Trains or internal flights?

There is no such thing (yet) as a non-polluting flight, but short-haul and domestic flights are far worse for the environment than long-haul. That’s because planes use most fuel during the take-off and climb to altitude, so when they’re not travelling far, the carbon emissions to passenger km ratio is higher. But in many destinations, it’s possible to travel internally by train rather than by air, which can significantly reduce your holiday’s carbon footprint.

Where an itinerary mentions internal flights, it’s always worth checking with the tour operator if it’s possible to get from place to place by train instead. Often there may be little difference in cost, and while it may take substantially longer to get where you’re going, the journey itself can become part of the adventure. It’s a cliché, but all clichés have their roots in the truth, don’t they?

Why take the train?

It might seem like a no-brainer to opt for internal flights when you’re on holiday, given you have limited time during which you probably want to see and do as much as possible. That’s especially the case when you’re in a country that may have a less-developed transport network than you might like. But taking the long way round has plenty of advantages too:
Rather than spending several hours queuing to check your baggage, pass through security, fly, then do the reverse at the other end, you can simply arrive at the train station five minutes before departure, find your reserved seat, and stow your luggage in the rack. Literally a 1000% more enjoyable experience already. Taking the train instead of the plane will usually result in substantially lower carbon emissions from your journey. Exact calculations are difficult, because carbon savings will vary depending on factors such as the model of train or plane used, occupancy levels, and when electric trains are used, how that electricity was generated. Some travel companies continue to offer their customers the option to offset their carbon footprint – we think these schemes are flawed and have very little value. The plain fact is we need to produce fewer carbon emissions, and going by train instead of by plane is one of the best ways to do that. There are plenty of tailor made trips that allow you to get around by rail, with the operator organising your tickets for you in advance. But there are also many small group tours where you’re accompanied by a professional tour leader to ensure that transfers run smoothly and argue with the ticket inspectors on your behalf. On a train as opposed to a plane you have more legroom, with the option to stroll up and down the train, or stretch your legs on platforms (certainly a benefit when travelling with kids). Just don’t wander off too far, for obvious reasons. In many cases you’ll be able to charge devices or use complimentary WiFi, but a great joy of taking the train between destinations is of course meeting local people and getting chatting with them. You may have a dining car, or you can bring your own food and drink. If you take an overnight sleeper train, you save on a night in a hotel. Fair enough it’s not as comfortable, but there is something romantic and exciting about falling asleep to the motion of a train, and waking up in a new place entirely. Better than a minibar. When you fly from place to place, you miss seeing the ‘real’ country away from the famous landmarks and big cities. On a train you see peaceful villages, farmers tending their fields, the changes in housing as suburbs gradually become cities, unexpected views of lakes, waterfalls, mountains and plunging valleys.

Where to take the train between destinations

Egypt

Nile cruise holidays in Egypt typically begin or end with a night or two in Cairo to see the Pyramids of Giza. A journey from Cairo down to Luxor, where most cruises get underway, takes just an hour by air. But undoubtedly the best, most romantic and classic way to get there is by overnight train.

China & Tibet

Beijing to Lhasa is a four-hour flight to cover over 3,700km, or 40 hours on the train. No contest, right? Wrong – this is one of the most dramatic rail journeys in the world, crossing eight provinces across northern China and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (the highest plateau on Earth). Before reaching the Tibetan capital you’ll pass the Qarhan Salt Lake, the Gobi Desert, spectacular mountains and vast grasslands.

India

A long distance train journey is one of the quintessential experiences when travelling in India, which has one of the world’s busiest and most extensive rail networks. Most trains have a variety of different classes, and there is an incredible range of India rail holidays available.

Japan

There’s been growing interest in budget airlines in Japan in recent years, but for now nothing can knock the shinkansen bullet trains from their perch. You can follow a classic route between Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, mountains and countryside speedily and comfortably. With the Japan Rail Pass that tour operators can organise for you before departure, it’s a breeze.

Thailand

The journey between the Thai capital, Bangkok, and its more laidback second city, Chiang Mai, takes 2.5 hours by air – or 13 hours on the train. The scenery is especially attractive as the track climbs into the mountains on the approach to Chiang Mai, but many people choose to go with the overnight instead.

Vietnam

The North–South railway in Vietnam must be one of the most bombed and sabotaged in the world, having been regularly targeted between World War II and the Vietnam War. Taking the Reunification Express between Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon takes around 36 hours compared to a two-hour flight, but as it follows the coast much of the way, it’s a very scenic way to get between two must-see cities.

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Long-distance rail holiday experiences, according to Responsible Travel

Krissy Roe is our head of special projects. She loved seeing China from a different angle:
“I went from Beijing to Chengdu by train, eating durian fruit and chatting with a local family whilst travelling at high speed through villages and rice paddies. Such a different side to the China I’d seen in the cities….”
Lyn Hill, our finance and officer manager, travelled the epic Indian Pacific route in Australia: “The Indian Pacific train from Perth to Adelaide was an amazing journey…vast expanses of nothing...unbelievable. (But once you’ve seen it for 36 hours, that's enough!) I remember the train had to stop for a while due to a thunderstorm. It hadn’t rained for years, they said. We briefly got off the train at Cook and I’ve never felt a heat like it. It’s basically a ghost town, so I didn’t go too far away from the platform as I really didn’t want to miss it and be stranded until the next train, which was probably days away.”
It was all about the Reunification Express for Anna Rice, our responsible tourism manager:
“On the Reunification Express, we shared our cabin with a Vietnamese couple who were travelling with a large number of other family members, dotted amongst the other carriages. There was a celebratory atmosphere as they began to unpack steaming flasks of tea and pots of noodles to share amongst themselves. The women started to gather in one carriage while the men congregated on chairs by the sink area, both parties soon deep in conversation and laughter. One of the women helped us map out the exact train route on a blow-up globe we had brought along. Although there was a language barrier we really appreciated being privy to what was essentially a family gathering taking place on a train and they were very generous with their delicious homemade food.”
Account manager Chris Kearney describes why a single train trip was his favourite memory from his four months in India: “My favourite day from the four months I spent travelling around India was a 12-hour train journey from Pushkar to Delhi. I was in a carriage with around 30 others heading en masse to a wedding near Delhi.  There were four generations of them on the train and they thought it was hilarious a strange westerner had gate-crashed their pre-wedding party carriage, making me the centre of their attention for the entire journey. I woke from a nap to three kids poking their heads through the curtains, then scarpering when they realised they had been spotted. When the train finally pulled in to Delhi I helped the family unload their mountains of luggage onto the platform and it took a full 15 minutes to say goodbye, with hugs and laughter and even tears from some of them!”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rob Dammers] [Why take the train?: Brishni29] [Japan: Konstantin Pudan] [Lyn Hill quote: Johndarrington]
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