Why we need a new golden age of European rail | Timothy Garton Ash

As the Cop26 conference begins in Glasgow, I am thinking about what I can do for the climate crisis. Reduce your meat consumption Purchase an electric car You can swap the gas boiler for an electric one. Instead of flying short distances, why not take the train?
To be certain, all of the above. The last point seems particularly relevant to me as someone who has spent a lot of his life flying around Europe. Half of all European flights are short-haul. This is defined by the EU to be journeys less than 1,500km. A detailed study found that short flights along selected routes in Europe can produce up to 19 times more CO2 emissions than equivalent train journeys. (Nineteen are Zurich to Milan. The shorter the flight, and the more excess. Britain's Campaign for Better Transport held a race from central London towards Glasgow city center. The train passenger arrived two minutes earlier than the person arriving by plane. Additionally, the CO2 emissions from the train were estimated at 20kg, as opposed to 137kg for the flight. The train ticket was twice the price in Britain.

This is not the case everywhere. In December, for example, I must travel from Bremen in north Germany where I speak on Thursday evenings, to Bavaria where I have an engagement the next night. I would have automatically booked a flight until recently. It is now possible to travel from Bremen to Munich by train. It takes slightly longer than the flight which would take just one and a half hours. Lufthansa offers no less than five direct flights each day. However, this does not include the lengthy drive from Munich's faraway airport to the airport and the check-in process. The train to Glasgow is cheaper than London, at 27.99 for the supersaver.

The train ride will be much more enjoyable. There are no traffic jams along the way to the airport. There is no sweaty striptease at security and no waiting in line for your flight. You don't have to squeeze yourself into a narrow, metal tube filled with recycled, pressurized air. I can watch the changing landscape of Germany from the train; read and write comfortably with good wifi, although it is patchy at times; and get up to take a walk and have lunch in the restaurant car. Then, I can walk straight into central Munich at the end of my journeys.

Recently, I found notes that I took at the October 1984 meeting of the parliamentary party the then-young German Greens. Green MPs, according to my notes, wouldn't use domestic flights within Germany. Here we are, protesting against Startbahn West [a new runway at Frankfurt airport], said one, and then we fly from it! My notes have a tone of mild amusement, especially when someone confesses: I do take a Bundestag-chauffeured car to the pub in the evening! But now I think to myself: if only the Greens approach had prevailed 40 years ago. Imagine that for the past 40 years, we have emphasized European rail connections more than short-haul flight. As the Greens are poised to replace them in the new German government, it is possible to bet your bottom dollar that the airlines are lobbying, explaining the loss of jobs and the cost of cutting too quickly all short-haul flight routes.

It is a shining example of what can be achieved and how much it will cost. It has developed a network of high-speed, comfortable intercity trains over the past 20 years. It takes just two hours to travel from Rome to Milan, and only 59 minutes. Alitalia, the old national airline, is gone. (I know that the Alitalia story is longer, but you get the idea.

A public opinion poll was conducted in Oxford last year by my research team. It asked respondents from the UK and EU27: Would you support banning short flights to destinations that can be reached within 12 hours of London? Nearly two-thirds (65%), agreed. The high support could be due to the fact that very few Europeans fly intra-European flights. 76% of those polled said they only fly within Europe once or less a year. The problem is not frequent travellers like myself. We have a map on our website that shows how far it takes to get from Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. It includes transfer time. For example, from Paris to Berlin or Brussels to Barcelona. This 12-hour goal might seem ambitious. However, a distance of six hours is not unreasonable, as it has been established by employers and individual travelers.

We need to make changes on the demand side (that's us), supply side, and regulatory framework in order to move faster from short-haul planes to trains. This is where the EU can play a part. You didn't know 2021 was the European Year of Rail. Brussels sent the Connecting Europe Express from Brussels to the EU. However, this highlighted some of its problems. It needed three trains: one for the main European gauge and another for Iberian. The third train was for the Baltic (ie post Soviet) gauge.

Train operators, booking agents and consumer pressure groups will all be just as important. It's still easier to book European flights than train travels. Seat61.com is the website of Mark Smith, a British train enthusiast. It's a quirky but great place to start. It will tell you where to go online for bookings on almost any European trip, as well as some expert advice about the trains. Raileurope.com or trainline.com are good options for pan-European rail bookings, though both sites have some geographical limitations. You will often have to book at the respective national rail sites with all the associated sign-up hassle.

A revival of long-distance overnight train services would also be a positive development. Night trains were once part of European travel's great romance (brilliantly and amusingly portrayed in Stephen Poliakoff's film Caught on a Train). Few of these trains are left. Night trains must be brought back and the couchettes made more comfortable.

The 1980s advertising slogan "Let the train take the strain" was very popular. 40 years later, the world's condition demands that we do it. It should, however, be enjoyable.