Train travel enthusiast Amy Underwood Thompson shares some tips for planning and enjoying more environmentally friendly climbing trips around Europe...
Across Europe restrictions are lifting, travel corridors are opening and train services are resuming. The European Commission has also proposed making 2021 the European Year of Rail, to support the delivery of its European Green Deal objectives in the transport field, and the European Council is supporting it. So maybe this is as good a time as any to be sharing a bit of train information and inspiration!
You can also get to:
- Salzburg in a day (and thence some amazing climbing within an hour's drive)
- Venice (and thence the Dollies) on the Thulo very cheaply.
For the few hours saved, the carbon of flying is indefensible.
Agree with the advice , if possible, to stay in London the night before. Several years ago we were booked on the Saturday morning ski train. A six o'clock train morning train should have got us to St Pancras in plenty of time, unfortunately the train was badly delayed and we missed the ski train.
We still got to the resort in the late evening but it needed three trains and two taxi rides. An interesting trip.
Also have climbed in the Bregalia by train to St Moritz and then bus and that was pre-tunnel days.
what's the latest news about ice axes & crampons on the Eurostar ?
Great piece. I think we need to see this as the default for European travel going forward and the more information we share as a community the better. I'm as guilty as anyone for having a fairly limited notion of where I might go for a trip abroad, based on where friends have been and what's convenient when flying. A bit more knowledge about what's accessible by train will go a long way.
Also restrictions on fixed blade and folding knives of a certain length. We went to Slovenia by train (car hire at trieste airport in Italy by the border with Slovenia) and could not take our usual picnic knife on the Eurostar to Paris.
Germany tips (feel free to update the article with them)
If you're going to Germany via France then investigate booking on www.bahn.de instead of Rail Europe. Because there are multiple regional train operators and 2-3 high speed train operators in France not all potential connecting trains are available to all operators. We found better connections going to Germany booking with rail europe, and better connections for the return with Deutschebahn. It is also possibly beneficial to book the high speed and local legs separately - in short, have a bit of a play on the booking websites.
German train websites and tickets will normally give you all the info on the platforms and where to sit on the train if it splits etc. which eliminates a lot of hassle looking for the correct platform when changing trains. You can only book 3 months in advance, and prices increase closer to the date of travel.
If travelling with a bike you're supposed to book it.
Tickets - you can buy undated tickets which need to be stamped by a machine on the platform when you use them. Some stations don't have ticket machines, instead you need to use a ticket machine in the train when you get on. These machines may not accept large denomination notes!
Trains from Munich to Garmisch and Austria have ski/snowboard racks in winter and bike racks in summer.
General high speed train tips
The high speed trains in France and Germany always have a seat for every passenger so they're never overcrowded like local trains. Seat numbers are displayed on digital displays on the sides of the carriages so you know which one to get on, they aren't always in a logical order though!
Young kids get spoilt on the ICE and TGV - there's special kids carriages on most trains with play areas, and the conductor will give them a special kid's ticket when he checks yours which they can take to the buffet car and get some free goodies with. You can also specify seats with a table when booking sometimes.
Gare Montparnasse in Paris is massive, with multiple platform areas / terminals so isn't straightforward to use (especially when there's building works like when I used it last summer - took me ten minutes just to get out of the station!). It's more like an airport with multiple terminals than a station.
One of the high speed train operators (Ouigo?) charges for luggage, yet the booking options don't always allow you to select the luggage option you actually need. It wasn't a problem, but be aware of it.
Other useful info: The Thello from France to Italy is very hit and miss in terms of comfort, cleanliness and punctuality. It did get us there but it felt like the past when we were students roughing it a bit. Book a whole compartment if you can, w e were a family of 4 so it was ok to do so, but we only did on the return, on the way out we shared with others. It's not that we didn't like them but was a bit crowded and got very warm in the room.
More German / Swiss tips
You can do St.Pancras to Garmisch Partenkirchen in 11 hours and get there the same day. This gives you access to the Zugspitze / Alpspitze area for VFs & alpine multipitch in summer and snowy mountaineering in winter. The line continues on to Innsbruck. A side branchline heads west to Reutte in Tirol, and another to Oberammergau where there's great lower altitude mountain walking.
