‘Flight shame’: Even Europe can’t ditch planes for rail

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On August 28, 2019, after crossing the Atlantic which lasted 15 days, Greta Thunberg landed in the port of New York aboard the Malizia II, a zero carbon yacht. The Swedish climate activist, who popularized the term ‘flying shame’, has vowed to stop flying. In Europe, she travels by train. For those less vehement than her, the question for each short-medium-haul journey is whether the train or the plane is more practical. These maps will help clarify that. (Credit(Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

You could just call it “flight shame”, but the Swedish word flygskam – pronounced “fleek scum” – is much more fun. It was popularized a few years ago by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The word describes the sense of shame she thinks people should feel when considering air travel for which a greener alternative exists. Why? Because commercial flights are responsible for 2.5% of global carbon emissions. Thunberg herself took flygskam to the extreme when she crossed the Atlantic in 2019 to visit the United States

“Flight Shame” vs. “Train Advantage”

It’s an option that most transatlantic travelers won’t or can’t consider. More generally, however, “flight shame” applies to short and medium distance flights for which practical alternatives are available, usually by train.

By choosing the train over the plane, you not only minimize your carbon footprint, but you also maximize your sense of environmental altruism. If you choose to spread your good deeds out into the world, the Swedes have a word for that too: tagskrytaor “bragging train”.

From Koniomäki, five hours by train will only take you to other small towns in central Finland. (Credit: Chronotrains)

Both terms are more than buzzwords. The example set by Thunberg and others has changed travel habits, certainly in Sweden itself. At the start of 2018, 20% of Swedes said they would choose the train over the plane if possible. By mid-2019, that figure had risen to 37%. That year, domestic air travel in Sweden fell by 15%, while the Swedish national rail company reported a 12% increase in business travel.

When is the train a good alternative?

But “leak shame” is not limited to Sweden, or to individual activists. Across Europe, a significant number of public and private companies have banned short-haul flights for their staff and discourage long-haul flights. It remains to be seen whether, with post-pandemic air traffic on track to return to pre-2019 volumes, flygskam can make a long-term dent in flying habits.

A critical element in considering train vs. plane is whether your train alternatives are good. Yes, the trains can be a convenient way to travel from city center to city center, especially in countries and regions with dense network and fast service. But if you’re a bit off the beaten path, be prepared to spend a lot more time traveling than by plane or car.

flight shame
Thanks to the French high-speed rail network, Gare du Nord in Paris connects some of the most remote corners of the country and far beyond. (Credit: Chronotrains)

You know what would really help? A map that shows how fast and how far you can travel by train from your starting point, so you can actually see if the train is a viable alternative to flying. And that’s exactly what these cards do.

The maps come from a site called Chronotrains, which does one thing, and one thing only. It answers the question: How far can you travel by train in five hours?

Isochrone maps to the rescue

For any station in Europe (or at least the countries highlighted in white), it shows you the destinations you can reach in five hours or less. The result each time is a drop of variable size and radiant color. Red, the warmest hue, is reserved for stations that can be reached in less than an hour, while orange means two hours, and a trio of increasingly pale shades of yellow add an extra hour each.

Maps of this type are called isochrones because they show areas that can be reached in equal time (iso is Greek for “even”; chronos means “time”). When you hover over stations ranging from the legendary (Paris Gare du Nord) to the obscure (eg Kontiomäki in vast and sparsely populated central Finland), your wheelchair journeys reveal just how far travel by train are out of whack across the continent.

From Kontiomäki, a five-hour train ride barely takes you across the Swedish border (to Kalix station in the far north of the country), and not even to the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

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A good example of the moderating effect of national borders on rail travel: from Prague you can take the train to virtually anywhere in the Czech Republic in less than five hours. But apart from a swerve to Berlin, almost nowhere outside the country can be reached in 5 hours. (Credit: Chronotrains)

Start at Gare du Nord in Paris though, and you can go via London to Peterborough in England, or Den Helder at the northern tip of Holland beyond Amsterdam. In Germany, you can travel to the major cities of Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Or if you’re heading south, you could be in the resort town of Biarritz, on France’s southern Atlantic coast, in less than five hours; or in Marseille and beyond, on the Mediterranean.

