Keeping on track: a European culture trip by train

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Can we opt for rail tracks instead of flight trails? Springback editor Sanjoy Roy gave it a go – and shares some practical and life lessons from the experience

Over the last three decades, the arts and culture sector – like education, tourism and others – has been fuelled in no small part by the rise of budget airlines. Performing arts presenters, producers, artists and entourages leave flight trails across the globe as we go about our business. Yet we know this to be what we euphemistically call unsustainable (‘destructive’ would be more plain-speaking).

As the Covid pandemic grounded flights around the world, many of us sensed an opportunity to make changes to harmful habits. At the same time, against an increasingly obvious backdrop of environmental deterioration (heat records broken, then broken again), we saw and sometimes experienced more catastrophic climactic events worldwide: fires, storms, floods. Yet as we began to move beyond the pandemic’s first phase, many norms seemed simply to return. Flights began to take off again, airports to push for more runways, and airlines to argue against fuel tax.

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Stricken with ‘flygskam’, I decided to not passively accept flying as the easiest and cheapest option

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It was during this period – autumn 2021, just before the COP26 world climate summit – that I had an opportunity to travel internationally for work again. Would I fly? I knew that CO2 emissions per passenger are typically 80–90% lower by train than by plane, not to mention other pollutant measures (check for detailed journey comparisons). One of my meetings was in Rotterdam (WArd/waRD), easily accessible by rail from my home in London, but the other events were in Prague (Czech Dance Platform) and Oslo (CODA International Dance Festival), and getting there by train seemed almost unthinkable. Still, I had already flown once in 2021 (to Ljubljana, for Aerowaves’ Summer Recollection) – which happened also to be the European Year of Rail – and so, stricken with flygskam, I decided to not passively accept flying as the easiest and cheapest option, and see if I could make train travel feasible.

Personal and professional circumstances (including flexible working hours, solo travel, no dependents and many other factors) helped me hugely to achieve this. Though it was certainly a struggle to overcome the patterns of thought and behaviour that favour aviation, in the end, this became one of my most rewarding trips, not only because of the events I attended but because of how I travelled.

Of course, large-scale systems change lies in the realm of transport and energy regulation, taxation and policy. Yet individual choices do add up and multiply. Below I share some of what I learned through my choice, not by way of model or moral example, but in the hope that it proves useful to others facing similar decisions.

Foreground: man sits on wooden bench in Prague Station. Behind a flipboard showing train times. Behind that, the trains at the platforms.
Prague Station. Photo © Gautier Kempa / Unsplash

How to get there?

With a flight, you can generally buy one ticket that gets you from A to B, even if you have to change planes en route. With long-distance trains, there are often multiple routes possible, with multiple rail companies each issuing their own tickets. How do you begin to navigate your options?

The German Erasmus by Train site was launched to encourage rail travel by students in the European Erasmus scheme, but the clear advice and simple steps on its ‘plan your journey’ page make this an excellent starting point for anyone, student or otherwise. As with other guides, it will soon direct you towards international journey planners on sites such as Deutsche Bahn (which covers far more of Europe than just Germany) and The Trainline. Another good starting point, with more detailed options, is Stay Grounded’s ‘travel differently’ page. Pretty much any guide will at some point lead you to the amazing Seat 61, an old and old-fashioned looking website that is jam-packed with useful information. Though based in the UK, it covers swathes of travel through Europe and beyond. Combine its riches with the brevity of Erasmus by Train, and your poles are covered.

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The direction of travel in Europe is clear: towards rail. Why not get on board now?

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In my case, much the best option was an Interrail pass. Often thought of as a way for youngsters to bum around Europe on the cheap, it’s actually available to people of all ages, though you get a good discount if you’re under 28 – or over 60. It’s available for people resident in Europe, but those from elsewhere can get a Eurail pass, which is effectively identical. The pass gives access to a vast range of rail networks, even some buses and ferries, and it charges you not per journey but per day of travel. Two bits of small print to flag up that I found out about the hard way. First, no matter how many travel days on your pass, you get only one journey out from and one back to your country of origin. Second, some journeys require seat reservations, which can become complicated and sometimes costly. If you are considering Interrail, there’s a handy routemap with general info on the Interrail website, and a detailed guide on Seat 61.

One more important point. Big action plans are already under way to improve and facilitate train travel in Europe, including the creation of a Single European Rail Area (SERA) and upgrades and integrations of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). In policy terms, the direction of travel in Europe is clear: towards rail. Why not get on board now?

Admin and accounting

Accounting systems often favour the ‘boomerang’ trip (go there, come back). One outward and one return journey for one event – all entered on the same line of the spreadsheet, with receipts matching expenses. But a multi-destination trip also has in-between or onwards journeys, with each event administered by a different company or organisation, each with its own financial and procedural requirements. So even when a round trip makes sense in terms of time, money and carbon cost, the systems seem stacked against such joined-up thinking: costs have to be divided between different administrations, and demarcations are often not clear cut. Essentially, you have to organise a tour, not a trip.

My solution was to agree a travel budget in advance with each organisation, estimating on the high side so that my final invoice would come in lower than the estimate. It was not straightforward for anyone, but having shown that I’d done the legwork to find the best travel options, and divided costs as fairly as I could, I did encounter a lot of support for the underlying motive: to avoid aviation. Accounting for journeys with multiple stakeholders, and which may blend necessary work with optional personal travel, is never going to be easy, but goodwill can go a long way.


