Taking the train from Bucharest
As I am writing this blog post, I just returned from a work trip to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. The weekend before I also visited friends in Vienna. Of course, I had to figure out my travel plans. The comfortable and easy solution would be to take the plane. I have done that a few times over the last years – even inside Europe.
And actually I ended up taking the plane for my journey from Vienna to Bucharest, because it did allow me spend most of the weekend in Vienna and turn up for my work meeting in Bucharest on Monday morning. I do not like it, but after some back and forth, it seemed sort of acceptable to me to do that part of the journey by plane.
However, in the days of #fridaysforfuture and #ExtinctionRebellion I do feel a certain sense of shame about that decision. Climate change is the most existential threat of our time and we should do everything in our power to prevent it, since facing the consequences is going to be a major pain for all of humanity. In my opinion we need find radical solutions right now – it may already be too late in some ways, but there is still a bit of time to prevent the worst.
Given that thought for the rest of the trip, namely going from Heidelberg (where I live) to Vienna, and the return journey from Bucharest back to Heidelberg, I ended up taking a bunch of night trains. The CO2 footprint of going by train is usually significantly smaller than a flight on a comparable distance. Thus I felt it was worth the increased travel time.
Interestingly, the total price for all those train tickets was about the same as the flight ticket.
Needless to say, it takes a lot longer for the same distance. Night trains offset this to a certain extent, as you can just sleep on the train. I found Seat61 to be a great resource for figuring out what train connections are available and where to book. It takes some organizing, such as booking in advance, printing the tickets while on the road, as not all rail operators support electronic tickets. But having the right pointers helps with that.
My particular journey went as follows: a German Intercity to get to Frankfurt, where I boarded an ÖBB night train to Vienna. For the journey back, it was a bit more involved. The EuroNight Ister via the Romanian operator CFR took me overnight to Budapest, where I spent the day. In the evening I continued towards Munich on the Kalman Imre.
While you may not get the highest quality of sleep, this is a small price to pay. On the plus side you get to meet interesting people and visit places you may not have thought about visiting. Without this trip I would not have talked to an interrailing Brit about the perils of Brexit and get this awesome vista of Budapest. It takes away some freedom of movement, but opens up new opportunities.
About that one flight I took from Vienna to Bucharest… the least I could do was to offset the carbon emissions. When booking I did not think about this too much and simply got it as an extra with the flight. In retrospect, a little bit more research on this is probably in order. So was that a good idea?
A short search revealed this article in the Seattle Times that mentions a few key points: first of all, avoid travel and choose means of transportation minimizing CO2 emissions. For the remaining CO2 emissions, it can make sense to offset the emissions. But one has to consider the socioeconomic impact of the offset measures. For example, it does not make any sense to take away land from poor farmers in order to plant a few trees.
Looking at Austrian Airlines they apparently work with an organization called ClimateAustria, which primarily supports renewable energy projects in Austria, Kenya and the DR Kongo. This appears to be fine, as far as I can tell. But next time I would probably do some more research beforehand and also get the carbon offset independent from the flight.
For further context on the matter there is a study by Zelljadt (2016) that provides an overview of such carbon offsetting programs across airlines.
Personally, I view the experience of taking the train positively. Of course, I spent an extra day on my travel, but most of it was during the night. And by also turning the stops along the tracks into a mini-vacation, my time was not really lost.
If you have read this far, I hope sharing my experience here helps to inform your future travel plans. I would encourage everyone able to afford the time to consider the train as an alternative for your next trip.