My love of long train journeys started in earnest around a decade ago when I took an SJ train from Stockholm to Abisko National Park in the far north of Sweden. I had just one album of music on my iPod (yes, it was that long ago) — the full live soundtrack to Les Misérables. I got through the whole recording two or three times during the journey, as my friend Ewan and I trundled slowly but surely north, the tall birch trees slowly giving way to stumpy willow. Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and embrace having fewer options. For me that’s one of the best things about ‘slow travel’. In this case we had one fixed direction and a fixed, incongruous soundtrack.
One of the things I like most about long train journeys is when you stop for a moment in a random place and get the chance to briefly step out onto the platform. Edward Thomas’ poem, ‘Adlestrop’, is inspired by a railway journey he took in 1914, during which his train briefly stopped in the Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
On the occasion of our trip to Abisko I remember Ewan doing cartwheels on a platform in Luleå, while I sipped coffee.
The Environmental Case (and the Inequality of Train Travel)
Beyond the romanticism and simple pleasures of slow travel, there’s often a significant environmental benefit to taking trains — they are typically around 60–80% less polluting per km than planes. While it’s sometimes pointed out that aviation only accounts for about 3.5% of current global CO2 emissions, it’s also worth considering that only about 20% of people on earth today have ever been on a plane. The aviation industry, predictably, wants to “leverage that for growth”. If most of us flew, the impact of aviation in its current form on the global climate would be catastrophic. Understanding the precise environmental impact of flying is not simple by any means, but we know it’s signficant. We also know that further growth without major technological innovation is unsustainable. Electric planes could be a game-changer, but progress is relatively slow, given the urgency of climate change.
While politicians and environmental campaigners throw plenty of rhetoric around about taking trains, it often feels like we’re living in a parallel universe. On one hand we’re told that we should avoid flying and take more trains. On the other, flights typically remain far more affordable — particularly when it comes to longer international journeys. This price difference disproportionately impacts the ability of those on low incomes to ‘do the right thing’. At the same time we’re faced with the madness of direct flights still being allowed between UK cities like London and Birmingham (to date, France is one of the only EU countries to introduce a ban on short haul domestic flights under two hours long). In short, the system is often stacked against us — especially if you’re someone who has less money.
Musicians and Trains
You might think that musicians, with our reputation for being rebels and free-thinkers, might be well-placed to embrace slow travel. We can easily find ourselves, however, in a situation where someone else is making all the decisions for us— especially if we want others to handle the ‘boring stuff’ so that we can just focus on being artists. The problem there is that booking agents and managers are typically (and understandably) in the business of squeezing in as many shows as possible, while limiting expenditure. It’s therefore important for us, as musicians, to use our own heads, and own voices, whenever possible. We also need arts organisations — and, more widely, governments — to take decisions that provide us with the precious commodity of choice.
These two points have inspired my organisation’s focus on slow travel. Every year, Making Tracks selects eight musicians to take part in a month-long residency and tour. This September all artists selected from mainland Europe will be travelling to the UK by train to take part. We’ll be paying selected artists for every day travelled, and making their journeys part of the project through social media take-overs and other activities. In this way we hope to incentivise them — and other organisations — to take their own similar steps.
The Journey Ahead
Understanding the environmental impact of your own air miles as an individual is more complex than understanding the impact of the aviation industry as a whole. The intriguing concept of the ‘carbon shadow’, complicates things even further. There may be regular flyers whose overall ‘positive carbon shadow’ arguably makes up in some ways for their flying footprint (how do we even begin to calculate the net environmental impact of David Attenborough’s travel measured against his wider impact, for example?). On the other hand there are people who don’t fly at all, but whose overall negative shadow nevertheless looms large. Given this complexity — and for the economic and systemic reasons mentioned above — I am personally (for the most part!) not in favour of ‘flight-shaming’. I have great respect for the few people I know who’ve committed to never flying again for environmental reasons, but I also understand why some people don’t feel that they can or need to commit to taking such a step.
At an organisational level however, it’s much more clear: the age of flying artists around the world in the name of cultural exchange, without thinking about the environmental impact, should be over. Musical encounters undoubtedly have the power to foster greater empathy, tolerance and understanding across social, cultural, and geographical borders. But we also need to remember that all art and culture is sustained by the natural world. In the words of the author Mark Cocker, “biological loss is cultural loss”. Given the environmental pressures we are placing our world under I feel strongly that Making Tracks needs to somehow strike a balance between these competing but connected impulses. The final destination is unclear, but we’re determined to embrace the journey and learn as much as we can along the way.