Peter This week we’re on the train. No, not the 5.30pm from Waterloo to Winchester; more a Eurostar to Europe from St Pancras. As Coronavirus continues to create havoc, airlines across the world have been forced from the skies. So what really is the future of international travel? Could it be that when travel returns in earnest, trains not planes will now take the strain? We talk to loco expert Daniel Elkan. His Snowcarbon website encourages skiers in particular to explore a much more comfortable and of course, more environmentally-friendly, way to reach destinations in mainland Europe. Dan, welcome to our travel podcast.
Daniel Thank you, Peter. It’s great to be here.
Peter Now, you started a website for train travel to the Alps, I think 11 years ago? Why did you decide to do that?
Daniel I started the site because there are so many great ski resorts that you can reach by train, but it’s really difficult to find out which ones they are and how to get there. And I’ve been writing about the subject for five years before I started the site in 2009, and I’ve been travelling to ski resorts by train since 1998. And, you know, the journeys are fantastic, but it’s always a bit of a wild goose chase trying to find out the nitty-gritty details. And often there are ski resorts that you don’t even realise are quite accessible by train from the UK. And so I wanted to create a resource for skiers that would put all the information about train travel to ski resorts in one place for them, so they could do the journeys, and find out about the journeys that I was doing and that I was witnessing other skiers doing and really enjoying.
Felice Is it much more energy-efficient going by train than driving, let’s say?
Daniel If you travel to a ski resort by car – a full car – one way from, let’s say, London to Sauze d’Oulx in Italy will create about 225 kilograms of CO2. The same journey by plane would create about 120 kilograms of CO2. So the 250 is for a full car, so you can divide that – if you’ve got five people in the car divide that by five – you’ve got about 50 kilograms each. By plane it’s about 120 kilograms per person. And by train, about 12.
Peter That’s a huge difference. Now, do you think as we begin to hopefully begin to emerge from the current coronavirus crises, that we’ll see travel change in every possible way? Will we see a huge increase in train travel do you think, as opposed to air travel? Because we really don’t know at this stage which airlines are coming back.
Daniel Yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s a big assumption as to which trains will begin to run and when. And will they be able to have full trains again or would they, like airlines are suggesting, need to leave some empty seats at first? But assuming the trains were running normally, I think there will be increased demand for trains and for train travel. And I think it’s going to become more expensive to fly,
Peter I think it’s become a lot more expensive to fly now. I think we’re going to see perhaps a doubling of some airfares. But in the past, the criticism of train travel has been that it’s too expensive in comparison to charter flights.
Daniel If you’re a skier, there are, as you know, tour operators that buy airline seats in advance at really cheap prices and bundle it all together with a transfer from the airport. And it’s difficult for train travel to compete with that. But there are some tour operators that do price the train at the same level as the plane. And if you’re travelling independently, it actually seems like flying is cheaper on the face of it, because you look at the airfare first of all.
The prices advertised are just the seat. Then you add the luggage, then you add the transfer from the airport to the resort, which is far more expensive than the transfer from a train station to resort. And you start to put them together and you realise there’s actually very little difference in it. In some cases, at half term or New Year, it’s often cheaper to travel by train to the Alps but people assume it’s more expensive. And it’s true, some of the train fares are quite steep.
Felice I also feel that there never quite enough train seats or train journeys available, that there are lots and lots flights but there’s never enough capacity for going by train, that they seem to run out quite quickly. Do you think after this maybe there’ll be more journeys available?
Daniel You’re absolutely right there’s not enough train capacity. I mean, at peak dates the train sells out. And actually, if we had more journeys there would be more connections. It would be much easier for people to get in here and the Alps. For example, Eurostar has way more capacity than it uses. They could put a lot more trains between London and Paris for example, which would enable people to get onwards to far more Alpine destinations. They could run a ski train on Sundays and fill that, they could do a second one at half term and fill it within hours. I find it a shame that train capacity hasn’t been increasing at a rate with demand, because so many more people want to travel now by train for environmental reasons as well as all the other reasons. There are so many practical and social benefits of going by train, too. But you don’t see year-on-year train schedules being added in the way they perhaps could.
Peter In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, do you think we may experience a worldwide revolution in travel, many less planes and many more trains?
