Don’t take the plane, let the train take the strain 

Writing this blog has been good therapy for me and I now understand my love of learning is from finding great stories and then digging into them more. Getting to share them with you is a real pleasure. If I am telling you what you already know, I hope you can indulge me and enjoy my enthusiasm. 

In my last blog I wrote about how pop songs can challenge the world around us. I recently went back in time on Spotify and listened to the music of my youth, and wow, I had forgotten about the late Terry Hall, the front man for The Specials. If you’re a little younger and didn’t grow up with this music, you may have heard “A Message to You, Rudy” in Spider-Man: Homecoming, or the song “Enjoy Yourself” in the 2021 Apple film Finch, which is about a dying man building a robot to look after his dog. You may also know songs like “Ghost Town” or “Gangsters”. 

Three members of The Specials went on to form the group Fun Boy Three, and since going back down memory lane I keep playing Fun Boy Three’s “Our Lips are sealed”. This is getting on everyone’s nerves, but I love it. Having time to listen to soundtracks, playlists, and audio of all kinds is one of the things that makes a journey an experience. This seems like a fitting way to begin this week’s topic of sustainable travel – and I promise to take my headphones with me the next time I want to indulge in Fun Boy Three’s greatest hits. 

Planes, trains and buses: a new type of holiday 

Ok, let’s get into trains – planes – buses. For me, holidays always work the same way: drive to the airport, park for a couple of weeks and once at the other end, likely hire a car. But, after my holiday last year, I am thinking about this in a new way. 

In 2023, we wanted to explore Europe. We started in Antwerp, Belgium, then off to Amsterdam in The Netherlands, and spent the last week in Eifel National Park, North Rhine Germany. So, to begin this journey, we got the X10 bus to Stansted Airport. It was great and only cost £2.00 each. I would never have thought about getting a bus when I own a car, but having done it once and discovered how easy and cheap it is, I would happily do this every time now when going to Stansted Airport. 

We did not stay in Amsterdam but got the train from Schiphol Airport to Antwerp in Belgium. Over the next few days going backwards and forwards, we used the Thalys High Speed Train, a slower train, and one time we used the FlixBus (yes, it does have a loo). All worked with no problem. 

I did hire a car to get to Germany and I don’t think you could get around Eifel National Park any other way. We flew back to Southend and got a train back to South Woodham Ferrers. For me, using all these buses and trains was a bit of first and worked so well. Also, readers of this blog will now know a little more of what I am like; suddenly I was interested in trains, trams and buses all over Europe, and to my surprise it is changing fast and often cheap to use. 

Now, I am thinking for a future adventure, could we get the Eurostar to Europe and cut out the plane altogether? My wife and I are making plans for a holiday in 2024 using the “Man in Seat 61” website.  It helps that you see how to connect travel to other parts of Europe. I will send you a postcard if we pull it off! 

Getting abroad by train 

Admittedly, this is all about European trains, but what’s happening here? 

The train company Thalys with their high speed trains has now taken over Eurostar. All Thalys trains are being rebranded Eurostar, and this should mean new routes coming soon. Also, Eurostar has lost the monopoly on running trains through the Channel Tunnel, so over the next 5 years we will see more and more companies running trains like the Spanish-owned train company Evolyn and German company Deutsche Bahn. Richard Branson is also looking at Virgin running a service.  

So, get ready, it won’t be long, and there will be more options for going on holiday by train to new destinations, which is good news when trying to reduce CO2. Fares for these foreign destinations will be getting cheaper too in time.  

Channel Tunnel improvements 

Getlink, the company that owns the Channel Tunnel is also doing amazing things and it’s worth keeping an eye on some of the improvements they’re making: News – Getlink (getlinkgroup.com). Getlink is updating the tunnel and helping other train operators to meet their standards to use it.  

The Channel Tunnel is the only working train tunnel in the world to have run an interconnector (a big electricity cable, 1 gigawatt) so electricity can go from UK to France or vice versa, which is good for moving green power to wherever it is needed. 

Getlink is also hoping for upgrades to train lines to allow standard freight containers to go from Wembley through the Channel Tunnel. Just think of all the trucks that could come off the roads and the CO2 emissions and air pollution improvements as a result. Let’s hope this happens.  

Free and subsidised European travel 

My European rail adventure also led me to look at how public transport works in some other countries. In France, buses are free to use in about 30 municipalities. In Luxembourg all trains, buses and trams are free and it’s the first country in Europe to do this. In Germany, train commuters pay 49 for a monthly season ticket, and you can travel as much as you want to, anywhere in Germany. Food for thought back home as we think about ways to get more people out of their cars and onto public transport. 

High speed rail 

My daughter Megan is back-packing around Japan at the moment on holiday and just called to say she was on the Hello Kitty bullet train. When she gets back to Heathrow, I don’t need to drive and pick her up she is coming home on the train using the new Elizabeth line. This train thing is catching on. When she gets home I will be asking her all about bullet trains and how much they cost. 

When the USA needs its first high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco for a journey time of under 3 hours, how amazing is it that our British Network Rail has won the contract to build it? I am loving the reduction in CO2 this will mean, with passengers switching from plane to train to travel up and down the US west coast. 

You can probably tell by now that I love all these infrastructure projects, and in Chelmsford we are getting a brand-new train station: Beaulieu Park Station. You’ll be able to travel to London Liverpool Street in 40 minutes from our district’s new station in north Chelmsford. This is exciting stuff, and you can already see the platforms and station buildings taking shape. The new station is expected to be open by the end of 2025. 

Footpaths and wildlife corridors 

I have told you on a previous blog, how in my new role I get invited to meet and hear from some real experts. Officers at Chelmsford City Council gave a presentation about the upgrades to footpaths to ensure walking to the new station will be a great choice for many. I got to see how new lighting and an upgrade of the pavement surface would be done in time for the opening.  

What I wasn’t expecting was just how much work is going into being kind to nature, with areas of grassland set aside with wildlife in mind and how much thought going into creating wildlife corridors. How nice to walk to the new station in tune with nature. On further reading, Network Rail also work hard to create green corridors along their railway lines and restrictions on the public getting too near to the lines means small animals are undisturbed. You would not believe how much thought goes into all of this. 

So, I think I’ll finish by saying that good-quality public transport can play a big part in reducing CO2 emissions, improving air quality and can improve our own quality of life too. I’ll keep you posted on how my sustainable travel plans for 2024 are shaping up and if you’ve never listened to Fun Boy Three, here’s an earworm for your next journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRdXZMO4zxY