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Let's Be Honest, Episode 34: Choosing Trains

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

Cost of air travel

In most parts of the world, the impeding limitations of the pandemic have been lifted. As borders opened, the weight of travel burdens lessened, leading many to embark on that soon-awaited summer holiday. The high number of tourists this season can attest to that - relishing a change of scenery has been on the agenda for many, if jam packed airports and crowded train stations are anything to go by.

During the lockdown, the sky revitalised in its blue colour and clearer waterways were about the only positive news we got to hear. A great share of transportation was at a standstill, but so were people’s lives at a large.

According to IQAir's 2020 World Air Quality Report, during early lockdowns, emissions related to humans and transportation decreased, and in more than a half of the cities studied throughout the world, air quality was better in 2020 than it was in 2019 [1]. Overall air quality improvements were recorded by 84% of the countries surveyed. The fact that flying is basically the most climate-intensive style of travel is common knowledge by now. The white streaks we see trailing after aircrafts in the sky leave the biggest aviation emissions, along with induced cirrus cloud formation that is produced by water vapour [2]. While cleaner fuels and reduction of air pollutants are in the works in the aviation industry, introducing less-emission aircrafts is still facing challenges. For now the alternative seems to be quite simple: flying less, or choosing different means of transportation.

What is Interrail - the initiative, the reach

Now, reflecting back on the pandemic-instilled habits, would it be outrageous to speculate that the airplane traffic cutback really did change our minds about traveling? Insert Interrail, an initiative introduced in 1972, a rail pass that allows people to travel around Europe. Since then, the reach of Interrail has expanded, presenting the opportunity for millions of tireless backpackers to explore as many places as possible and avoid breaking the bank on travel expenses. Initially, Interrail started as a one-time offer in celebration of 50th anniversary International Union of Railways. With the first pass, travellers under 21 could explore 21 countries via railway for as little as 27 pounds [3]. With almost 100,000 passes sold in the year of introduction, safe the say the idea was a success, and the offer of Interrail became permanent. Today, Interrail offers multiple types of passes in Europe and globally, the cost depending on the selected time window, train class and pass validity duration. The offer is available for anyone, with discounted prices for people under 27 and over 60 years old.

Europe houses the oldest railway system, yet it seems that now in the year of 2022, the old-school way of getting around is swinging back into its full gear. Interrail seems to be the holy grail of easy, customised, inclusive and affordable summer travel and young people are mostly the ones reaping the benefits of the service. Interrail ticks all the boxes for modern travellers. Choosing this form of transportation is cost-efficient; quite considerably so, compared to the cost of flights. With access to more than 40 thousand destinations, Interrail puts both tourist-heavy hotspots and off the beaten track locations within a few hour distance. Travelling by train also provides freedom and flexibility; between all the major European cities trains are in constant service, requiring little to no prior planning. What is more, interviewees of Deutsche Welle revealed that using the train feels that much more “real” than flying with a plane [4]. The exciting part of riding the train is observing the ever-changing countryside scenery outside the window.

But perhaps more notably, travelling by train is the environmentally conscious choice. The most eco-friendly mode of transportation is rail. Rail transportation emits 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre than cars do, making walking and cycling the only ways of greener travel than trains [5].

Electric trains and diesel trains operate differently. Compared to diesel trains, electric trains produce 20–35% less carbon. Electric trains run on renewable energy and provide carbon-free travel. Electrified railways are widespread in Europe [6]. An evaluation of these numbers predicts that by 2030, emissions from trains in Europe will have decreased by another 50%. If we calculate emissions on per passenger basis, the CO2 production for a person flying from London to Paris during a busy travel period (when trains and aircraft are likely to be more full and therefore more efficient) would be that of 122 kilograms, as opposed to 48 kilograms if the person would be driving and merely 15 kilograms if the person is taking the train [7]. This major contrast has fostered the “flight shame” movement (flygskam) influenced by the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

Interrail: a choice or a chance?

In 2018 Interrail achieved selling more passes than they managed in the two previous decades [8]. Newer statistics are still pending, but what is for certain, Interrail has gained its way back into the public discourse and possibly attracted even more travellers. But it may not be solely because of the environmental benefits of rail travel, nor the change of course in post-pandemic holidays. As it turns out, Interrail celebrates its 50th birthday this year and on this occasion their Global Pass was launched for 50% discount back in May 2022. For the reduced price, the cheapest ticket-holders gained the opportunity for unlimited 4-day travel. It goes without a say that the deal created a buzz.

And while the sale was a contributing factor to why the topic of Interrail has come up way more frequently this summer, maybe this trend is just what is needed to reinvigorate more sustainable ways of transportation. COVID-19 withheld us all from traveling abroad for leisure purposes, yet the restricting circumstances also demonstrated just how harmful and polluting mindless travel can be. And maybe the service of Interrail can just prove to be the accessible alternative that does not limit options and help forgo footprint-enlarging air travel.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. World Air Quality Report | IQAir

  2. Airplane Pollution | Transport & Environment

  3. 45 Years of Interrail Posters and Advertising | Retours

  4. Interrail Travel Pass Turns 50 | DW

  5. Why Travelling By Train is Environmentally Friendly | Save A Train

  6. Share of the Rail Network which is Electrified in Europe | Statista

  7. The Most and Least Eco-friendly Ways to Travel | Afar

  8. With Interrail the Art of Travel is Slowly Finding Its Place in Europe | European Data Journalism Network

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