Daniel I think that depends on the train companies, but I hope we do. The demand is there. If you’re a traveller and you want more trains, who are you going to write to? There’s not the normal feedback mechanisms. You know, if you go into your local coffee shop and you particularly like oat milk or full fat milk and they’ve only got semi-skimmed, and you say: ‘Do you have any full fat milk?’ They will pretty quickly if a few people ask, if lots of people are asking for full fat or Oatly. So the feedback is there, they can adjust and buy some in. But it’s not there with trains, no one’s asking you: ‘Do you want more trains?’ It’s difficult, there’s no one for people to get in touch with. So there’s a general clamour for more trains. But I think if there were more trains, people would be able to make a lot more journeys. That’s an obvious thing to say, but I think the demand is there but you just don’t see it.
Felice For me and I’m sure for other people, the process of booking tickets for train travel in Europe is a complete mystery. It’s not at all clear from the train companies what the options are, and I certainly wouldn’t know how to find out. If I want to go from London to, say, Courchevel in January or maybe St Anton in February, how do I find out what to do?
Daniel So, for example you can go into Snowcarbon and see a list of 30 resorts on there. You can click on a resort and you can click on the journey planner, and the journey planner shows what I consider to be the best journey options to that resort. That could be with a direct ski train, it could be going via Paris, you can choose the date you want to travel and filter by date and see only the journey for that date. They are all journeys that I know and have done personally, and I know what the trains are like, I’ve been on those trains and they are timed so that the connections give suitable time to change.
Often on rail company websites there’s an algorithm that chooses the connection time and sometimes it’s too slow, there’s too little time. So I factor that in and make sure people can choose trains that would give them a comfortable time. You can’t always book them yet and you can’t put them on Snowcarbon, you have to go to a rail company website or use a rail booking. But there is a booking guide to give you the options, if you’re booking, for how to do it, because that’s not easy for people to know either. There are lots of different rail booking websites, but they don’t always function that well. And if people don’t know that, they can end up thinking that trains aren’t available. That’s actually one of the kind of fiascoes of train travel is that the whole booking system for booking trains in Europe and to Europe isn’t really fit for purpose.
Peter Well, certainly I find I look at the SNCF site I can’t really make head or tail of it usually. And the same applies in some other countries. I mean, certainly some are good, like Swiss trains seem to be very good, very easy to organise. You go on their site, you find exact times, platforms and everything else. Why can’t we do this from Britain?
Daniel It’s a good question. But actually, wherever you’re booking from, there’s an algorithm that underpins all the trains in Europe and what often happens, and people don’t realise this, is that when you want to book a return journey – when you choose your outbound train system – the system only shows you return trains that have the same types of ticket as the outbound train that you’ve bought. Even though there are many more return journeys and often better return journeys available, the system filters them out. So often you can think there aren’t the journey options you want and you think they’re not available or don’t exist, but actually they do. The system doesn’t show people what they need to see when they’re researching journeys.
Felice What about if you want to go further afield like Scandinavia? Can you do that using your website or how would you suggest people do that?
Daniel Snowcarbon is really just focused on journeys to Alpine ski resorts. But Seat61 is a fantastic resource for travelling to anywhere by train. So it’s not specialised for skiers, but it’s a wonderful resource started by a chap called Mark Smith. And if I was going to Sweden, I would definitely look at Seat61. I would also buy – and this is that I think the best thing that anyone that loves rail travel can get – and that’s the Rail Map of Europe, which has been going for years, and it’s still going, fortunately, and it is a wonderful two-sided map of all the train routes in Europe and it’s a brilliant planning tool. And it’s really inspiration as well, because you start looking at one place and you realise that there are connections to another place and another city. And it just creates a sense of wonder.
Peter How do you get that? Where do you get that from?
Daniel You get that from EuropeanRailTimetable.eu
Felice It sounds good. And will that cover Eastern Europe as well?
Daniel It does – all the way to to Turkey. It’s absolutely fantastic; I would never make a train journey without it. And there are many train journeys I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t had it because I wouldn’t have, in the first place, looked at a country and seen what rail routes go where. And they send it to you for like £12, including packing and posting…something like that.
Felice Sounds very good. We’ve travelled in Eastern Europe a lot in summer. We found it amazing – the facilities and the prices of the tickets – we upgraded to first class and that was still a fraction of what you’d pay here in the UK.
Peter We were paying something like £5 to travel for five hours across hundreds of miles of Slovakia, And that was first class with a free bottle of water thrown in. A similar journey in the UK say, from London to Edinburgh, would cost at least 15 times as much.
