by Frank Armstrong
‘German trains are always late’, was the surprising consensus of the passengers in my compartment on the train from Munich to Paris, and so it proved. As minutes turned into hours, I began to worry about making my connection in Paris to Cherbourg port.
Fortunately, Teutonic inefficiency did not derail my timetable. I arrived in good time before an 18 hour ferry crossing that allowed me to contemplate the enormity of the ocean, and curse the number of feral children that had chosen to disturb my reverie.
I enjoyed these experiences because for a European jaunt last year I had decided ‘to overland it’, after renouncing flying. If this sounds like self-denial of a sanctimonious kind, I must confess I have flown enough over the course of my (relatively) short lifetime to have used up most people’s lifetime carbon allocation. I also reserve the right to fly again, and I have since accepted to go on a trip to Sierra Leone to explore sustainable development there. What I really wanted to cut out was the kind of frivolous flying to which I had become accustomed.
I believe long-distance relationships are an underestimated factor in global warming with Ryanair the chief beneficiary! My tolerance for that airline reached an end on one trip to Prague which coincided with the end of a Czech love affair. For the return flight I wearily made my way to Prague airport. Arriving in good time I took a seat in front of what I thought was the correct gate – a flight for Dublin – failing to register that it was in fact a Czech Airlines flight that was taking off almost simultaneously.
Seized by panic, I ran for the correct gate and was relieved to see the Ryanair plane on the runway with passengers outside it. But a sign read Gate Closed and the lady was not for turning. I pleaded with her that it was Christmas and I had no money, but she showed all the compassion of an abattoir worker.
I had the option of an Aer Lingus flight that day for €300. I chose to pay €100 for the same Ryanair flight the following morning. Travel plans upset, I dragged my heels back into Prague for an evening that tipped the balance in a relationship already on the brink. I swore never to fly Ryanair again, but I was still hooked on those dancing offers that seemed so attractive on grey October afternoons: Palermo for €70: ‘why that’s unmissable’; or Bristol for €9: ‘well I can’t go wrong can I?’
But time and again I would curse the mindless queuing as I could never lower myself to pay for the privilege of elitist ‘Priority Boarding’. I bridled at their baggage policy and worst of all the terror of failing to print a boarding pass in time.
I can also point to the humiliation in airports of shoe-removal, intense baggage scrutiny and the ridiculous price of so-called food found in these artless edifices that inspire fear and loathing. I find it hard to recall a single occasion where I entered into a conversation with a stranger inside an airport. Neither are planes sociable as usually one’s fellow passengers become competitors for precious seating space or toilet time.
The democratisation of European air travel is primarily the work of Michael O’Leary who adapted the South-Western Airlines model for the European market. Like most Irish tycoons he acts like a cartoon villain. It is written that he once owned a newsagent in Crumlin and boasted of doubling the price of its batteries on Christmas day knowing the vulnerability of parents to whining children who could not realise the possibilities of their shiny new toys. A business model was born.
Proud of his penny pinching, he does not allow his employees to charge their phones at the office, and has all the respect for unions of a latter day William Martin Murphy. Notoriously, he flouted the traffic laws by acquiring a taxi plate so he could drive in bus lanes: priority driving you could call it. More worryingly he has questioned the relevance of air travel to climate change.
I would question whether cheap air travel has increased the happiness of Europeans. We certainly don’t enjoy the experience itself, especially as established airlines now copy the Ryanair model. Just because we can more easily visit places doesn’t mean we really engage with them: witness the rise of marauding stag and hen parties.
Arriving in another location without observing any transition in landscape or culture removes a vital ingredient of travel. Obviously most of us cannot, like Patrick Lee Fermoy, take two years to wander across Europe, but air travel is a sudden shock to the system that could easily be replaced by longer but less frequent and more enjoyable holidays using trains, buses and car, or better still on foot or bicycle. We should acknowledge the virtue of slowness.
