Smarter Cambridge Transport

Trains instead of planes – a viable choice for European destinations?

I’ve been invited to speak at a smart mobility conference next month in Bielefeld, Germany. As it would be hypocritical to fly and then talk about making transport sustainable, I’m travelling there by train. Flight times mean I’d have to stay two nights in any case. The train fares total £162 from Cambridge, which is comparable with flying on the dates I need.

There are flights to Dortmund available at short notice for the absurdly cheap price of £9.98 return (excluding connections and carrying anything bigger than a thick laptop bag). This of course covers none of the environmental costs of flying, which gives airlines a hugely unfair advantage over train operators.

Appropriately, as I started writing this, my wife and I were speeding across the French countryside at 200mph in the upper deck of a high-speed train – escaping the interminable greyness of British winters for some winter sunshine in Lisbon, Portugal, just over one thousand miles from Cambridge.

The journey took twenty-four hours, but we had a bed in our own cabin (with shower) for the overnight leg through Spain (sadly, not wholly to be recommended – yet*). Each way, Cambridge to Hendaye (on the French-Spanish border, close to Biaritz and Bilbao) cost £60 each; the sleeper, £100 each. All-in, travelling by train rather than flying added about £130 each to our holiday, allowing for airport connections and two nights not spent in a hotel/AirBnb. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a reasonable price for us to pay to reduce our combined carbon footprint by one tonne (CO2e).

For trips that don’t involve a sleeper, even as far as Perpignan, Monaco, Cologne, Berlin or Milan, advance fares are typically between £120 and £200 return, comparable with flying with checked-in bags. (Of course, there is no baggage weight limit on the train, so you can fill your boots with wine, beer and other memorabilia.)

Be sure to use the Eurostar website to get cheap connections from Cambridge, Ely, King’s Lynn or Royston to St Pancras; and consult the train traveller’s bible, The Man in Seat Sixty-One for ideas and information.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 15 January 2020.

*Addendum: why not wholly to be recommended?

The Renfe rolling stock on the Sud Express between Hendaye and Lisbon is ancient. The premium 2-berth cabins (Cama Gran Clase) are cramped and poorly designed. The beds are comfortable unless you’re over about 6ft (183 cm). The heating controls appear to make little difference. Some of the windows are misty because the double-glazing has failed. The bathroom is clean and functional (the shower is better than it looks), but in no way luxurious. The high level of noise makes ear plugs a necessity if you want to get a reasonable run of sleep. It’s also not a smooth ride in places.

The worst feature of the trip is that at least some of the cabins fill with diesel smoke for about an hour in the middle of the night. This is because the line between the Portugal-Spain border (at Fuentes de Oñoro) and Salamanca is not electrified, requiring a diesel engine to take over. Either through bad design or a mechanical failure, the ventilation system draws in fumes from the engine. Fortunately this should soon be resolved as electrification of this last link is due to be completed in 2020. Then, with a refresh or replacement of the rolling stock and some track maintenance, this will be a great way to travel to one far corner of Europe.

It would be great if there were a daytime service too, as that would provide an opportunity to take in the stunning scenery (and railway engineering). You would then have a choice of taking the sleeper train or breaking the journey in Hendaye or Hondarribia.

P.S. Don’t make the mistake we nearly did and get off at Oriente – an impressive and beautiful station – instead of the more central Santa Apolónia.

Edward Leigh

Edward Leigh is the leader of Smarter Cambridge Transport, chair and independent co-opted member of the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel, chair of the South Petersfield Residents Association, business owner, consultant, and occasional blogger about making the world and Cambridge a better place to live.

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