In November 2022, as part of an experiment in environmental touring supported by Julie’s Bicycle, Arts Council England and the Danish Arts Council, we travelled to Copenhagen and back by train to present our show The Acquisitions Panel and participate in skills sharing workshops with Danish company Wildtopia and British company Mind the Gap.
When we were based in Newcastle, we used to spend a LOT of time on trains - but Newcastle to London is only 3 hours, compared to London to Copenhagen, which is 22. So we were a bit daunted, as well as excited about the trip.
We decided that rather than trying to do the journey in the quickest time possible, we would give ourselves some breaks on the way. We hoped that this would mean we would arrive in Copenhagen in a fit state to do the show properly (and enjoy ourselves), rather than just stumbling the whole experience in a haze. So, we spent two days travelling to Copenhagen, with an overnight stop in Cologne on the way; and two days travelling back, with an overnight stay in Brussels.
If you want to see all the pics as we documented each stage on social media, you can see all that here.
Here was our route, for folks who are interested...
And here come the benefits and trickier elements of touring by train...
You arrive in the middle of the city
This is a huge advantage over flying, where airports are nearly always quite a schlep from the centre of town. Also, it can be a bit stressful/ disorientating to arrive at an airport in a strange country and work out how to buy a ticket and get into town.
On the second day of our journey towards Copenhagen we had a 2 hour lunch break in Hamburg and we could walk off the train right into the middle of the city. We’d had a lovely time in Hamburg shortly before the pandemic, so it was nice to be able to see the city again briefly - and it gave me time to have some kaffee and kuchen (coffee and cake) of which I try to inhale as much as I can whenever I’m in Germany.
Arriving right in the centre of town also makes it much easier to get to your accommodation, if you’re staying overnight. In Copenhagen, we had a 15 minute walk to our AirBnB, which meant we had time to settle in and go for a nice dinner on the night we arrived.
There is much less hanging around
When you fly, it feels like you spend ages queueing to go through security, waiting for the gate to be called, going to the gate, waiting for the gate to open etc. The Eurostar does have security, but you don’t need to take out laptops and liquids in the same way and there isn’t all the other hanging around.
In Germany and Denmark, you don’t even need to hang around at the station, waiting to find out what platform the train departs from. When you book, your ticket tells you what platform your train will be on - and even which area of the platform to wait on for your carriage. I have no idea why British trains can’t do this, it can’t just be that the British like to suffer unnecessarily (or can it? maybe we like to have something to complain about?). In Germany, if the platform changes, you can get a notification on the Deutsche Bahn navigator app which tells you where to go. The app also sends notifications about any delays too.
You can carry more stuff (without paying more)
You can take more luggage on trains without paying extra or having to wait for it to appear on a conveyor belt (and maybe finding out it got lost in transit.) This was particularly good for us because it meant we could have all the equipment for the show and our own clothes and stuff with us.
This was much easier than when we toured to Cyprus (by plane) and had to put all our personal things in the hold so we could keep the expensive show kit with us - we figured new pants are cheaper to buy than new iPads.
Looking out the window is much more interesting
Ok, so looking out of the window in a plane is quite exciting at take off and landing and maybe when you see pretty clouds, but then it gets boring.
Looking out of the window on our train journey was often super interesting - from very industrial landscapes, to rivers, to clusters of wind turbines. On the way home through Denmark, it had snowed and the whole landscape became a winter wonderland that made us feel very Christmassy.
You can do a full day’s work
There is WIFI on trains, which meant that for the days when we were travelling, we were able to get loads of work done. This kind of made up for the journey taking longer - we didn’t lose this time, we’d just relocated our office to a train carriage. And the trains we were travelling on in Europe were more spacious and comfortable and considerably less crowded than most British trains, so this felt ok.
It doesn’t feel so weird
This might not affect everyone, but flying feels kinda weird to me. Not in the intellectual sense of “this is unnatural for a human” or “I am contributing to climate change” but it feels more viscerally weird. I feel more heightened and slightly on edge. And that isn’t just me being a weirdo - SCIENCE agrees: studies have showed that food tastes different and films make us cry more easily. This isn’t the case on trains.
Visiting places along the way
When you’re travelling by train, you have to change trains which gives you the opportunity to visit places along the way. En route to Copenhagen we stayed overnight in Cologne, which is a really cool city I’d never visited. The station is right in the middle of town and opposite the biggest cathedral in Europe, so I was able to look round it - and see these quite uncanny statues - within half an hour of arriving.
We stayed in a hotel that was actually inside the railway station and had a view of the cathedral.
On the way home, we had an epic first day of travelling back (12 hours and 10 minutes from getting on the first train to getting off the last one) but we still arrived in Brussels with time to go for dinner (it helped that we stayed in a hotel directly opposite the train station).
The next day, we had a full day exploring Brussels before the Eurostar home, so I got to visit an art museum, see the amazing street art and the beautiful (if bizarre) medieval old town. I know that Brussels is really easy to visit from the UK, but it was good to have the occasion to go there - it’s something I’d been meaning to do for years and never got round to.
The main reason, though, why we travelled by train, was the carbon footprint. A return flight for the two of us would have generated around 974 kg of CO2 equivalent whereas taking the train generated around 12 kg - so about 1% of the emissions. I knew before that travelling by train had a much lower carbon footprint than flying, but I didn’t know that the difference was that stark.
I don’t want this post to be one sided and evangelical and there really are some disadvantages to travelling by train. Here are a few of them:
It takes longer
If we flew we could probably have got door to door from our flat in the UK to our airbnb in Copenhagen in about 6 or 7 hours, whereas the fastest you could do it by train is about 22 hours. The caveat to this, as I said above, is that if your work is laptop-based work, you can use this time constructively. Still, you do have to be an adult who is comfortable sitting for long periods of time (although the European trains did have great things like play areas for kids - can you imagine LNER or Avanti doing that?!)
It costs more
You can get a return flight from Gatwick to Copenhagen for two people for about £126, though it would have cost us a bit more with the luggage. With the trains, it cost us £563. We could have got this cheaper if we’d booked the Eurostar earlier (which was by far the most expensive train per mile) but it is still quite a lot more than flying.
I think this is probably the biggest barrier to most people - and one which probably needs state intervention to create price parity.
Danish trains are different
The Danish trains were fast and comfortable, and ran reliably in the snow (unlike UK trains!) but I struggled with the WIFI and they don’t serve hot food. The trains in Germany and Belgium, by contrast, have fancy restaurant cars with nice hot food. The hot food thing won’t affect me in future as I’ll buy food before I get on, but it did catch me by surprise.
Top Tips for train travel
I just wanted to finish off with some top tips for train travel in Europe that we picked up as part of this process.
The man in Seat 61 website is awesome
If you don’t already know this site, it is a great source of advice and reassurance on travelling by train to and around Europe, including how to buy a multi-country route all in one place etc. It even has tips about hotels to stay in that are close to (or even inside!) train stations.
Neck pillows are nice
I like my creature comforts, but this made me much more comfortable, particularly when I wanted to sleep. Would recommend.
The DB Navigator app is great
The DB (Deutsche Bahn) Navigator app lets you upload your tickets and route and gives you updates on if there is a platform change or a delay and keeps you updated on your estimated arrival time. I found it really reassuring.