Amsterdammer staff member Nike Hüttermann interviews TraInstagrammer Milan Marcus and explains what the term means while delving into the environmental impacts of train travel as opposed to other means of transportation.
“Over the last few years, I thought a lot about what we as individuals can do, [in order] to some extent lead more sustainable lives. […] there’s always the big question of, well, can the individual really do anything? And [while] I do agree that a lot of change has to come from the system […], I still think, personally, that individuals have some kind of responsibility.” – Milan Marcus
A couple of months ago, I interviewed Milan Marcus, a 24-year-old Economics graduate student at the University of Oxford. He describes himself as a passionate “TraInfluencer” (Train x Influencer), or, more specifically, a “TraInstagrammer”: an Instagram influencer who posts about his train journeys. Seeing his dedication to advocating for train travel on social media made me curious about his motivations. Why should we opt for taking the train? What are the environmental benefits or impacts? For young people, the question of how to live the most sustainable life has become an increasingly important one and it seems like a good time to approach the environmental impact of our mobility choices with greater nuance.
Flying the Skies or Following the Rails?
“So I was talking to a friend about carbon footprints and stuff. And he was like, yeah, I was quite surprised to see [that] being vegetarian doesn’t make such a big difference, it’s only like saving a return flight between London and New York. […] I figured, essentially, the most significant thing I could do to cut my carbon footprint would have been to say I don’t fly. And so that’s how I got into train travel.”
What motivates a young graduate student to enter the wide world of TraInstagram? The answer is an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of our mobility choices. In fact, the German nonprofit organization Atmosfair has estimated that a return flight from London to New York generates around 986kg of CO2 per passenger. In comparison, switching from being a meat-eater to a vegan diet for a year can save around 1,000kg of CO2. While this lifestyle change effectively means cutting one’s average dietary emissions in half, this cut in CO2 emissions is made up by flying across the Atlantic and back once a year. A year of dietary changes adds up to 15 hours in the air. In a nutshell, the environmental impact of flying is truly detrimental. But since many of us still want to travel, visit family and friends and live out our adventurous side by exploring new places, trains have been promoted as a viable alternative to taking the plane. But what is their environmental impact?
The Environmental Impact of Train Travel
Having worked with the Australian Think Tank Grattan Institute, Milan’s research aimed to estimate the potential for building high-speed trains in the world’s sixth largest country. The calculations covered the emissions of building and subsequently operating a high-speed rail line along the East Coast, from Melbourne over Sydney all the way to Brisbane. The noteworthy conclusion was that, “it would take very, very long for those emissions from construction to be outweighed by the emissions saved by people driving and flying.” Two main drawbacks of implementing such a system became evident: the emissions resulting from the construction of the train tracks and the operational energy costs. While, as students based in Amsterdam, one can learn much from this study, it is crucial to note that the European context differs from the Australian one. First, the distances between the main hubs (Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Brussels…) is much smaller on this continent. Second, the train tracks have already been built, which substantially decreases the infrastructure investment to mere maintenance. Still, a few lessons can be drawn from Grattan Institute’s research to push for a further greenification of European railways.
Greenifying Train Travel – Towards a Decarbonization of Electricity Grids
Operating trains requires a lot of energy. Hereby, the environmental impact depends on what kind of energy a train runs on. Luckily, in many European countries, the electricity grid is becoming increasingly decarbonized. Next to a country’s decisions on what sort of energy to invest in, a main factor are train operators who directly commit to purchasing renewable energy. Milan concludes that the Deutsche Bahn’s Green Transformation for instance is “quite decent” because they have pledged to purchase an amount of renewable energy equivalent to the overall consumption of their long-distance trains. Tapping into a wholly different discussion, French trains are also quite low on energy-related emissions because they primarily run on nuclear energy. Hence, how much energy is put into running a train depends on the country, operator and sometimes even the region one passes through.
The Most Exciting Place to Be
In contrast to the Australian context, train travel in Europe has been found to be immensely viable to save greenhouse gasses due to the geographical proximity and the already existing infrastructural network. The privilege of living on a continent that is so well-connected by rail is tremendous. Milan provides a few compelling arguments for why we should all utilize this more. Firstly, the environmental impact is undisputed: Considering short distances, such as Paris to London, trains on average emit 10 times less carbon than planes. Second, it is also compelling to consider that “on the train, if you are in the right mindset, basically the entire time can be used efficiently”. Instead of waiting for hours in the security line at Schiphol, one might sit in a cozy and quiet compartment of your favorite (night) train – a truly “comfortable convenience”. Last but not least, a train ride can be a lot of fun – the scenery, the people and the feeling of traveling are actually really exciting.
To summarize, especially in Europe, we can easily reduce our carbon footprint by opting for railways. And, what is the most exciting place to be at a time when train travel is rapidly expanding? Milan’s response is clear – “Amsterdam is getting quite exciting”. New night trains to Vienna and Switzerland have been introduced, the Eurostar rides directly to London, the Thalys heads to Paris, and a new night train is coming up later this year connecting Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden and Prague. Indeed, “Amsterdam is actually quite an exciting place right now for the expansion of train travel”. So, go take the train instead. “Remember that the train option exists. And on the next trip that you are gonna do, just check if there is a train alternative.”
→ If you are curious to check out more of Milan’s train recommendations, have a look at his TraInstagram page (@milanlikestrains) to stay up to date on all the exciting train routes you can take!