For the second time in a year, I travelled to France by train last week. This time we didn't stop at Paris, but crossed town to the Gare du Lyon (a pretty well-joined-up journey, requiring only 2 stops on the RER) to go down to Bourg St Maurice for some snowboarding.
On the way back, I found myself wondering how the costs — in carbon, time, and money — stack up in comparison to making the same journey by air. I compared London St Pancras – Bourg St-Maurice by train (the journey we did); London City – Chambery by plane (then bus transfer to Bourg St-Maurice); and London Gatwick – Geneva by plane (then bus again to Bourg St-Maurice). I included the journey from my house at the London end, but excluded the journey from Bourg St-Maurice up the mountain since it's the same with all three routes (the funicular then a shuttle-bus service).
Helpfully, Eurostar have conducted some specific research to accurately measure CO2 generated by their trains. The ski train as of 2010 measurements was 9.4kg per passenger single trip (18.8kg return).
London to Chambery or Geneva by air is about 1,000 km (620mi). At 0.2897 kg/mile for a short-haul flight, that's 180kg of carbon per passenger return. The Eurostar research quoted above gives 102.8kg per passenger each way (205.6kg total) for London City-Geneva (the discrepancy is due to the specific load factor which is low for that route, so the per-passenger output is higher). Even using the lower value, rail still has a tenth of the carbon cost of air. (And that doesn't account for the transfer bus carbon, although buses are low-carbon travel.)
The winner: train, at 90% less carbon.
Train: 30min Tube, 45 min check-in, total time London - Bourg St Maurice, 7h15. Total 8h30.
Plane, London City-Chambery: 30 min Tube, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 2 hrs on coach (estimated from this page which gives 1h45 for a minibus; coaches can be assumed to be a little slower). Total 7hr.
Plane, London Gatwick-Geneva: 20 min Tube, 40 min train, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 3.5 hrs on coach. Total 9 hrs.
The winner: plane, at 20% quicker (but only if you take the right route).
Our tickets on the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Bourg St Maurice cost £119 each (return); plus £3.80 each in Tube fares. £123 per person, return.
The cheapest airfare I could find to Chambery, the nearest airport, is £60 each way. That's from London City, so same Tube fare; but then you need to take a transfer coach at 70 EUR (£60) return. £183 per person, return.
The next closest airport is Geneva, for which I found a £46 return fare with Easyjet; plus £18 each way baggage fare to take any hold baggage. That's from Gatwick, so £4 Tube fare to London Bridge, then £16 (ish) return to Gatwick. Then there's the transfer at the other end: 126 EUR (£107) return. £191 per person, return.
The winner: the train, at 50% cheaper.
The overall winner: train, cheaper, lower-carbon, and only slightly slower.
The train comes out better not only on environmental impact (by a long way, and unsurprisingly), but also on cost (by a significant margin, and more surprisingly). It even beats the 'super-cheap' flights (actually the most expensive option all-in) in time taken. The plane is slightly quicker for the London City-Chambery route, but 7 hours compared to 8.5 hours isn't that big of a deal; especially when you think about what you're saving in cost and carbon.
Plus there's the fact that it's simply more pleasant to sit in a train and watch the countryside go past than it is to sit in an airplane and look at clouds (pretty though clouds are). The food available is better; the booze is better (French trains do quite well on this front!); there's more space per seat; and you're much freer to move around when you want to. Even without the cost savings!
The details are of course affected by where you're going. Snowboarding holidays mean mountains, which means airports some distance away. The calculation if going to, say, Geneva or Lyon would be different for time and money. (Although not very different for carbon, of course.) Nor does this address the environmental cost of the holiday itself. What's the effect of thousands of skiiers and snowboarders on the mountains they're careering down? But that's a subject for another post.