London to Berlin: weighing up the transport impacts

I’m heading to Berlin later this year with a friend and we’re discussing our transport options. The default choice for most folks is to fly. However, I’m a complicated case because around 2005 I started getting all concerned about the environment and made a pledge to fly as little as possible in my life. At the time I was at University, immersing myself in groups such as People & Planet and Engineers Without Borders while reading George Monbiot books and WWF’s Living Planet reports. Over in London, my friend Petra was campaigning with a new environmental group called Plane Stupid. I reasoned that not flying seemed the right thing to do, keeping in mind that the luxury of flight is a very modern possibility and that there were plenty of adventures I could still have without boarding a plane.

Since that pledge to fly less, I’ve turned down many holidays and spent more time exploring by bus and train. It’s been great. However I have taken some flights: USA, Switzerland, Kenya, and later this year, Israel-Palestine. I’m uncomfortable with the flights, but they have been incredible trips.

These ideals that feel so common with “environmentalist friends”, have earned me a bit of a reputation with others. I became “the eco-warrior” of the family and friends would consider me “the one into sustainability”. I don’t mind having that reputation, I just hope that more people will join me.

As we started planning this trip, without even asking my friend knew I might be uncomfortable with flying and raised the idea of alternatives. So I thought I’d spend a bit of time geeking out to present the options we have.

In brief, here’s what we are weighing up:

  • Time taken
  • Cost of the journey
  • Greenhouse gases

Now for the data crunching. Using Skyscanner, Loco2, Eurolines and a few other websites to gather data, I then fed this into an old carbon-calculator I made a few years back and spruced it up (you can grab it here) to present the results for a return London-Berlin:

Cost: Rail (£156), Car (£154), Flight (£138), Coach (£63)

chart3

Time (hours): Car (26), Coach (20.5), Rail (20), Flight (3.5)

time

Greenhouse gases, kg CO2e: Flight (360), Car (225), Coach (64), Rail (27)

ghg

Now we are properly informed with the data, it’s time to weigh things up. As expected, flying is the most polluting.  Even when we put a figure on the emissions,  it’s still rather meaningless to most people. What does 360 kg CO2e look like? I remember very roughly that an average person’s GHG emissions are 12-15 tonnes per year which is a little bit of helpful context. But finding some more perspective would be helpful. I think this would be a good exploration for another blog.

It’s useful to compare against the car. My friend was proposing this option as an alternative but this shows that unless we really value the freedom the car offers and enjoy driving, taking the train trumps the car and we can sit back, watch the scenery and have a beer. If we’re strapped for cash then the coach makes sense.

Time is the sticking point. You really can’t beat the speed of a plane. Some jobs can support working on the train, but many can’t and for someone in a job, it may not make economic sense to take a day off for the train. But it does make great environmental sense. And it’s a great adventure. I’m also fortunate in being able to work on the move. So no time will be lost. Here’s to the train!

Using the calculator

The calculator is based on Google Docs and I welcome anyone to take it, share it, and remake it. Click here to access it. I hope it will be helpful for others weighing up their transport options. 

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