The Environment

Swapping Planes For Trains | Taking The Train From Scotland To Austria To Save The World

Feeling guilty about plane travel, and increasingly anxious about the climate emergency, for his latest ski trip Stuart Kenny decided to take the longer, more environmentally-friendly, route to his destination

The Dutch man in front of me at the bar has just ordered 11 beers. 11 entire beers. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody order 11 beers on a train. He’s even added on a few shots of Flügel, which he kindly informs me is a “German party liqueur”, for good measure.

The bar staff don’t bat an eyelid. They’ve actually produced a wooden 11-pint drink carrier from behind the bar, so that Mr. Eleven-Pints-Plus-Flügel can safely carry his 11 beers back to his friends. The very existence of this device implies that not only is this not the first time that someone has ordered 11 beers at once on this train, the glamorously titled Alpen Express, but that enough passengers must have ordered 11 pints in the past that they thought it best to stock a wooden 11-pint drink carrier for the convenience of future clients.

“The guilt of being a frequent flyer has been growing on me for a while”

This is far from the only peculiar occurrence taking place in the carriage. There are disco lights dancing around me like it’s your auntie’s 60th birthday. The sound system is making it hard to hold a conversation. A Europop remix of ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver comes on, and I chant along to the chorus with my 11-pint companion. A conga line starts as I finally get to the bar. It’s more or less après-ski, but specifically for people from the Netherlands going to Austria for a ski holiday on a train. Also, crucially, we’re yet to actually do any skiing.

We will all be skiing soon, though. After all, this is the purpose of the Alpen Express. It’s an overnight sleeper train which picks people up from Amsterdam (and various other major Dutch and German cities) in the evening and drops them in the Austrian Alps in the morning.

“I feared I may have… breathed in a little too much of that Amsterdam air”

It’s been a long day for me so far. After rising early to make the 5.40am London-Edinburgh LNER, I took the 11am Eurostar from London to Amsterdam, where I then waited comfortably before hopping on the Alpen Express at 7pm. Walking into the aforementioned, slightly overwhelming club carriage, I feared I may have finally succumbed to tired delusions, or possibly breathed in a little too much of that Amsterdam air during my three-hour stay.

The rest of the carriages on the Alpen Express are more or less silent. My only previous conversations have been with the four perfectly pleasant Dutch skiers – ages ranging from 17 to 75 – with whom I’m going to be sharing a five-person sleeping berth. They’re all heading to Imst-Pitztal, with the exception of the veteran skier, who’s heading on to St Anton

Photo: Stuart Kenny

The two stops of interest for me are Wörgl, the second stop on the Saturday morning at 7.47am, and Langen am Arlberg, the second to last stop at 10.57am. I’m going to be skiing at both. Wörgl is the gateway for SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental resort, and Langen is a short bus ride from the picturesque Lech Zürs, a huge resort which also connects to St Anton. The plan is to ski for a week in Lech, then head back to SkiWelt for a few days more.

“Now anytime I book myself onto a plane, I end up feeling deep shame”

The reason I’m taking the train is that I’ve started to have nightmares about a climate apocalypse, often dramatically narrated by a righteous Swedish teenager. At least, I think they’re nightmares. They’re either nightmares, or I’ve been reading the news half asleep again.

I’m trying hard to be more environmentally friendly in 2020. The guilt of being a frequent flyer has been growing on me for a while, and now anytime I book myself onto a plane, I end up feeling deep shame, and fear that an Extinction Rebellion activist is going to glue themselves to my dinner table in protest of my actions. I’m just not sure I can justify short-haul flights, even with carbon offsetting, a solution which has its obvious flaws.

Photo: Stuart Kenny

I’m not the only person taking the train to a ski hill with the environment in mind. As is evidenced by the many folk I meet on the Alpen Express doing so for the same reason. I even meet another British skier when I arrive in Lech who has taken the train from Leicester to Austria, though via Paris and Zurich rather than Amsterdam.

So, put simply? A sport which is reliant on snowfall and an ever-warming planet do not mix well. 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and the last decade has been the hottest in 150 years of measurements. The likes of Greta and Extinction Rebellion have brought concerns over the climate into the mainstream, but so to has the everyday news and ongoing impacts of a warming planet – the catastrophic fires in the Amazon and in Australia.

