Taking a flight is rarely a pleasant experience. Battling traffic or train delays to reach the airport two hours before your departure, sitting in a glorified shopping mall awaiting your turn to be herded on to a metal tube, and then wedging yourself into an uncomfortable seat while turbulence throws you around and babies wail from every direction. There’s a better way to travel. A calmer, smoother and less environmentally impactful way. A railway. 2020 will be the year that we fall in love with train travel again.
Britain’s railways have been more or less in decline since the early part of the 20th century, largely due to a lack of government investment and the rise of the automobile. But a growing population and gridlocked motorways have resulted in passenger numbers rocketing to new heights in the 21st century. Today in the UK about 1.8 billion train journeys are made annually.
The majority are short commutes or day trips, but long-distance train travel is popular too – 59 per cent of adults take a long-distance train journey in the UK each year. Britain has had a high-speed rail link with Europe since the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, which is used by more than 20 million people annually. In 2020, these numbers will continue to grow as more people seek an alternative to cars and planes.
Over the past 12 months, the threat of the climate crisis has been driven home by Extinction Rebellion’s activists and school-striking Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. In Sweden, a growing number of people are pledging to “stay on the ground” as they travel, and a new Swedish word has been coined: flygskam, or “flight shame”.
These movements are having a real impact – Sweden’s government-owned railway company SJ saw an 8 per cent rise in passenger numbers in the first quarter of 2019, while domestic passenger numbers in Sweden’s ten busiest airports fell by the same percentage.
Train fever is gripping the country. One per cent of the Swedish population – 100,000 people – are members of a Facebook group called Tågsemester (meaning “train holiday”) that offers news, reviews, and recommendations for train travel around Europe. Sales of Interrail tickets to Swedes increased by 45 per cent in 2018.
In 2020 we’ll see this trend spread across Europe. The EU has agreed to open up the passenger railway market, allowing operators based in one country to bid for services in another. Not only should this boost competition and lower ticket prices, but it will make it increasingly easy to book rail tickets across borders – a key barrier for many travellers.
Moreover, if you factor in travel to the airport and time spent in the departure lounge, there are many long-distance routes across Europe where trains are competitive with planes in terms of journey time and cost. Add in the environmental costs of flying, and train travel is a clear winner.
In the UK, Brexit is complicating the picture, but this won’t dampen the enthusiasm for rail. In 2020, Caledonian Sleeper’s new £150 million fleet, the explosive growth of rail-specific package holidays, nostalgia for the heyday of railways, and continued public concern over the environmental impacts of car and plane travel will herald a new golden age of train travel.
Duncan Geere is a London-based science writer
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