Notes from Catherine Rowett, former Green Party MEP for East of England and deputy coordinator of the Eastern Region Green Party*(UK). Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Recent railway adventures

Here is how I went to Switzerland for a conference last weekend.

  1. First I rode my bicycle to Cambridge Station.
  2. Then I took a First Capital Connect train from Cambridge to King's Cross.
  3. Then I took two underground trains to get from Kings Cross to Waterloo.
  1. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord.
  2. Then I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est. Gare de l'Est is currently under reconstruction, but there was a waiting room.
  3. Then I boarded the night train heading for Zurich and Chur. The coach I was booked on didn't exist but they had reassigned me to an alternative one. It was, as requested, an all women couchette compartment.
  4. Next morning at 0450 I got off the train in Basle and crossed the border into Switzerland.
  5. At 5 a.m. the coffee shops opened so I had some breakfast.
  6. Then I caught a train to Luzern.
  7. At Luzern I was met by a representative of mine hosts and driven by road to Vitznau. This was a disappointment as I had hoped to complete the journey by way of the paddle steamer across the lake (but I think my hosts didn't appreciate that one might prefer to use the public transport method. Certainly I would have needed to wait perhaps an hour or two for the first boat I suspect).
On the way back I did the same thing in reverse. Total number of legs to the journey there and back, eighteen. Total journey time about 15 hours each way. But because most of it was at night, I actually got two complete extra days at my destination and lost very little usable time.

I suspect that a journey by air would have taken about 7 hours each way and cost about half as much. My original plan had been to cross the channel by sea rather than by Eurostar but by the time I came to book the travel agent claimed (somewhat implausibly, I thought) that there were no trains from Paris to Calais with available seats on the day I wanted to return. Next time I will make an effort to get it right. I don't much like the way the Eurostar tries to pretend it is an airline, creating just the very ambience one is trying to escape.

Eurostar (they tell me) is "ten times less polluting than flying". I suppose that means it emits about 10% as much CO2. They're trying to save further on the per passenger CO2 footprint now: well they could start by letting us wait in a normal building or on the platform instead of a horrible cramped air conditioned "departure lounge" with no windows and no natural light and most of the space taken up with silly airport shops and duty free outlets.

Yuk. Just let us travel in good old railway style: that would appeal much more to those of us who want to break free of the consumer society.


Richard said...

"Eurostar (they tell me) is 'ten times less polluting than flying'. I suppose that means it emits about 10% as much CO2."

They also say that, by November, they will be carbon neutral. Which sounds very impressive, until you realise that most of the electricity for powering the trains is generated by nuclear fission. I imagine that if a high-speed rail network powered by nuclear power were introduced in the UK, the greens would go berserk!

Catherine Rowett said...

Well I suppose it's an interesting question whether our trains run on nuclear power.
I suppose the greenest train would be one that had a sail and went by wind power...

Tiger said...

The French have for many years generated a much larger proportion of their electricity from nuclear plant than we do in Britain, without many of the attended scares. But they have also been in the forefront of renewable schemes. The Rance barrage, constructed in the 1960s, was one of the first modern tidal power schemes in the world, and is still the largest. Of course there is also quite a lot of hydro-electric generation in the mountains, and we saw an extensive wind farm under construction in Cap Corse.

I'm sure you would have had little difficulty getting a seat on an ordinary train from Paris to Calais. The problem is that the classic train-ship through routes between Britain and the continent are no longer marketed as such (apart from that between Harwich and Hoek van Holland). So the travel agents don't want to bother with the fiddly details. Incidentally, which agent did you use? Trainseurope at March (or Platform 4 at Cambridge station from Tuesday to Friday) are supposed to be very accommodating.

Your greenest route to France would probably be via Newhaven and Dieppe, with Transmanche Ferries, as that's the closest approximation to a straight line from London to Paris. But obviously it's slower and less convenient than Eurostar, with a longish sea crossing, and you arrive at the Gare St-Lazare in Paris (much more "good old railway style", but less convenient for onward travel to Switzerland).

If Eurostar is to woo back air passengers, some of the shops and other trappings will be expected. You don't have to use them.

Anonymous said...

The move to St Pancras doesn't seem to have made it any easier to use Eurostar for a family holiday - see my blog at

And a personal bugbear: they are making great play of the new availability of through tickets from several UK stations, but why did they have to wait 14 years for this? I tried to buy a ticket from my local station (Yeovil - direct service to Waterloo) to Paris, but had to buy two separate tickets. The local paper should have been full of ads like "Yeovil to Paris for £89 return" or similar. And, of course, the journey time is much longer now that it includes a Waterloo-St Pancras tube trip (what a hassle with luggage). They don't make it easy...