Daniel Yeah, that’s fantastic and the scenery in Slovakia… I recently went down to Croatia for a friend’s sailing holiday for their birthday. A couple of decided to go by train instead of flying; everyone else was flying. And yeah, it took us a bit longer – it took us 24 hours. It probably took the people who flew about 12 hours altogether, all the faffing around with airports and then getting the transfer to the final part and stuff. The scenery on the way, the quality of time. It’s fantastic. Really, really great. I think people are quite jealous actually, and we had the luxury of a bit more time. Yeah. I think there’s definitely something in them in slowing the journey down, bringing the quality up.
Peter So tell us about the advantages of travelling by train in winter? You can take all your luggage with you and you don’t have to faff through airports?
Daniel Yes, absolutely. I mean, the first thing is, well my family don’t ski and I didn’t learn to ski till I was in my 20s. And the first ski holiday I was invited on by a bunch of friends…I didn’t know anything about skiing and I imagined and assumed that it’s going to be a quick journey. We were going to Andorra, that’s a couple of hours’ flight. The whole journey was about 11 or 12 hours door-to-door. And there’s an assumption in travel, and partly perpetrated by the travel industry, that when you fly the journey is going to be quick to get you where you want to go. That it’s just a short hop, but it’s just not the case. Every journey to go skiing, if you’re flying, takes at least eight hours door-to-door and often much longer. And so, when you take that chunk of time, how could we do this if we travelled differently or how long would it take to go? A train is often not much slower than going by train. In fact, it’s sometimes faster.
I raced ski journalist Neil English from London to the hot tub of a chalet in Méribel. We left at the same time, and there was 35 minutes difference between us.
Felice That’s amazing.
Daniel The difference in quality of time – when you when you go by plane you’ve got a stop-start journey which is a kind of conveyor belt of boredom. You get to the airport, you go through security and baggage checks etc., and then you’re waiting…and then you’re in cramped flight…and then you’re waiting for your luggage…and then you’re waiting for the transfer…and then you’re on the transfer and that’s often delayed by the traffic or snow – or both.
And you eventually arrive at the ski resort and then your holiday can begin. But when you go by train and you meet up at St Pancras, you get some coffee, you go on the Eurostar, the check-in takes just a few minutes to get through. You’re on the train, you can take skis, you can take whatever bags you want. You can take – not only on the overnight train but on any other train – you can take booze, open a bottle of bubbles, have a picnic. It’s such a fantastic social time.
Once a year I organise a big chalet holiday for a bunch of friends, but not everyone knows each other so when we meet at St Pancras it’s a real kind of buzz that the whole day is starting there. By the time we’ve got to the resort friendships have been formed, there’s been hundreds of great conversations. It’s a really different experience.
Felice Do you have any favourite trains in Europe? Like The Glacier Express…or favourite train journeys?
Daniel The Glacier Express is excellent because the scenery it goes through is just spectacular. The Glacier Express goes between Zermatt and St Moritz, passing through the most spectacular Swiss scenery. It passes Disentis and Sedrun, Andermatt, just wonderful. But from the UK, I would say probably the most scenic journey you can make is from London to St Anton. You go from London to Paris and from Paris to Zurich, and then from Zurich to St Anton. So it’s three trains and the scenery in Switzerland….you pass Lake Walen and Lake Zurich…and you have this ringside view of this huge expanse of lake.
And then when you get to Austria you’re into the Arlberg Valley, and the train’s going along and if it’s snowy you’ve just got the most wonderful scenes. And even if it’s not, it’s absolutely fantastic. And you’ve got mountains rising up on each side and little villages. And the thing about travelling to the Alps by train is sometimes you’re going at high speed, but often you are passing almost through people’s back gardens and you get an insight into what life is is like there – you’re seeing the minutae of people’s lives.
Peter Felice and I did that journey in reverse from St Anton to London on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. We boarded in St Anton in the evening after skiing to the strains of a local oompah band. We’d been promised a gala dinner and it was the only time I’ve ever carried skis on my shoulder while wearing a dinner jacket. It was a magical overnight journey, tarnished marginally in France after breakfast, when a group of 57 Heinz Baked Beans sales people joined the train.
Felice We were very lucky to have been invited on it and it was the most amazing experience.
