Train thoughts: can we avoid flying?

As a circular economy aficionado, environmental enthusiast and consultant I always stress the importance of living environmentally. I ought to walk the talk, too. A great opportunity came up the other day when I was invited to  conference in Barcelona, and had the time to travel by train. I live in Stockholm, Sweden so it is not exactly next door.

I thought I’d use this conference to to explore the viability of train travel on business. A kind of a case study. It is just one trip, but if you have ever thought about it or the environmental aspects of it, read on.

To understand the significance of going by train you need to see just how much carbon dioxide emissions come from the alternative, air travel, and compare it to the total annual budget if we are to reach the Paris agreement.

The table below will give you a quick overview of Sweden’s total emissions and my own in relation to my trip.

  CO2 emissions Million tonnes Per Capita Me
Sweden total 63.3 6.3    
Sweden consumption 101 10    
Sweden with current incentives 2045 45 4.5    
Climate budget for Paris 2045 10 1    
One flight     0.64 64%
One train trip     0.027 2.7%

As you see from the table, one conference flight like this eats up ten percent of your current annual “budget”. And that rises by nearly half again for the emissions target for 2045 with current incentives and rules in place. For Sweden to reach the Paris goals it is a whopping 64% of your annual budget. This compares to the train which is just 2.7% of the Paris Budget and 0.3% of the current one.

So it is plainly clear that flying is CO2 extreme. It makes sense to take the train. But how feasible is it really?

What happened?

The next section outlines my experience from the Barcelona trip. First, some of my criteria:

  • If it is for work you must be able to book easily
  • You must arrive on time
  • You must arrive in a state ready to work
  • Access to WIFI and/or good mobile data roaming
  • You must be able to work on the train. That means:
    • – Access to electricity to charge phone and laptop.
    • – Access to WIFI and/or good mobile data roaming.

How did booking go?

I chose the interrail card and booking was OK – they suggest routes and you can book the obligatory seat reservations via their own service (they charge compared to booking yourself). It is possible to book yourself if you go to the relevant rail company websites. Note that the working time required to do this is much greater than booking flights.

However – booking seat reservations or sleepers over national borders is a big hassle. I had to phone the ticket office in Austria to get the sleeper Hamburg-Basel.

The route there was Stockholm – Copenhagen – Hamburg – Basel(Sleeper) Basel – Paris –Barcelona. (See the map.)

Could I work on the train?

Work is sooo relax making. Photo: Maj-Lis Koivisto

The first criteria was ok- mostly. Wifi in Sweden is excellent but other places it could be slow at times a n d that is frustrating when you are looking stuff up on the Internet.

However, if you are just creating and editing documents you can sit in peace and quiet.

Getting there on time?

Getting there on time was another story.

Because of a cancelled train in Puttgarten I got to Hamburg too late to get my sleeper train. After a lot of looking up on internet and frantic button pushing of machines in German at Hamburg station I and another guy who was also doing the train thing jumped on a train-to-train- hop through Germany during the night to Frankfurt where we got the fast train to Paris and made our connections to the south.

I did not get much sleep however. And forget working. Ok, I got to Barcelona and thankfully had booked an OK hotel so I got to sleep in and arrived at the conference OK.

The trip back worked much better: a sleeper from Karlsruhe got me to Hamburg in time for the morning train to Copenhagen.

Reasons not to take the train

I didn’t get a lot of useful work done. Stress from missing connections, lack of reliable wifi and not being able to get into the flow. It would be possible however – you get time to reflect, think grand thoughts and to type on your laptop if you were a little more focused than I am.

Reasons to take the train

Your purchasing power will encourage improvement

Will it make a difference? If you can do it I am sure it will. Market forces monitor changes in purchasing and if more are taking the train it will attract investment.


CO2 from diesel and electricity

The website reckons on 10 gram CO2 per person kilometer from train systems like Sweden which are fully electrified and electricity comes from non CO2 emitting sources.

Where diesel and electric is used in countries like Denmark they calculate with 58 g per person kilometer. Then there is 91 g for diesel only and for Europe where trains are electrified but electricity comes partly from burning coal, 34 grams.

Even with diesel this is a lot less, as the flight would have been 262 g per person kilometer.

Where to go now?

 Few ideas of where to go now based just on this little experiment

A faster train system

The table below shows theoretical travel times with current technology that offers 200, sometimes 300 km/h and with the Chinese prototype of 600 km/h.

I have included no waiting at train changes and one hour just to see how it pans out.

Currently, the trip takes about 30 hours station to station.

With the introduction of the kind of fast trains that can run on existing track (200 km/h) that could be pushed down to about 20 which would still require one sleeper or even two.

Up to 300 km/h with no changing time you get to 11 hours which, if it included a sleeper is actually competitive with flights. For conference goers who fly the day before to make sure they are rested and get an early start a good class sleeper will be competitive.

When you go to 600 kmh you are really talking. With minimum changing time you could get Stockholm to Barcelona in about 6 hours.

A vision of a train system that serves major cities i Europe. This is just the first shot – but we need to work in this direction to manage our environmental obligations.

One booking system

You need, I think, to see they whole rail network as a system beyond national carriers. A big investment needed is in booking. You need a European company that you book with and travel with. This is not just to make getting tickets easier, it is getting out of a hole when trains are delayed. If you had a re-book and re-route guarantee you would be able to travel with a lot more peace of mind.

One booking opens up more possibilities – one is the idea of trains made up of sleeper cars going to different places and the cars are coupled and decoupled (gently) as passengers sleep. The possibility would be to go to sleep in Stockholm and wake up, have breakfast and arrive in any major European city.

Screen shot from an airline. Can trains outdo that?

Double-decker train technology is developing; it might be possible to install the kid of seats that first class airline passengers get – the type that reclines- to give a luxury feeling to the whole trip.


This little thought experiment is about one of the hardest in terms of trips. Already today London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are easy to get to via train. As I demonstrated, by taking the train you cut your emissions radically and you can be somewhat productive along the ks to the statistic sources used

We could see the train become competitive with a system and technology upgrade. Where the money will come from I can discuss in a later article.

 Links to the statistical sources used

Swedish EPA
Climate calculator
 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)  Carbon from flights


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