I guess the ultimate is to do the north face of the Eiger by train, not sure you can get there in one day though.
I have done Grindelwald to London in a day by train.
What a wonderful article. Throughly informative and an enjoyable read.
Eurostar's attitude to transporting ice axes and crampons adds hassle and might cause some delays or problems.
In terms of Innsbruck, they certainly started (not sure if yet restarted?) a sleeper from Brussels to Innsbruck and Brussels to Vienna which I thought had climbing potential - afternoon Eurostar, night train, Austria by morning.
The bit which always frustrated me was having to add on half a day before my Eurostar to actually get to London, in the context of how far half a day could get you once you got to London or to Brussels!
> what's the latest news about ice axes & crampons on the Eurostar ?
Hi Doug, The website says you need to contact them in advance. https://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/travel-info/travel-planning/luggage/sports-and-camping-equipment
I've had ice axes go unquestioned in luggage. However, my friend who had it on the outside of a rucksack on return Paris>London (very silly in retrospect) got stopped and had to pay to have it travel separately (and mine went through the scanner without question just after). Felt they couldn't let one go through so obviously, but if it had been inside the bag it probably would have been fine. But yes official line is as per their website.
> Also restrictions on fixed blade and folding knives of a certain length. We went to Slovenia by train (car hire at trieste airport in Italy by the border with Slovenia) and could not take our usual picnic knife on the Eurostar to Paris.
In reply to RX-78:
Hi, yes their website says "You can take camping cutlery and tools like pocket or Swiss army knives, as long as any blades are less than 3" (75mm) long. Any folding knife with a blade that locks is strictly prohibited, regardless of size" https://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/travel-info/travel-planning/luggage/sports-and-camping-equipment
You can pop off the locking mechanism of an opinel, and put back on later. Also (if you don't mind the possible stress of losing it) having a knife in amongst your quick draws or lots of other metal things usually goes through, I've heard!
> In terms of Innsbruck, they certainly started (not sure if yet restarted?) a sleeper from Brussels to Innsbruck and Brussels to Vienna which I thought had climbing potential - afternoon Eurostar, night train, Austria by morning.
> The bit which always frustrated me was having to add on half a day before my Eurostar to actually get to London, in the context of how far half a day could get you once you got to London or to Brussels!
Hi, yes the Nightjet sleeper from Brussels to Munich, Innsbruck & Vienna resumed from 29 June Agree the UK stint to London can feel slow, and expensive if you don't book in advance, especially if you don't have much flexibility in when you travel. I find headphones, a good book and a mini bottle of wine to start that holiday feeling helps!
I think some of it is probably about realigning how I look at train travel with how I look at plane travel - with 2 kids in tow I always look at train travel through the lens of what can be fitted into a normal or slightly disrupted child length day, but I have a bad habit of comparing that against the olden days where the 5am flight to get to the crag by lunch was a thing that worked.
I guess to take the example of that Innsbruck sleeper - I'd have to leave Poole in the morning to get the Eurostar about 1 to get the sleeper about 6, according to seat61. Then get to Innsbruck at 9am and then say a couple of hours travel at the far end, perhaps, depending on where I was going.
Could I do that faster by plane? I assume I'd have to drive to Heathrow, at which point an early afternoon flight probably gets to accommodation that evening rather than lunchtime the day after. So it's maybe a half day difference each way.
But I probably in my head still assume that it's a full day because if I took just a half day off and got the last flight I could crash out in accommodation by midnight and that beats the train by a half day at both ends.
What a really good and informative article. Its certainly made me think about my future plans. Thanks.
This article may become a point of reference for some time.
I was considering something similar fir UK travel.
For instance train to Glasgow from Bristol, then rent a Co wheels van from the street and on to the Highlands.
We've just leased an ev for two years and I'm keen to see if we can do the 200mile trip to a hut in North Wales, Cornwall or the Lakes and charge at the hut.
I've noticed many campsites with caravan hook up are now offering ev charging.
Especially with the potential for your car to be charged by renewable during the day whilst out on the hill.
Another combo I've considered is e bikes and trains? For getting around the peaks for instance?
And of course, Londoners coming to Bristol!
Get off the train at temple meads, cycle to the gorge! 😊 Many eateries, coffee shops and fine pubs on the way!