Daniel Talk about the advantages to skiers as well. In winter when there’s snow, the airport transfers can be quite delayed. Some of the roads, for example, in the Tarentaise Valley get very clogged up with traffic, and when the snowy conditions there are even slower. You often have transfers that have to allow for five hours to get to the airport, and people are cooped up all that time. Whereas the train stations that are closest to ski resorts are much closer than the airports, so you’ve got a much shorter transfer time and your transfer is much less affected by snow and traffic.
Felice I also find the main difference is that air travel is very stressful because of the delays and things like that, you don’t get that at all on train travel, do you? It’s much more relaxing.
Daniel Yeah, definitely more relaxing. And even if the trains are delayed, you’re at least a station or sitting on a train. But the delays are much rarer, which means that the quality of the time and the experience is much better. Often people’s reason for flying is they think it’s going be so much quicker and often, as we talked about, it isn’t. But even if it is a bit quicker, what are you going to do with the time that you save?
Felice What about long haul? Would you fly and then take the train or go by sea and take a train?
Peter How fanatical are you about not travelling by air?
Daniel I think I’m not a total fanatic. Air travel connects people, places that they really couldn’t reach very easily. Otherwise, there are some long haul journeys by plane that you just couldn’t feasibly make by train or sea. I think it’s about limiting the number of journeys that one makes. What we need to do is to enable people to switch from plane to train the journeys where the train makes so much sense. Many travelling from the UK to so many destinations in Europe that people fly to – they could and would happily travel to by train if people were given the means to do so. That means information, tickets at a decent like-for-like price, maybe a little bit more time factored in. If they are going on business trips or for work or a weekend break – give them a little bit more time off work just to allow them to go a train. There were so many journeys that we could do by train that we don’t – long haul is more difficult to translate to train or sea journey, but now I’m happy to go anywhere by train. I love it.
Felice Can non-skiers use your website for going to the Alps in summer?
Daniel The Snowcarbon website is really focused on skiing in terms of winter schedules. Skiers could look at it to get a little bit more insight into what the journeys are like, and some of the tips on on how to book as well. And I’d also recommend Seat61 as a good website for summer travel.
One of the key things that’s really important to know is that when they’re booking journeys online: don’t trust at face value what you see online, because very often the trains that are available, journeys that are possible, just don’t show up. So it’s important to refer to a number of different sources rather than just going onto one website, not finding the journey that you’d like to be able to make, and thinking that’s what exists.
Felice How flexible are trains? Is it cheaper to buy tickets in advance? Can you change them?
Daniel Like with flights it’s generally cheaper to buy train tickets in advance. Once they go on sale, they generally creep up and up as you get closer to the day of travel. And annoyingly, you know that the cheap tickets are non-flexible tickets and if you want change those you have to pay an amount to have to change that. It’s a shame, really – I would love there to be more of a system where people could just turn up and go, or have the flexibility to take different trains. I think that makes travel so much easier for people who don’t have to commit necessarily to a certain fixed schedule. But that’s not the way things are done in the train industry at the moment. Generally, in places like Switzerland, once you’re there, trains are without reserved seats or tickets. So you can just buy a ticket and just get on the train; it doesn’t cost you more.
Peter You mentioned that some tour operators include train travel in their prices. Can you tell us who they are?
Daniel Inghams and Crystal buy tickets in advance from Eurostar for the Eurostar ski train. And generally the price that you pay is the same as flying, which is great. I think they may have subsidised the train slightly in order to offer that. The Eurostar ski train as a direct service from London, it also goes from Ashford and it goes to the Tarentaise area of the French Alps. So that’s the stations of Moûtiers, Aime La Plagne, Bourg St Maurice which serve an array of wonderful resorts like Tignes, Val d’Isere, La Plagne, Les Arcs, La Rosière, Val Thorens, Méribel, Courchevel. So that train – you get on in at St Pancras and get off eight hours later in the Alps at the foot of a host of different ski resorts.
It’s a fantastic service and it’s very popular. At a half term, it sells out within four hours of going on sale and that isn’t til mid-July. But on other dates, if you’re not going on a big date, you’ve got more time to buy your tickets. There’s a really good atmosphere on the train because everyone’s heading out to ski, heading out to the same destinations.
Peter And if you don’t take the direct daytime train service you’re talking about, is there an overnight service?
