DARe to Travel Slowly

Shot of the Vienna skyline at sunset

What did my low-carbon journey to EGU Vienna tell me about transport resilience?

DARe team member Dr Alistair Ford (Newcastle University), shares his experience of travelling from London to Vienna whilst keeping his carbon impact as low as possible.

When my abstract on modelling flooding impacts on transport networks was accepted for an oral presentation at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) annual conference in Vienna, my first thought was “How do I get there by train?”. Given that by some estimations, conference carbon emissions may be as high as 3,500 kg CO2 per participant (the equivalent of about 13 London-Rome return flights), with air travel being the main contributor, I strongly believe that working on the DARe Hub means that I should set the example by travelling in as low carbon a way as possible.

After a lot of careful planning, and help from the Man at Seat 61, on Monday 15 April I set off for Vienna by train. My journey started with the 0700 ‘Flying Scotsman’ non-stop from Newcastle to London; then over the road to catch the Eurostar to Brussels, on to Amsterdam; and on from there on the night train to Vienna. I experienced first-hand the impacts that extreme weather can have on the transport system, with heavy rain and hail causing delays on trains in the Netherlands. My anticipated relaxed dinner in Amsterdam before boarding the night train was sacrificed for a railway station pizza after I arrived rather later than hoped from Brussels!

Heavy rain at Amsterdam Centraal

Low-carbon travel across Europe is made much easier (although also rather expensive) by the NightJet train network run by OBB, the Austrian national railway company. These sleeper trains link Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Berlin, with other connections into Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. I shared my comfortable compartment with an Austrian traveller who’d had a long weekend in Amsterdam, and with whom I discussed the many benefits of long-distance train travel. I awoke at 08:00 after a fitful but restful sleep expecting to be in Austria already, but alas engineering work on the German railways meant our train was two hours late and we’d only reached Passau. I eventually reached Vienna at 11:20!

At the conference I presented a paper on the impact of extreme rainfall on urban transport networks and attended some great sessions around climate resilience, complex systems modelling, and even the use of games in geosciences (my plan for a collaborative urban transport planning board game is taking shape!). Around 20,000 people attend EGU every year, and the vast majority arrive by low-carbon transport. There is a metro station right outside the venue, and ample bike parking spaces, showing just how effectively large numbers of people can be moved in a sustainable way. Whilst in Vienna I enjoyed the integrated, safe, convenient, and cheap (free with a conference badge) public transport system. It made me think about the resilience benefits of an integrated urban transport network; if your bus service is delayed by an incident or the metro system is hit by a power cut, there are lots of different alternative services on offer without the need to think about operators or ticket validity. A great way to ensure resilience for public transport users.

People walk by a blue Nightjet train stood at the platform
The NightJet train network is run by OBB

On Thursday night I was back at Vienna Haupt Bahnhof, after dinner with an old colleague from Newcastle who now works for IIASA in Austria, to board the Nightjet back to Amsterdam. This time I arrived in Amsterdam right on time, had breakfast in a nice café on the other side of the harbour (adding a ferry to my public transport collection that week) and then boarded the train to Brussels. Alas, the resilience of the rail network in Belgium again let me down, with my Eurostar delayed by 2.5 hours on the way home due to an incident on the line. Thankfully, after a sprint over the road from St Pancras to King’s Cross, a friendly guard on the Lumo service north let me board the train with my CIV ticket (always buy a ticket to and from London International when using the Eurostar!) and I was home by 23:30.

What did I learn? Train travel to Vienna is completely possible in around 28 hours, and it is a very pleasant, productive, and time-efficient way to travel. According to the EcoTree carbon calculator, my return train journey of almost 4000km produced 22kg of CO2, whilst the equivalent return flight would be around 900kg of CO2. The per-capita CO2 emissions per person in the UK is around 4.7 tonnes, so my train journey saved nearly a fifth of my annual CO2 footprint. Given that our lifetime carbon budget per person is around 30-50 tonnes of CO2 between now and the end of the century, I’m very happy to have saved the best part of a tonne of CO2 and had a very pleasurable journey in the process.

A tram and bus parked at a station at the same time as people walk around them
Trams and buses form part of Vienna's integrated transport network