Great ideas Jamie. Love an EV road trip! We've done Scotland in our 24kwh leaf, train would be faster but we could take the dog more easily Just pack a waterproof extension cable and your 3pin plug charging cable.
Also if you want to take the train to Bangor and hire an EV we currently have a local community 30kwh leaf in Bethesda. The booking is managed by CoWheels https://www.partneriaethogwen.cymru/en/other-projects/carwen-the-community-electric-car/
Great article! I was actually making more of an effort this year to avoid plane travel and (though they were unfortunately covid struck) I had trips to both Shetland and Austrian alps from the SW booked by train (and ferry) earlier this year. One tip for the time vs flying was that since I can work entirely from a laptop (and have a climbing friendly boss...) I was going to spend the travel days at work which meant I actually on net saved on holiday days used compared to flying. Won't work for everyone but worth trying if its an option.
I was also pleasantly surprised that by booking well in advance the Shetland trip actually worked out cheaper than flying and my estimate for the Alps trip was that it cost only ~£60 more by train.
For Fontainebleua there is no need to rent a car in Paris after taking the Eurostar. You can take a train to Avon/Fontainebleau and rent a car there.
Wonderful article that's very helpful thank you.
El Chorro is often quoted as a good "car free" venue due to its railway station. This is flawed.
There are few trains to the village (1 a day?) this could well eat up a day of your climb g trip at either end. Provisions in El Chorro are limited, generally requiring a trip to Alora to stock up, another climbing day potentially lost.
So far as climbing goes, there is climbing accessible easily on foot from the village but as you would expect, it is showing its age. Mid distance climbing can be accessed but remember, each hour spent walking to/from the crag is an hour when you could have been climbing.
More distant climbing such as desplomlandia for when the gorge area is too hot is impossible without a car.
That is unless you are going to bum lifts of others, only to return home bragging about your eco friendly "car free" trip.
Might be best to take the train to Malaga and pick up a hire car there.
Fully in favour of trying to use the train more and fly less. But having taking 2 ski mountaineering trips by train one thing that will need addressing is more luggage space. Travelling with skis and mountaineering kit this all has to go in the train carriage with you. Most of the luggage racks are too small for skis. If more folk took this option there simply would not be enough space for everyone and their kit (as a comparison just imagine everyone taking all their ski kit onboard with them onto a full Easy Jet flight!)
What it needs is a luggage carriage or similar. There is currently Eurodespatch for pre booking of oversize luggage (at an additional cost) Though crazily this is not available on the first train out of St Pancras simply because Eurodespatch is not open then! So the train has a luggage area but you can’t book anything on to it because no-one at Eurodesptach can be bothered to get out of bed early enough! Crazy.
If you could drop off your luggage at ‘check in’ like with flights then pick it up on arrival that would be a total winner.
For summer cragging trips with minimal kit its a far more pleasant experience.
One other slight difficulty that could change if more folk used the trains is the availability of hire cars. There is always more choice and cheaper options from airports than near train stations. And we have found booking hire cars from near train stations that are fully equipped with winter tyres and chains far harder than from airports.
Things are improving all the time tho.
I agree with your comments about airport car hire.
So now it's train to destination, train/bus/taxi to airport to pick up hire car and stick 2 green fingers up at the gas guzzling aircraft. Hmmm.
I like trains and I like the idea of going climbing via train. The infrastructure isn't there to make it easy. What may be acceptable for an extended trip eats too much into a typical week/fortnight away.
Kalymnos by train for a week anyone?
Excellent, informative, thank you !
why would anyone spend hundreds travelling scotland/northern england to south of france by train when you can fly for £20?
> El Chorro is often quoted as a good "car free" venue due to its railway station. This is flawed.
> There are few trains to the village (1 a day?) this could well eat up a day of your climb g trip at either end. Provisions in El Chorro are limited, generally requiring a trip to Alora to stock up, another climbing day potentially lost.
> So far as climbing goes, there is climbing accessible easily on foot from the village but as you would expect, it is showing its age. Mid distance climbing can be accessed but remember, each hour spent walking to/from the crag is an hour when you could have been climbing.
> More distant climbing such as desplomlandia for when the gorge area is too hot is impossible without a car.