France, a pioneer of high-speed trains

It’s not just that Finland is bigger and emptier than France. The French rail network is denser than the Finnish one, but above all: faster. France is a pioneer in Europe of high-speed trains, or TGV (High Speed ​​Trains). Finland is not. Marseille is about 800 km from Paris. That same distance south of Kontiomäki puts you somewhere between St Petersburg and Moscow – far further than a Finnish train will take you in five hours.

However, it is far from true that all stations in the most populated regions of Europe are equal isochronous. It helps if you are departing from a central station. Take for example Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The five-hour blob centered on Berlin’s main station covers most of northern Germany and its boundaries go as far as Kolding (Denmark) in the north, Kutno (Poland) in the east, Munich in the south and Aix -la-Chapelle to the west. .

From King’s Cross in London, a five-hour train ride will take you to Glasgow in the north or Lyon (France) in the south. (Credit: Chronotrains)

But start from the smaller Neubrandenburg station, north of Berlin, and your isochronic blob doesn’t even cover the whole of former East Germany. There are some minor leaks to Poland. But despite the fact that you can get to Hamburg, Bremen and Hanover in five hours, that’s about all you can do in the former West Germany, except for one particular train fast that takes you south of Nuremberg.

Borders are barriers, but not always

As you continue your game from station to station, it becomes clear that national borders still serve as barriers: rail service often thins out as you cross from one country to another. However, there is also evidence to the contrary. Take London King’s Cross station. Thanks to the Eurostar which crosses mainland Europe via the Channel Tunnel, you can get to almost any place in Belgium and as far south as Lyon in France; but you won’t go much further north in Britain itself than central Scotland (okay, that includes the two big cities in that country, Glasgow and Edinburgh).

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Chronotrains was developed in a week last summer by Benjamin Tran Dinh, a software developer based in Paris. He was inspired by Direkt Bahn Guru, a German site that does something similar: it shows all the cities accessible from any European station without changing trains.

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Anamorphic map showing the real position of cities in France (grey dots) and their reduced distance to Paris thanks to TGV connections. (Credit:Guillaume Berthier / Twitter)

Train exchanges are included on the Tran Dinh map, but for ease of calculation it is assumed that each takes no more than 20 minutes. In reality, many are a bit longer. The maximum of five hours on these maps is therefore rather optimistic.

Differences in transport infrastructure policy

The spark for Chronotrains, Tran Dinh Told Le Figaro, were “anamorphic maps of France, showing how the TGV has shortened travel times from Paris”. (An anamorphic map, aka “cartogram”, distorts geographic size in proportion to some set of data, such as population, GDP, or travel time – in the latter case, also serving as an isochronic map).

It turned out that the database behind Direkt Bahn Guru, provided by German national rail operator Deutsche Bahn, was EU-wide and open source. Tran Dinh built Chronotrains “more out of a passion for cartography than an interest in trains”. But building the site and playing with the data allowed the developer to better appreciate the specifics of train travel speeds:

“As you scroll through the map, you can see the disparities in access to rail transport between cities, and you can see how favored those with high-speed connections are. The map tells stories about the differences in transport infrastructure policy from region to region.

And in addition, it will help you to choose between flygskam and tagskryta.

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Direkt Bahn Guru shows how far the train will take you without having to change trains. From Vienna, you can reach no less than 12 other European capitals: Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, Ljubljana, Zagreb and Rome. (Credit: Direkt Bahn Guru)

Strange Cards #1175

Check Chronotrains, conceived by Benjamin Tran Dinh, and his inspiration, Direkt Bahn Guru.

Got a weird card? let me know at [email protected].

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