The upcoming Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, will be special for me, not because it’s the 50th Annual Meeting, nor because it will be my 10th consecutive year in Davos, but because for the first time, I will be taking the train from the Netherlands for the entire journey. Why? Because it’s time to ditch the plane and embrace the train, not just for a daily commute but as a place to work.
My train journey to Davos, just under nine hours with two layovers, will last approximately the same amount of time as it would take me to drive the 770 kilometers to Davos, excluding traffic jams and required resting stops. So why don’t I fly?
In previous years, I have taken the plane from airports including Dusseldorf, Brussels, and Amsterdam to Zurich before taking a shuttle bus or train to Davos. Although the flight time of 1 hour and 20 minutes sounds attractive, the transportation to and from the airport together with security checks and waiting time still generates a travel time of anywhere between eight and 10 hours, excluding delays. It will be winter, after all.
So, if the time needed is around the same, and when you consider that taking the train versus the plane cuts CO2 emissions by 90%, why doesn’t everyone travel by train? Well, because it’s not that easy.
Unlike a plane ticket, a train ticket includes tax (VAT) and, unless you know your way around a very complex system of national discount cards, a train ticket is often not cheaper than a plane ticket. Besides, for those who, like me, need to use their company travel system to book, it is not always possible to book a train ticket that way, and when it is, it requires some extra effort.
Take getting to Geneva, for instance, a journey earlier this year that took me nearly eight hours by train. Although I could reserve the trip in one online booking, it required two separate (paper) tickets and an additional third ticket that I could only buy in Paris for the two-stop suburban train ride to connect to the next train. Seamless international paperless train travel is not yet here.
But here are the advantages: by taking the train you travel from city center to city center, avoid airport security lines, enjoy actual leg space, and avoid luggage fees. International train travel in Europe – especially for distances under 500 kilometers – should therefore be preferred by all travelers, especially business ones. Yet, according to data from the European Commission, only 6% of European cross-border travel is by train. Not only that: at the same time, 10 out of the 11 most-flown city pairs in Europe are domestic routes.
But why? When I took the train to Geneva, I had close to seven hours of uninterrupted work time (with pretty decent WiFi). Contrary to what some might believe, taking the train is not wasted time; it’s productive time. How much of my journey, if I would have taken the plane instead, would have been productive?
According to a Norwegian survey, only 10% of those commuting by train reported that their travel time was of no use. I know the train is not always the calmest or quietest place to work, but it is a far superior option not just for daily commuting, but also for international and domestic travel. Better for carbon emissions, productivity and comfort.
If European railways would work together to create an online booking platform like the airlines did with Amadeus, governments could facilitate the elimination of VAT on train tickets throughout the European Union or price the carbon impact of short-haul flights. If businesses would encourage their employees to take the train more often, we could see the revival of train travel as the primary way of travel throughout Europe.
By taking the train, I’ll be supporting the Forum’s efforts to build a cohesive and sustainable world in a different way. Not only this, but I will be refreshed and prepared for all our sessions on climate action, nutrition security, oceans and other issues dear to me and the company I work for.