> That is unless you are going to bum lifts of others, only to return home bragging about your eco friendly "car free" trip.
> Might be best to take the train to Malaga and pick up a hire car there.
Hi, thanks for comments. When we went in 2015 there was more than one train a day running to El Chorro so it was possible to go to Alora on a rest-day to shop and treat yourself to coffee in town etc. We also did a nice rest-day outing to Ronda on a direct train too. You are right, there is only one train showing on raileurope at the moment, not sure if this is a limited service because of Covid, definitely one to watch.
From our experience, other people staying at the campsite, plus people in vans outside the campsite walked into the crags, including over the top to Makinodromo, and there was enough variety for a 2.5 week trip in winter. It's all down to personal preference. A hire car / or meeting friends with vans would of course allow max flexibilty. Hope that's useful!
Certainly is useful. I am pretty familiar with el chorro having made around a dozen visits. Whilst I may be persuaded to use the train to get to malaga, the flexibility offered by a hire car gains a significant amount of climbing time (which is what you are going for after all). It also opens outlying areas such as the aforementioned desplo, turn, el torcal etc.
An aside but I liken the low carbon holiday trend to crash dieting. You can see short term results from 2 weeks on the cabbage soup diet but for real benefits small structural change in your everyday life will show a greater yield.
> An aside but I liken the low carbon holiday trend to crash dieting. You can see short term results from 2 weeks on the cabbage soup diet but for real benefits small structural change in your everyday life will show a greater yield.
> Such as?
Cutting out alcohol and avoiding fatty foods.
Ha ha! What are the climate change equivalents?
Excellent informative and thought provoking article.
Coming from Scotland, the London leg seems to add a lot to cost and time. I am going to Rome for a long week later in the year and I did look into trains. Compared with flying it would have taken two days rather than an afternoon each way and an extra £200, so really didn't make sense. Train doesn't really seem all that viable for a short trip. For a longer trip the time wouldn't be such an issue, but then the car hire cost would mount and the option of driving and being able to take more stuff and camping to avoid accomodation costs becomes more attractive........
A friend who lives a litttle north of Inverness came to visit us in the southern French Alps last October by train - sleeper to London, Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Grenoble then local train to Gap (20 minutes from our village). Took a little less than 24 hours, in retrospect he thinks it would have been better to travel to Paris during the day then get the night train from Paris to Gap, can't remember if this would have been cheaper or quicker. For Rome there is (or at least was pre-Covid19) a night train from Paris to Rome so probably possible to manage Edinburgh - Rome in about 24 hours, maybe even Stirling-Rome (not sure which station is nearest to home for you)
But still slower than flying & probably more expensive. But quicker than driving & you can carry more luggage than flying
> For Rome there is (or at least was pre-Covid19) a night train from Paris to Rome so probably possible to manage Edinburgh - Rome in about 24 hours, maybe even Stirling-Rome (not sure which station is nearest to home for you)
I think there were changes in Brussels and Munich (?), but I did just search the dates which fitted my half term holiday, so more flexibilty might give better options - roll on retirement........
> For Rome there is (or at least was pre-Covid19) a night train from Paris to Rome so probably possible to manage Edinburgh - Rome in about 24 hours, maybe even Stirling-Rome (not sure which station is nearest to home for you)
Based on a bout of idle pre-Covid train-based holiday planning (all speculative), I think the night trains from Paris run to Milan and on to Venice - I think you have to change at Milan onto a day train to get to Rome mid-morning or something.
But I suspect you could leave Edinburgh at lunchtime, London late afternoon, Paris mid evening, Milan early the next morning and Rome by lunchtime and it’s probably still c24hrs?
> why would anyone spend hundreds travelling scotland/northern england to south of france by train when you can fly for £20?
Possibly that should read 'could fly for £20'
I thought this was a terrific article and well-worth considering. Amy really sells the advantages of train travel.
There are some comments here about the appreciable disadvantages and costs of having to get to London by train and stay overnight somewhere.
Can I recommend Ebbsfleet International station? It is just south of London in Kent. I live in Sheffield and have before now got up at a stupidly early time, driven on deserted roads to Ebbsfleet, hopped on the Eurostar at about 7 am and stepped off the train in Avignon later the same afternoon. There is ample parking at the station. I just checked and parking for a week at Ebbsfleet is £43. A week's parking at my nearest airport would cost considerably more than that.
