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Getting the world back on track, by Tristan Rutherford

Kinfolk, November 2021 

In Sweden, where the anti-flying movement started, they call it flygskam. ‘Flight shame’ aims to lower carbon emissions by embarrassing passengers into considering alternatives to airliners. 

The flygskam movement’s most famous activist, Greta Thunberg, has a point. Flights already contribute 2.5% of global warming gasses. And according to Swiss bank UBS, air travel is increasing by between 4% and 5% each year, essentially doubling every 15 years. If left unchecked, climatic change might cause sea levels to rise anywhere between 50cm and 200cm through 2100. As well as sinking entire countries and causing biblical migrations, the airports at Key West (150cm above sea level) and Venice (210cm) would also be at risk. Truly, oh my God. 

The most obvious alternative to flying is train travel. Here flygskam is already having an effect. In Germany, where the movement is known as flugscham, internal flight numbers dropped 12% in November 2019 compared to November 2018. During the same timeframe, national rail operator Deutsche Bahn reported record passengers. 

A worthy alternative? Having traveled the world on rails I have this to report: If passengers sampled the newer, faster, longer and comfier routes now available, few would return to the trauma of modern aviation. That security queue, gate sprint, plastic wrap, hugger mugger ordeal. Here are the two reasons why.  

Firstly, thanks to a new breed of ‘airline killer’ rail routes, it is truly a shame to take the plane. Take Milan to Rome. Formerly Italy’s busiest air corridor, the route is now served by 300kmh trains that slice through Lombard orchards and Tuscan hills. In Smart Class, passengers can work from Frau leather reclining chairs using fold-down desks and free WiFi. Club Class guests receive lounge access and priority boarding, and the opportunity to eat panini, drink free booze, and watch a personal video screen. City centre to city centre access takes just three hours; or far longer by jet. Only a masochist would fly Madrid-Barcelona, Istanbul-Ankara or Paris-Marseille. 

Interestingly, only two of the world’s 20 busiest air routes are international. As trains get faster (China is testing 600kmh rolling stock) and airplanes stay the same speed (due to security and congestion), traffic on the heaviest air corridors could be slashed. We’re looking at you Tokyo to Sapporo (10m annual passengers). And you Jakarta to Surabaya (5m annual passengers). Fortunately both domestic high-speed rail projects are currently under construction. 

Secondly, taking a train should be a life-affirming joy. Like the reopened route from Phnom Penh to Kampong on Cambodia's sun-kissed coast. Vintage German carriages rattle along tracks barely used since the Khmer Rouge sealed the country’s borders in the 1970s. The little Cambodian train stops at rural villages that sell squid-flavoured potato chips, then huffs through sunset jungle silhouettes. Tickets - and a memory to last a lifetime - cost $7. The same price as an airport sandwich from Subway. 

Norway’s longest passenger train runs from Trondheim to Bodø. The 729km feast of fjords, forests and (in winter) northern lights is so telegenic that Norwegian television screened the entire ten-hour journey - minute-by-minute - in a Slow TV special. Tickets are $34. Why pay more to fly? 

Traveling by train elicits a final bonus for the modern mindset. The ability to feel smug, then share the fact with ‘friends’. Holidaymakers may #tågskryt, or ‘train brag’, about their eco-transport on social media. Trust me. It feels great. 

Curiously, social media has literally saved several rail routes. Like Turkey’s 1,310km Eastern Express. It was slated for the chop until Instagrammers started posting from their decorated train bedrooms (fairy lights, bottles of wine) and strapping GoPros to the train roof (icy canyons, wild dogs). The official Instagram account for the 30-hour route has 400,000 followers. Tickets sell out instantly. 

Mark Smith, the train aficionado behind rail guide The Man In Seat 61, has charted rail’s rise over 20 years. “When I started in 2001, if people told me why they wanted to go by train not plane, they'd typically say they had a phobia of flying,” he explains. “When I started travelling in the 1980s, climate change wasn't even a thing.” Today passengers tell Smith “two things, together in the same breath: They want an alternative to the airline experience and they want to cut their carbon footprint.”

Smith raises a second point. “I love travel, but that means the journey as well as the destination,” he says. “Trains and ships show you the journey and treat you like a human being. You aren't strapped in, you can stand up and walk around, you can sleep in a bed, eat in a restaurant.” The experience needn’t stop there. Brittany Ferries’ routes from Britain now include wildlife volunteers from ORCA, who help passengers spot fin whales and striped dolphins enroute. “My message is that you're not suffering to do the planet a favor,” says Smith. “On the contrary, you're doing yourself a favour, by switching to overland travel!”

So why is airline use still growing? Bureaucracy doesn’t help. It took a decade for Eurostar to launch a single extra route from London to Amsterdam. Ryanair, the world’s biggest international airline, typically launches hundreds of new routes - each year. Underinvestment has been chronic. Amtrak’s flagship high-speed route from New York to Boston averages 110kmh. A cheetah could run faster. Amtrak’s telegenic sleepers services criss-cross the great nation they helped unite - but frequently with torn seats and indifferent service. 

Fortunately change is in the air. The flygskam mood has forced governments’ hands. After a 17-year hiatus, the Brussels to Vienna Nightjet sleeper recently reopened to provide cross-continental travel, with onward connections to London and Paris one end, and Budapest and Belgrade the other. By next year, overnight services operated by Austrian Railways will feature mini-suites that look like Japanese business pod hotels. Another new sleeper links Stockholm with Berlin via Malmo and Copenhagen. Japan’s bullet trains have become so speedy that the nation has only a single sleeper service left: the Sunrise Seto from Tokyo to the coast. 

Flygskam has also encouraged passengers to take a look at their wider footprint. Like reducing transportation in general, which accounts for 28% of greenhouse gases, by not demanding the latest laptop be rushed from California. Or by lowering electricity consumption, with its 27% contribution, by installing solar panels. Greta Thunberg is vegan. Which means her conscience doesn’t bear the near 20% of global greenhouse emissions derived from the burpy-farty livestock industry. Shamed? Escaping courtesy of an att smygflyga, or ‘secret flight’, the sneaky antithesis of flygskam, isn’t the answer. 

Tristan Rutherford writes about trains for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. 

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