Daniel There is an overnight direct service as well. Problem with the overnight service is that it doesn’t have any flat beds – it’s basically a ordinary Eurostar train. So if you walk down that train, as it did just before the lockdown came into place – I was on one of the last trains coming back from the Alps on the overnight train – and you see the contortions that people are going to to try and get to sleep… I mean, it’s amazing – a real variety of different positions. Some people trying to curl up on the floor, some people leaning against a window, some people leaning against the others sitting next to them, a lot of foetal positions on the seats. It’s not an easy train to sleep on because you aren’t able to lie flat.
But there are other options that you can take to the Alps overnight. There’s the Alpen Express, which goes from Amsterdam, so you can take an ordinary Eurostar to Amsterdam, have a lovely tea in Amsterdam. Get on the Alpen Express, which passes through Cologne and you can also catch it from there as well. It goes to a whole host of Austrian resorts and it’s got a party carriage on it, which is fantastic fun, plays the most awful music. I mean, when Dancing Queen came on – ABBA – that was light relief because most of the time it been stomping Austrian après-ski techno. And that’s not the audience, that’s not the people that it has on board. I mean, it’s such a mixture of people on board, mostly Dutch, super-friendly. The atmosphere in that party carriage is wonderful and it’s got proper couchette compartments.
So you get a bed – if there’s five of you in a compartment you’re not going to be swinging cats, there’s not room, there’s just about room for your luggage, but it’s great fun. And as you walk down the carriage, you’ll see the Dutch people have got this to perfection. There’s a pull-out table that opens up in the middle, they open it up and they’ve got the cards out, they’ve got the drinks out, they’ve got snacks out, and they are having a whale of a time as they travel to the slopes. This is as it should be.
And there’s something about about overnight train travel brings out the kid in everyone. I mean, that children are bedwettingly excited – hopefully not to that level – about the idea of going on an overnight train and waking up in the Alps. That’s a dream for them. But I think adults have that same feeling, too. You’re going to wake up at the foot of the slopes. And in the case of the Alpen Express, you actually you know, many of the ski resorts have that train station is in the village, so there’s no transfer, the train is going to drop you in the resort. That’s wonderful.
Peter As a child, I remember travelling by night across Europe to Lech on an Erna Low charter train. There was a party carriage with people trying to dance to music supplied by gramophone. I use that word advisedly. Every time you went over any form of point the needle jumped.
Daniel That’s brilliant. But that’s the thing: you were travelling on a train chartered by a tour operator, and today there are far fewer options like that. But actually, the tour operators want to be able to offer more train travel. They know that’s what skiers want and they want it too. They want to be able to offer more sustainable options, too. But it’s definitely the case that train companies don’t make it very easy for tour operators to package to package holidays with train travel included. And that’s a real shame, because if the train companies made it easier for tour operators to do that, we would be seeing a lot more packages with rail travel included, which would make it a lot easier for ski holidays to be by train.
Felice I always think that travelling by rail is really romantic, look at Brief Encounter, The Railway Children, Dr Zhivago and films like that…whereas flying isn’t really.
Daniel You know, you could meet the love of your life at an airport. It’s just less likely, and you haven’t got the scenery to talk about. Part of the romance of train travel is not just the environment and the scenery and the fact that people like that feeling of constant movement. It’s also the fact that in films like Brief Encounter, you don’t know who you’re going to end up sitting next to. I’ve met some fantastic people on train journeys.
There is a camaraderie that exists just under the surface and often random conversations will start just by someone saying: ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’ or something happens and people start talking. I’ve met some brilliant people and made some great friends through train journeys. It’s a lovely serendipity. And I think when people sit down and they just give the person opposite a nod or ‘hello’, it just opens up that possibility for conversation.
Peter Yesterday we went for a walk in the Hampshire countryside with our dogs – a legally permitted walk. We looked up the sky and there wasn’t a single sign of a plane of any description. It reminded me of my childhood a very long time ago. Is that what you want? No planes in the sky now or forever?
Daniel Me personally? I think it would be a shame if we never saw a plane in the sky again. I think it would be great if we saw far fewer planes in the sky and more trains on the ground.
Peter And may there be many more trains across Europe in the year ahead. Dan, thanks for coming on the show.
If you’re interested in finding out some insider knowledge about how to go about rail travel to Europe, then visit Dan’s website, Snowcarbon. Also see our post and podcast The Man Who Has Skied More Resorts Than Anyone Else. For more information on skiing worldwide, visit Welove2ski.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes, Stitcher, or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stay safe and we’ll see you next week.
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