Increased use of public transport/walking/cycling.
Insulated homes, more efficient appliances, locally produced goods.
Long term smaller measures rather than huge fad gesstures.
I have to say that the train to el chorro, bum lifts off all and sundry to crag/supermarket/bar only to return home bragging about eco credentials of a car free holiday really pushes my buttons.
I don't suppose anyone has looked into the environmental costs of the increased journey time have they?
Each additional meal, newspaper, overnight stay has an impact. Say a journey by train takes 3 days compared with a day by air. The additional welfare requirements to support the additional time will eat into the differential in environmental impact. Assumimg you stay for the same number of days.
As said above, I like trains, I am keen to go on a climbing trip via train, the infrastructure is not geared towards it.
Very high on my tick list is a day climbing on cloggy via steam train. Dare I say this here, all that dirty coal, should have walked Harumph.
> Long term smaller measures rather than huge fad gesstures.
The problem is that they don't compare, though people like to think they do. Living car free or swapping your car for an EV makes a big difference but are far more disruptive. Insulation? I'd imagine that the vast majority of people who live in houses that are possible to insulate efficiently (i.e. loft and cavity) already have this done, for the rest you're looking at expensive room in roof or solid wall. Locally produced goods make little difference as transport emissions are a tiny part of the overall footprint and in some cases it's actually more carbon efficient to produce things elsewhere and transport them. The welfare argument makes no sense as you generally stay the same amount of time so you're going to be consuming stuff whether you're at your destination or en route. And also because transport is usually the biggest chunk of your holiday emissions.
Of course the real problem is that it's actually not an either/or - we should be doing all of these things AND reducing our flying AND campaigning for structural changes from govt and industry.
I'm not telling you not to fly, that's your choice. But I think you should be honest with yourself about the environmental impact. And maybe don't shit on people who are trying to make an effort.
In case you're interested, here is a link to some recent open access research looking at the relative impact of different mitigation measures:
> Long term smaller measures rather than huge fad gesstures.
You make me weep.
Aviding a flight is not a "fad gesture". It's hundreds of Kg of CO2 avoided
I rarely flew anywhere until my mid 30s (4 flights in total, I think), such is my nature as a leader of fashion.
I will call my early years my offsetting period. I offset before it was cool and when engines were less fuel efficient. Go me!
Also worth recalling that you can get cheaper travel to London if you book the Eurostar ticket from your home station (eg Bristol to Ghent) there are lower rate tickets available for trains connecting with ferries as well - so worth bearing in mind if heading to Ireland, the Scottish isles or maybe some ferries to the continent.
Both you and climbing pixie make some excellent points. I agree that humble bragging about environmentally friendly holidays is utterly nauseating; however I'm really not sure that I've seen much of that if any in this thread.
As for the practicalities of getting to El Chorro, you seem to be begging the question to some extent: there is world-class climbing elsewhere in Europe which is very easy to access without using air transport. You're quite right in saying that systemic change is very important so perhaps you might like to consider changing your regular climbing destination to one which is easier to access by sustainable transport.
As climbing pixie has said your point about welfare doesn't hold water. Since the logistics network in Western Europe is so interconnected it really won't make much difference whether I buy my food in a supermarket in London Paris or Rome, the environmental impacts will be much the same, and would have occurred whether I was travelling or not; in other words the costs cancel. However, the environmental impact of accelerating several hundred packets of Pringles and a similar quantity of curly sandwiches to take off speed and then lifting them to 30000 feet is definitely non-zero and occurs over and above the cost of consuming food at ground level.
Again as climbing pixie has said, some of your proposed changes may not be quite as beneficial as they might at first appear. To take localising goods as an example, consider the trade-corrected CO2 figure for the US which is only 7.5 or so percent higher than the non trade-corrected figure, then compare this difference with the likely effect of moving from the current situation towards a multiplicity of small manufacturers in every country with the consequent increase in density of logistics within countries and loss of scale efficiency and it should be apparent that the present situation will likely be vastly more efficient.
