bulk of salt - this can then release its heat at night, when there is no sun, to make the electricty generation continuous.

At a more personal level, we saw lots of low-energy lightbulbs, including (with visual incongruity) stick-type compact fluorescent bulbs in old-fashioned lanterns converted from oil-lamps to electricity, in many of the old Moorish courtyards in Cordoba:

We also took a bus trip up into the Sierra Nevada, to the 'white villages'. Among beautiful mountain scenery we saw many wind-turbines under construction - in locations that would, in the UK, provoke howls of protest about 'spoiling the view'. Personally, I don't consider the view 'spoiled' and I think Spain has a better attitude in this respect than we find in the UK.

Sorry this is a rather blurry image - shot taken through the window of a moving bus!
One last matter to add: if you have special dietary needs, whether through physiological need or ethical choice, Spain isn't the easiest of places to get fed. If you're any combination of vegetarian, vegan, wheat-intolerant, or coeliac, and are planning to travel to Andalusia, please feel free to contact me (email on profile page) and I can offer some pre-travel advice.


  1. A letter, from Tim Gossling of Cambridge, in The Guardian of 9 December proposes limiting air travel, not by taxing it more (which benefits the rich and penalise the poor), but by rationing it (which would be fair and equitable) - each person gets an annual allocation of air miles: "5000 air miles would be quite enough for most people, but would require saving up for holidays in Barbados or Phuket ... trips to Europe by train would, of course, be off-ration."

  2. Ah!!! at last I found what I was looking for. Somtimes it takes so much effort to find even tiny useful piece of information. Nice post. Thanks.
    Cheap Holidays To Spain