In London today for a bit of a holiday. It’s a stopover on the way to Norwitch, where we’re going to a friend’s wedding.
We took the train through the chunnel. There are a number of trade-offs involved in traveling by rail over travelling by air. The total travel time increases, but that increase is less significant than one might think at first glance. First, we save the trip to the airport, which saves about a half hour. Second, the airport wants us to check in 90 min in advance, which is unecessary at the train station. For a trip to London, the train station is in the middle of the city. Once the train arrives, we have arrived, whereas arrival at the airport means another hour till we get to our destination — given the need to get luggage, disembark, etc. Finall, If I take the average of airplane delays (in my life maybe a half hour) and subtract the average of train delays (less than a minute on the average in my life), I arrive at a compensation of 3 hours, door to door. So for short trips — which from Switzerland means Italy, Germany, France, etc. it’s often more efficient use of time. Of course, going to London takes 8 hours by train, given that one has to transfer from Gar de Lyon to Gar de Nord, and the ridiculous checkin procedures for the chunnel train. The flight is approximately 2h, meaning door-2-door time of 5 hours. So I would save 3 hours travelling by plane over travelling by plane. Overall it’s a loss, but not a terrible one.
There are other concerns. Of those 8 hours, I spend a couple of hours in Paris’s largest rail stations. I find this enjoyable. It’s a brief visit to Paris, in which one sees only a little of the city, but rather a lot of the cities’ people. While it doesn’t really count as a visit to Paris, it counts a great deal more than a stop-over flight would. It’s rather the same when travelling through a country by train. When one travels over an area by plane, one sees no more of that area than one would on Google maps. When you sit on a train as it travels through a land, it makes stops. People embark and disembark. Often you get to observer a small slice of their life as you rocket through through their lands at speed which were unheard of even a hundred years ago. So it’s my belief that one sees and experiences more by rail than by air.
Financially, there’s a real penalty for travelling by train. This is not because air-flight is more efficient than train travel. Quite the opposite in fact — the efficiency of train travel, and the implications for that on climate change and resource consumption, is our primary motivations for choosing it over flight. This is simply an artefact the enormous subsidies that airlines enjoy. Should rail travel enjoy such a large level of support from our taxes, the economics of rail travel vs air travel would likely change. This can only change if governments begin to show more wisdome with regards to issues like climate change and resource consumption, which in turn is only likely to improve when citizens grow more wise.
Which brings me to the real reason we travel by rail, even when there is a financial and temporal price to be payed. When we travel by air we rob from future generations and the poor of the planet, as it is future generations and the planet’s poor who suffer most from climate change our modern excesses. Once, when explaining my reasons to a colleague who should already have understood them, he replied with some banality about the need to be happy balanced against some uncertain future. For the vast bulk of human history people have been unable to travel by air, let alone travel cheaply with wanton abandon. Are we only now able to be happy? In fact evidence suggests that modern excesses only make us less happy. While I can’t prove it, I’m comfortable asserting that selfishness and short-sightedness can only diminish our happyness. Implying that flying is a vital component of happyness is as absurd as asserting that the the suffering of climate change is uncertain, or even in the future.