Bringing together your point about more active travel and climbing pixie's contention that transport is an insignificant part of the overall picture consider the following stats:
40% of Europe’s CO2 emissions are from road transport
In the EU almost three quarters of transport-related CO2 derives from road transport, of which almost half comes from cars and only 14% from heavy vehicles. .
30% of car trips in Europe are under 3km and 50% are under 5km – a 15 minute bike ride
Train travel in Europe accounts for just half a percent of CO2 output yet is responsible for almost 10 billion passenger journeys, almost 10 times the number of passenger journeys by plane; whereas air transport accounts for more than 10% of transport CO2. It is of course true to say that an average air journey is longer than an average train journey but we need to be rethinking where we go as well as how we get there.
So if you're really looking for people at whom to throw eggs, the real targets are car drivers. Which of course includes me and I'm sure you and likely everyone we know.
In terms solely of environmental impact though the crucial point is that every gram of CO2 released causes damage, although even here supporters of air travel have to admit that CO2 released at altitude is far more harmful than CO2 released at ground level. And sadly, as an 'early offsetter', you got the brown end of the stick: as climate change advances incremental units of CO2 have a greater effect so your early offsetting is worth less.
Aside from the environmental impact argument, there are also questions of economic and social responsibility to answer when comparing flying with land-based transport. I think it might be possible to argue that it would be better to spread your transport costs between several small local service providers (cafes etc) and transport companies in places along your route rather than spend the whole lot in one go with one big (airline) company.
Lastly, though, is the question of what is most valuable to you: is it better to be teleported or to travel? When I think of the stuff I would have missed over the years if I'd taken the plane - the row in a boiling hot Italian lay-by; proposing to my fiance halfway up a cliff in Switzerland ( on the way back from Montenegro) …
Nobody gets misty-eyed talking about 'that time we waited in the queue at the taxi rank outside T5'
Great article - thanks very much.
I'm ashamed to say that I fly way more than I train, but I shall consider alternatives more in future.
Just one question: why is it so much more expensive to train than fly? Every year I go skiing and look at the train v car v airplane costs and the train never wins. Are there much bigger infrastructure costs built in somewhere? Or subsidies on flights?
Its a genuine question.
> Great article - thanks very much.
> I'm ashamed to say that I fly way more than I train, but I shall consider alternatives more in future.
> Just one question: why is it so much more expensive to train than fly? Every year I go skiing and look at the train v car v airplane costs and the train never wins. Are there much bigger infrastructure costs built in somewhere? Or subsidies on flights?
> Its a genuine question.
there is much more competition in the market for flying. And air is for free, whereas rails are expensive.
> Just one question: why is it so much more expensive to train than fly?
I guess a combination of historical deals and politics, subsidies (isn't aviation fuel still mostly exempt from taxation?), sharing of infrastructure costs, more rigid infrastructure and different infrastructure ownership structures in each country. Did I miss anything? Perhaps in a federated Europe, it would have been all different - we'd be hopping on fast overnight trains to Cham every weekend
<El Chorro is often quoted as a good "car free" venue due to its railway station. This is flawed. >
I cycled to El Chorro from Malaga airport for a week of climbing & cycling. It took not too long. We camped. I imagine its just as easy to get to the gorge from Malaga railway station.
We've just booked a sleeper down to Carcassonne for October and a train back via a night in Paris off the back of this article. Thanks for the inspiration UKC!
> I cycled to El Chorro from Malaga airport for a week of climbing & cycling. It took not too long. We camped. I imagine its just as easy to get to the gorge from Malaga railway station.
Sounds kinda spartan!
Excellent article. I love the European trains, the double deckers are brilliant fun.
I had a great train trip from LA to San Diego last year following along the coast. Beautiful views and the train was so comfy, roomy and clean. Not to mention the ticket was cheap as chips.
Makes you wonder why the UK franchises are so shite (We all know why they're so shite, but nothing will get done about it. Same as everything with this country).
> Excellent article. I love the European trains, the double deckers are brilliant fun.
Until you have to get off in a hurry and go to the end of the carriage without an exit
Austrian climber Barbara Zangerl has made the second ascent of Kampfzone (8b+), a 5-pitch Beat Kammerlander route in the Rätikon, Switzerland. Zangerl's partner, Jacopo Larcher also climbed the route the following day.