Second World Problems: Guangzhou to Glasgow by Train: Can Rail Replace Air Travel for International Students?

Lately I’ve been caught in a bit of a panic about my carbon footprint and environmental impact. I’m probably a bit late after years of blissfully blitzing the planet, flying across the continent every year for the last decade, but I have now decided to change for the better. I decided I’d try to go back to Glasgow by train this year.

Spoiler Alert: I only made it to Rome before taking a flight*. Sometimes you just cannot be arsed hauling two suitcases, a bag, and a tripod from one train station to another, much less force someone else to go through the same with you. I cannot thank my sister enough for agreeing to embark on this journey with me. Having to put up with my insufferable company alone is, honestly, more than her fair share of trouble.

Holidaymakers have left their mark, but international students and business flyers remain some of the most regular customers of major airlines. I am grateful for the opportunity to study abroad. Without it, I probably would not even consider going greener until 2025. But the paradoxical ‘love miles’ it racks up whenever I visit my family are too high to be ignored. According to UNESCO, over 5.3 million students were studying abroad in 2017, a figure that’s more than doubled since 2000. Presumably, like me, many of them flew home for summer. Collectively, our environmental impact is devastating. I don’t want to flight shame here, because it would simply be unreasonable to ask people to choose between bettering themselves and seeing their family. But I do wonder if there are alternatives to flying, especially when the destinations are connected by land.

Prominent rail travellers like Mark Smith, creator of The Man in Seat 61, have managed to give up flying almost entirely, even when travelling for work. There have been debates about whether certain academics and business flyers who can afford to spend a week on the road should opt out of flying on behalf of those who do not have the time or the luxury. It is a truth universally acknowledged that trains tickets are a sight more expensive than flights. A white-collar worker might be well off enough to afford a £200 plane ticket, but she might not be able to fork out a grand just for a train ride. And honestly, can you imagine any company reimbursing that?

This is the part where I have to walk the fine line between “Cambridge Student Burning £20 note” and “Posh Kid Pretending to be Poor”. My family is comfortable; I won’t hide that. I’m not proud to say that I can afford travelling by train, but I can, which I think gives me the obligation to opt out of flying. Like the sanctimonious prick I am, I think it’s the least I can do when the poorest communities are the ones suffering from the impact of the climate crisis.

At the start of August 2019, my sister and I boarded a train in Guangzhou, and made our way to Rome via Beijing, Irkursk, Moscow, Kiev, Budapest, Belgrade, and Vienna. We arrived at Glasgow at the start of September. It would have taken less than two weeks if we went straight from Moscow to Berlin, but we decided to make the most of it and travel around Europe for a bit like the Asian tourists we were. The trip proved to be an important lesson on the current state of international transport.

The first thing I learned is, of course, that train travel is f**king expensive. I vaguely expected this to be the case but it was not until I actually started booking tickets that I realised a week on board the Trans-Siberian (actually the Trans-Manchurian) railway costs nearly as much as a month’s rent in Glasgow. Granted, in certain seasons the ticket prices would be lower because Russian Railway ticket prices vary according to demand. However, with train tickets being five times more expensive than flight tickets, I don’t see international train travel being popularised any time soon.

Another obstacle to promoting international train travel is visa requirements. If, say, a Chinese passport holder were to fly from Beijing to London, she would only need a UK visa. If she were to travel from Beijing to London via Moscow, Kiev, and the EU, she would need a Russian visa, Ukrainian visa, Schengen visa, on top of a UK visa. Each of these costs between £50 to £100, excluding the cost of obtaining required documents. If you are, like me, lucky enough to hold one of the stronger passports, which is nothing but evidence of power and privilege, you still risk being turned back at the border and having the rest of your train bookings wasted. Our third day on the K19, we witnessed an elderly couple being taken off the train at the Russian border for trying to enter as tourists using work visas.

This is not to mention the ridiculously inefficient ticket booking systems. For one, there isn’t a single website where you can book international trains. This might be an absurdly obvious point, but it puts rail travel at a huge disadvantage compared to flying. That booking a flight is so easy these days is probably an indicator of the size of the aviation industry. For travellers used to the highly integrated railway system in Europe, booking a trip from Beijing to Moscow, or Belgrade to Zagreb will be an exercise in patience. To book a place on the K19 (Beijing to Moscow), you must first email the CITS for a quote, pay for it via PayPal, before collecting the ticket from the CITS Head Office in Beijing, which isn’t all that close to the train station you depart from. To buy a ticket from Kiev to Budapest, you have to book the ticket from Polrail and either get it delivered to you via air mail (the irony), or pick it up from their office in Warsaw (before you leave Kiev, how you do this is anyone’s guess). There is no way to book tickets from Belgrade to Zagreb in advance, aside from soliciting the help of a certain Mr Popovic, who, according to The Man In Seat 61, will meet you at the station to deliver your ticket. I won’t lie. I’d quite enjoy the secretive nature of such a transaction. But it’s not exactly the most efficient system out there.

In the grand scheme of things, these have been minor inconveniences for me. If anything, they added to the unique experience of travelling slowly across the continent. I wouldn’t give up seeing the horizon melt into Lake Baikal or miss enjoying the mac and cheese in the restaurant carriage that’s more dill than pasta. Travelling by train is every bit as beautiful as people make it out to be, and worthy of all the planning. If we want it to compete with air travel and reduce carbon emissions, however, we must revolutionise the way it is organised.

*The title says Guangzhou to Glasgow because I’m a massive alliterating clickbait and because I’d like to think in an alternative timeline, I managed to make it

[Ka Leung – she/her]

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