Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.

Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.

Planning ahead

I’ve just booked a cycling holiday in Scotland in June next year. The trip, run by the excellent Peak Tours, starts and finishes in Inverness. I was keen to travel to the start by train – I’ve never been further north than York by train, and the thought of going over the iconic Forth Bridge was enticing.

But it was impossible. Our dysfunctional railways won’t let you book more than three months in advance:

This is crazy. How can an airline sell tickets for next summer, yet the railways, which have been operating for almost 200 years, can’t decide whether it will be running services next February?

Incidentally, I did a price comparison train v plane for the only dates in 2022 for which you can book a train. An LNER standard class train ticket costs £180 return in early January. Yet you can fly BA for half that cost: £90, on a fare that includes hold luggage and your choice of seat.

It’s no surprise that I have booked to fly to Inverness in May. It’s sad not to have a choice.

Train and bike: the perfect climate-friendly choice

Returning from Cardiff to Gloucestershire, June 1994

Back in the 1990s, I took my bike by train a lot. It was so easy popping it into the big guards vans on the Reading line electric trains and the InterCity 125 high speed trains on the GWR main lines. The train is the perfect companion for cycling, allowing you to get to more remote places or return from a tour. The photo above shows my bike before I returned home by train to Gloucestershire after cycling 84 miles to Cardiff the previous day. I got a high speed train to Swindon and then a local train to Kemble, before cycling the final five miles.

InterCity heyday: 1989, near Rugeley, Staffs

Sadly, the trains built for the privatised rail companies seem designed to discourage cyclists. There’s hardly any room, and if there space you may need the skills of a contortionist and the strength of a weigh lifter to hang your cycle from the rack. As a result, many who would have gone by train end up taking their bikes by car.

There’s no easy fix, given trains last for generations (the 1970s HSTs are only now being retired after 45 years) but future rolling stock should be designed so it’s possible to take bikes and tandems. It may need longer trains and platforms to accommodate them, but in a zero carbon world we’ll need these anyway.

I was pleased to have a letter published about this in The Times today in response to Clare Foges’ article. I was chuffed to be published alongside the rail guru and historian Christian Wolmar.

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