“The London-Paris Eurostar omits 90% less carbon on one trip than the equivalent flight”

One particular impact of Greta, solidified by her zero-carbon sailing trip around the world, has been the rise of the Swedish term ‘flygskam’, meaning ‘flight shame’. More than 5,500 people in Great Britain have signed up to FlightFree UK’s pledge for a no-fly 2020, and a similar campaign in Sweden has sworn more than 23,000 to stay on the ground.

There is a stat often banded around that aviation is only responsible for 2% of global emissions. It is an irresponsible one. In the UK, aviation is actually responsible for 7%, and globally CO2 from aviation is rising 70% faster than predicted. It is a telling sign that in 2019 Ryanair entered the list of the 10 largest carbon emitters in Europe for the first time. Each of the other nine of the list in front of them are coal plants. And for a more direct bit of context, the London-Paris Eurostar omits 90% less carbon on one trip than the equivalent flight.

In skiing terms, climate change will endanger snow reliability. Research from the Deutsch Bank predicts that by 2030 “the snow line in the Alps will rise by 300m. The height above which ski areas can be regarded as having reliable snow conditions will then be around 1,500 metres.” If this does happen, lower resorts will lose out, higher resorts could become overcrowded, and no wonders will be done for the general affordability of snowsports.

So, the train it is.

In Austria, the higher resort resort of Lech Zürs (1,300m-2,811m) shows no signs of overcrowding. Quite the opposite. Though it is quite a pricey ski resort, which also plays a part in that. The fairytale town centre of Lech is lit up by bluebird skies for the duration of our week on the 305km of pistes. There’s even some forest powder still to be found.

“2019 was the second hottest year on record, and the last decade has been the hottest in 150 years of measurements”

Likewise, after a two-hour train transfer to Wörgl and SkiWelt, a resort which lies lower, between 800m and 1965m there’s no sign of a lack of snow. Rather, we ski through a blizzard on our first couple of days in the resort before the skies clear and the 284km of piste come into clear focus, framed by perfect panoramas of the surrounding mountain peaks.

Those are the type of statements that might prompt a cynical President Trump quip about the reality of “global warming”, but both Lech Zürs and SkiWelt are taking precautions. The former having just banned fireworks for environmental reasons, and the latter, SkiWelt, an industry leader in environmental terms. The resort was voted the “Ecological Ski Resort of the Year” in 2017 at the World Snow Awards for their pioneering use of renewable energy.

The Alpen Express ski train should boost train travel to both resorts – the first and last resorts on the line, and elsewhere the Eurostar ski train, running from London St Pancras to Moûtiers-Salins, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice is also making it increasingly easy to get from the UK to the mountains proper without jumping on a plane. When the extras of car hire and/or airport transports are considered, it’s actually not too much more expensive, either, particularly if you were planning to pay extra to take your skis onto the plane.

“Of course, the train takes longer, but what is travel if not an adventure?”

Of course, the train takes longer, but what is travel if not an adventure? And much like if you walk around London, rather than simply pop up from Underground stations every now and then, you gain a much better perspective on the ground you cover than you do when you fly.

On the Alpen Express, it’s all about settling down, grabbing a good book (maybe ordering 11 pints and joining in a conga line), having a sleep, then waking to watch the Alps roll by your window in the morning before being delivered right to the door of your favourite ski resort.

Do It Yourself

Eurostar tickets from London St Pancras to Amsterdam start from £35.00 one way. This journey takes four hours and seven minutes.

Alpen Express tickets from Amsterdam to Wörgl start from 90 EUR one way. The train departs at 18:59 from Amsterdam on Friday evening and arrives at 07:47 at Wörgl on Saturday morning. The full Alpen Express journey time is 12 hours and 48 minutes.

The Alpen Express service runs every week, with the first departure on Friday 20th December 2019 and the final inbound journey on Saturday 14th March 2020.

We stayed at Das Hohe Salve Resort. During the winter (when the Alpen Express runs), prices start at 160 EUR per person per night.

For information from the Austrian National Tourist Office or the SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser Brixental Tourism Office, head to their respective websites.

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