On my journey from flight dependency I began to use the Sail-Rail service between the UK and Ireland some years ago. It’s a wonderful institution that allows passengers to pay a fixed price to and from anywhere in the UK to Ireland, with small variations in price between regions. Such is the legacy of privatization, that often it is cheaper to travel from Dublin to a peripheral location in the UK than to take a train from London.
Until recently you could even take your bike for free (there is now a small price that has to be paid on the ferry though it is free to take a bike on a train in the UK – space permitting) and you can still carry as much luggage as you want. Admittedly trains in England now adopt the Ryanair sardine-can-seating-model, but it’s still a great opportunity to catch up on reading or do some work.
The Sail-Rail deal is not advertised even though it would clearly suit many people. Obviously nobody is making enough money from it.
It should also be noted that Irish Ferries operates dubious pricing policies. Last year I bought a ticket at the port and was told that I had been forcibly ‘upgraded’ to First Class, and would have to pay an extra €18. The man selling the ticket admitted it was ‘a Ryanair job’. I had previously encountered excessive credit card charges and always paid in cash, but it now seems that booking in advance is necessary where a sneaky booking fee is applied. No such financial chicanery is found in Britain where fixed priced tickets can be bought at any rail station.
There are other drawbacks, particularly train timetables not dovetailing properly with the ferries, meaning you sometimes have to spend time in Holyhead which bears the scars of Thatcherite neglect more than most towns I have encountered. The train should also be quicker, and it is often necessary to change in Bangor or Crewe on the way to London; since privatisation Arriva Trains Wales now has a service reminiscent of a developing country.
The Irish government should be lobbying the British government to install a high speed line out of Holyhead to join with other planned high speed lines, or even joint-funding it. With climate change short haul flights are an increasingly irresponsible way of travelling. The long-standing absence of a tax on aviation fuel gives a misleading impression of the true energy cost of flying. As an isolated island Ireland needs to do something about its dependence.
Travelling by train and ferry to the UK or France is relatively easy, but going further afield is more of a challenge. How was I to get to Prague (again – but not for a love affair) overland? By far the cheapest way was to sail and rail to London (€55) and from there catch a Eurolines bus to Prague (€70). I left Dublin at 8:45, arrived in London Euston at 15:30, and then took a tube (approximately €5) to Victoria where my coach left at 17:30. The bus arrived in Prague at 11:30, a journey of almost 30 hours costing €120. Along the way I was able to survey the remarkable cultivation revealed in the German landscape where limited space has been harnessed for productive agriculture over a long time.
I also enjoyed the kind of profound conversations with strangers that seem to occur on long journeys. The man seated behind me had almost lost his life and had decided on his recovery to cycle the Danube in stages. He was on his way to Vienna to proceed from there towards the Balkans in the footsteps of Fermor.
Naturally the seats are somewhat uncomfortable, and I didn’t get the best night’s sleep. But this was real travel where I could learn something and appreciate each transition on the journey. Allow my mind to engage with the changing contours of the landscape. Moreover by not flying with Ryanair I was denting Michael O’Leary’s profits in my own little way and taking revenge on behalf of the parents who had to pay for those over-priced batteries.
A word of caution: on my return I was stung by high train prices. The total cost was over €400. If you want to avail of cheap rail fares in Europe book in advance as there are good deals, or better still you could hitch hike.
Nowadays we take it for granted that we can fly from place to place. It’s not only the carbon footprint of an individual flight that is at issue. Indeed, due to the absence of international regulation seriously polluting fuel from coal can be used in shipping, but it is also the frequency of trips we make. If you choose not to fly, or at least to seriously curtail it, the likelihood is that you will take longer holidays where you might take in more than one location as opposed to the rushed city breaks that have become all too common, and as discovered, quite traumatic. Let’s try to bring the romance back to travel by enjoying slow travel.
Frank Armstrong is a freelance writer. He can be contacted via Twitter or email: email@example.com