Sometimes you can’t do a long trip in day, in which case you have to arrange overnight accommodation – a major expense. Mindful of overall costs, I went ultra-cheap (€45 for a hotel room in Hamburg, for example), which was ok for a sleepover, if not a stay. A work colleague very generously let me stay in Brussels, three times, which made a huge difference not only to the cost, but to the quality of my journey.

Consider sleeper trains too, which combine overnight accommodation and travel in one stroke. They are making a comeback.

Time adds up

When doing your sums, remember to count times (and costs) from door to door, not just the length of the plane or train journey. Once you factor in airport transfer and waiting times for both arrival and departure, you can often easily be adding another 6 hours to the scheduled flight time. On my trip, on every leg of the journey apart from London I could walk between my accommodation and the station in under 30 minutes, and generally arrived 15 minutes before departure time. Bliss.

Counting just travel days for the whole trip (including an unforeseen stop in Antwerp, arranged mid-trip), my sums worked out like this. By train, I needed 11 travel days for work, to which I added two days of my own during the trip (in Denmark), and two days afterwards (in France). By plane, it would have taken 8 travel days for work, with no separate travel.

Three blurred figured with wheelie suitcases on train platform in foreground, behind them a dark blue train, and behind that the curves metal roof of Hamburg station
A platform at Hamburg station. Photo © Alexander Bagno / Unsplash

Connecting trains

Trains get delayed, so don’t cut your connection times too tight. Give yourself some breathing space when changing trains and your nerves will thank you. If you end up hanging around for an hour, make the most of the opportunity: take a stroll around the city you’re passing through, or find a non-station café.

One way to allow for missed connections: if you’re doing a very long travel day, see what the shortest journey time is for your day, then get an earlier train out (preferably the earliest). You can usually nod off on the first (probably pretty empty) part of the journey, and if there are delays en route you can still count on getting to your destination.

Stay grounded

Long-distance rail journeys are easier travelling solo or in a pair, maybe a very small group. You need to travel light, too. A significant number of arts and culture professionals reading this magazine fit that profile (presenters for example, who often visit multiple destinations over short periods). If that’s you, find out about alternatives to flying, and try them out – especially if you can get to your destination in a day. Keep in mind that you can do a lot more work on the train – with wifi connections, comfy seats, tables and sometimes even compartments – than in the cramped, dead space of the airliner. And if you’re into team-building then there’s no competition: airplanes and airports are losers.


The smartphone has transformed rail travel. I had everything I needed on mine except my passport: Interrail pass, vaccination certificate, seat reservations, timetables, platform info, live updates. Since most trains had wifi too, I could update my journey options on the go if necessary. Don’t leave home without it – or without a backup charger.

Don’t leave home at all?

Though the live encounter is irreplaceable, we have become far more accustomed to online substitutes and alternatives, for which the technology continues to develop apace. By way of example, Aerowaves’ annual meeting in 2020 comprised 10 people live in Athens with another 40 joining internationally via Zoom, while their Springback Ringside project explores audience access to performance through virtual reality recordings to develop alternative modes of travel and distribution.

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overhead view of crossing train tracks viewed through orange autumn leaves
Photo © Gonzalo Facello / Unsplash

Life is a journey, not a destination

I’ve spoken a lot about practicalities, but my biggest revelation from this trip was a matter of heart and mind: the value of a journey lies in its process, not in jumping from starting point to end point.

Yet that shortcut is what aviation aims for. No one flies for the sake of the trip. We do it to get somewhere far, fast. In exchange, we agree to become cargo, transported from point A to point B – cargo that may be primped and pacified with music and movies, or otherwise sold to and advertised at, but is cargo nonetheless. That’s the deal: enter the purgatory of passenger aviation, and return to life and the world someplace else.

In contrast with the dead space of the airliner, train travel was a lived experience, in touch with the world it traversed. Landscapes changed, languages changed, and customs, and currencies. En route, I took walks around Regensburg and Copenhagen, and a boat trip in Hamburg. I took a day for myself, cycling solo through the coastal heaths and woods of North Jutland.

Of course, there were irritations and hassles. Alongside the train’s soothing sway and ample legroom, its agreeable transits and stop-offs, there were also missed connections, signal failures and several anxious on-the-hoof recalculations of routes through transport systems I didn’t understand. But these were inconveniences, not disasters, easily tagged as #firstworldproblems. Some contained unforeseen blessings – a crisp twilight walk around Köln cathedral was thanks to a cancelled train – and all were intrinsic to the journey’s flow and flux.

The man in Seat 61 could have told me that. He set out not for any environmental motive but because he found that ‘every flight is the same stressful non-experience’ while ‘trains show you more of the country you’re visiting and its culture’. Still, you learn life lessons by living them, not listening to them. Beforehand, I had been mentally weighing up the sacrifices of time, money and convenience, but I had to actually go and travel myself to discover that the journey could be not a penance at all, nor even a means to an end, but its own life-affirming reward. 

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Getting going
Erasmus by Train
Stay Grounded
Seat 61

International rail passes
Interrail (for residents in Europe)
Eurail (for non-Europe residents)

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