Thursday, 27 September 2012

Martyr or Mug

It’s early. 5:45 AM to be precise. I have a large paper cup of coffee in front of me with one of those dastardly plastic lids. The ones that jettison steaming hot coffee up your sleeve when you walk. Looking to my left, out of the window, I see the lights of the still sleeping city rumble by. Full of people snuggled up in bed, still in their own personal dreamland: dreaming of past glories and future ambitions, subconsciously sifting through the meaning of life. I should be there too.

Now I look forward. I see a long and wearisome day ahead. Two days ago, my presence was requested, nay, demanded, at a meeting in London later this morning. Other commitments yesterday and tomorrow mean that I must travel there and back again in a day so I’m on the day’s first Virgin train service out of Glasgow. I hope to arrive 400 miles away in London in four and a half hours.

I thought long and hard about how to travel. Whether to go for the speed of flying versus the slower but greener train, eventually opting for the train despite the ungodly hour of departure. And while almost everyone else sleeps on I ponder whether I’m being a martyr to the environmental cause or just a mug making a meaningless gesture; a misplaced idealist or true eco warrior.

I have read articles in the press and on blogs by journalists and individuals writing about how much they have managed to reduce their carbon footprint, pointing out that they have ignored the thousands of airmiles they have collected on business trips: that is work therefore not in my personal control therefore I can ignore it.  To me this is a cop out - if we need to be in a certan place for a certain time we can choose how to travel.  The expectation may be that we fly but we can challenge that for domestic trips. There may be no other travel options for longer trips but are there other options that avoid traveling, such as video conferencing?

Planes are not all that inefficient at carrying people about, the problem is the ease with which we can travel long distances. If every passenger on a plane made the same journey by a relatively inefficient car, the total fossil fuel consumption would be similar, but if the planes didn’t fly, not everyone would drive (some are travelling in groups and would share, others would take the train or coach and some wouldn’t make the journey at all) and burning fuel at a high altitude causes two to three times the global warming effect. All the figures suggest that the train is a much greener option but this morning I’m beginning to wonder. By choosing the train rather than the plane will not stop the plane flying and the amount of fuel used does not vary greatly between flying empty and flying full. If I had flown the carbon emissions per passenger would have dropped.

The train would also run regardless of whether I used it and, similar to the plane, most of the energy is used to move the train rather than the passengers. Although trains are, on average, an efficient way to move people about, I don’t think this morning’s train is very efficient. For the first hundred miles (Glasgow to Carlisle) I shared a 60 seat carriage with three other people, two or three first class carriages were completely empty when I passed minutes before departure and other carriages had only a handful of people. I guess that the train was running at 5-10% of seating capacity. With the train this empty I really do wonder if flying would be the more environmentally friendly option at this time of day.

I suspect it is not as simple as this: the train will get busier as the journey progresses and this train set may have been busy last night when it came north. I also expect the return journey this afternoon to be busier. I think the 5:40 departure is just too much for Glaswegians – there are very few options for getting in to the station for that time. There is no car parking at the station, unlike the airport, most public transport hasn’t started so that leaves taxis which are expensive forr anything but short journeys.

Given that both would run regardless of my choice, does my decision make any difference? That is the big question on my mind. I don't think a single decision by an individual makes a difference. We need lots of small decisions from lots of people for it to be meaningful. If you are reading this, I hope you will make the right decision.

The coffee is finished now and I’m left with a plastic lid that will hang around a landfill site for a hundred years or more, all for a few minutes convenience.

It’s not easy being green.


  1. I have flown from Edinburgh to London and taken the train. I much prefer the train, because you don't have to hang round the airport, I have a short walk to Haymarket or a short bus ride to Waverley. once on the train I can relax for the whole journey until thrust into the over busy city that is London. The train stations are closer to the centre of London than are the airports. I think for that kind of distance, if you take everything into account, then the train is actually faster than the plane and (generally) less hassle.

    I've also taken the train to Bristol. This is a journey where the plane does really save time but still I've often taken the train in preference (helped by the fact that two of the organisations I've worked for that have head offices in Bristol encourage train travel) (also helped by the fact that I can sometimes break my journey in Manchester to visit my parents.

    Basically though I prefer to take the train.

    You're right though we need more than a few environmentally conscious people to decide to take the train, it needs to be a much more generally accepted way to travel longer distances.

    1. Only 25 minutes to go and not feeling too bad for spending 9+ hours on the train today, a borrowed laptop has helped the journey go quicker and quite productively too. I dislike traipsing about the airport - first a queue at to go through security then a queue to buy a bottle of water since you can;t take a bottle with tap water through, then hang about waiting to find the gate, hang about waiting to get on the plane then, at the other end, waiting for luggage. Flying would have been a bit quicker all in all, certainly if I drove to the airport but I had to be there for a certain time and there was little benefit in arriving half an hour early. We just need to convince a few more people to that slower is the new quicker and easier.

      Incidentally, the train did gradually get busier as the journey went on, not full but not far off.