As a teenager and student I liked to travel by train. I found it adventurous and romantic, whether it was the night train to a skiing holiday or an interrail pass criss-crossing Europe. Later, I started taking the plane more often, mainly for practical reasons. It made the world seem so small because it was a lot faster. You can get to India faster by plane than to Spain by train.
I discovered that our notion of time is relative in 2010, when I got stuck in the Netherlands Antilles. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland had erupted, and a gigantic ash cloud more or less paralysed European air traffic. Nobody knew how long it would last. So I thought up all kinds of crazy plans to get home. I even considered hopping on a sailing boat or cargo ship. In the end, I flew to Barcelona and took the bus home from there.
Once back home, going to faraway places by plane was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to give up my love of travelling. Due in part by my growing awareness of the negative impact of flying, I went in search of interesting alternatives, but there was little that inspired me.
How things have changed! With more and more people – especially young people – no longer wanting to fly, slow travel has gained traction in recent years. Slow travel isn’t only about the destination, it’s also about the journey getting there, and should at the same time have as little impact as possible on the environment. There are many ways to do that.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, who went to New York by yacht to speak at the Climate Action Summit, turned hitching a ride on a sailing boat into a worldwide hit. And it was through millennials working online that vanlife – temporarily or permanently living in a van or camper – also became popular among families with children. They now travel across Europe for weeks on end and park their vans in the most spectacular spots. Even biking holidays are back again. Except that it’s now called bikepacking, because that sounds a lot more exciting.
Another option that fits in with the slow travel trend is the train, of course. It’s a sustainable alternative when travelling far from home, but even more so for travel within Europe. The French start-up Midnight Trains wants to offer travellers who care about the planet a unique experience with its hotels-on-rail concept. The idea is that, starting in 2024, you can travel by train in style from Paris to 12 European destinations. And if the Volkskrant is to be believed, a revival of European rail travel is on its way. Since May this year a direct night train, with the appealing name Nightjet, has been running between Vienna and Amsterdam.
All these initiatives appeal to more and more people, but they aren’t a sustainable alternative to the 81 million flights from the Netherlands to other countries each year. If the train really wants to compete with air travel, train connections in Europe will have to improve and, above all, trains must be fast. Let’s hope that with the European Year of Rail, the EU will now really get things moving.
Asceline Groot is an entrepreneur at hetkanWEL (itCANbedone), author of ‘Het Nieuwe Groen’ (The New Green), Content Coordinator at The Crowd Versus and PhD candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen. In her columns, she writes about social enterprises and start-ups and about trends and developments in sustainability.