Picture the future of green transport and you'll probably imagine an electric car of some description, being busily engineered by brilliant young scientists in a venture capital-funded Silicon Valley lab. The chief proponent and promoter of this world-saving contraption would, you’d imagine, be an Elon Musk or Steve Jobs type, complete with black turtleneck and a suitably large Messiah complex.
Certainly, the last person you’d expect to find as the high prophet of this green travel revolution is a bearded former British Rail employee from Buckinghamshire. Nor would you imagine the invention that could change the world to be one that dates back to the early 1800s.
Yet, according to activists and climate change scientists, one of the best ways that we in the west could reduce the carbon emissions generated by our growing addiction to international travel is, quite simply, to take the train. Of all the people advocating this as a solution, there are few as enthusiastic, or as effective, as the aforementioned ex-British Rail employee: travel blogger Mark Smith, AKA the Man in Seat 61.
Mark Smith has always been a fan of trains. He first got the bug at the age of 17, he tells me, when he caught a couchette sleeper to the south of France as part of an exchange programme. Later that same year, he went to Leningrad ("as it then was") and has since gone on to travel all over the world on trains – at one stage making it all the way to Nagasaki in Japan without catching a flight.
Having worked in a variety of roles in the rail industry, Smith started his blog shortly around the turn of the millennium because he found that, although "it was still remarkably practical, affordable and easy to go from the UK to Spain or Italy or Morocco or Greece by train, it had become almost impossible to find anyone who would tell you how to do it".
When he began posting train information on a basic website he’d built himself, Smith "didn't think anyone would actually find it". Yet despite his complete lack of tech industry knowledge (not to mention external funding), they did. In the years since, the Man in Seat 61 (named for Smith’s favourite seat on the Eurostar to Paris) has grown steadily, its trajectory unimpeded by its basic appearance and lack of slick branding. Smith quit his job to edit Seat 61 full-time in 2007, and the blog now attracts over a million unique users a month, ranking near the top of almost any Google search on international train travel.
The readership has changed as the site has grown. "When it started, the typical user was somebody who either knew they loved train travel, or had a phobia of flying," Smith says. But these days, an increasing number of readers tell him their primary motivation is cutting their carbon footprint.
Just how much carbon you can save by taking the train is the subject of some debate. It obviously depends on how the train is powered, but according to Claire Gilmartin, the CEO of the UK rail-ticketing site Trainline, travelling by train instead of plane can mean emitting as little one 20th of the CO2.
Back on Track, a grassroots environmental campaign group from France, have estimated that if their government followed through on a proposal to open (or reopen) 30 sleeper train routes, it would "enable around 15 million passengers per year to travel a distance of around 1,000 kilometres, and assuming that most of these passengers come from planes, that would mean 1.5 million tons of CO2 saved".
"We don't say night trains are the solution which will save everything," their spokesman, Nicolas Forien, explains, "but it could be a useful tool to help decarbonise European transport.
Smith, meanwhile, cites research that suggests taking a train instead of flying from London to Paris can reduce emissions by up to 90 percent per passenger. "There are other figures from the UK [which show that], even if you had a diesel train belting out diesel fumes, you'd have an 84 percent reduction."
Whatever the true numbers, it’s not surprising that, as well as various travel blogging awards, Seat 61 has won a prize for the "Best Low Carbon Transport & Technology Initiative" several years in a row.
The funny thing is, Smith didn’t get into any of this because of environmental concerns. He just loved travelling by train. "It’s much more fun to travel on the ground and see places along the way," he explains. "And it’s more civilised, humane and interesting than being packaged up in an airplane" – a sentiment that anyone who’s had to endure Ryanair’s aggressive scratchcard sales or religiously-enforced baggage regulations can no doubt relate to.
You can carry far more luggage on a train, and sit in more comfortable seats. On night trains, Nicolas Forien of Back on Track points out, "You can fall asleep in Paris and wake up in Berlin," and you can work the whole time if you’re a business traveller. "The same is true with family trips," says Smith. "The train isn't dead time; it's time with your kids."
Then there’s the fact that, on short-haul journeys, the train can actually work out quicker door-to-door. By the time you’ve travelled from city centre to airport, waited in departures, flown and got back into the city at the other end, "a one hour flight usually takes four hours", according to Smith. "You can go from Paris to Zurich in four hours [by train ride]. Paris to Amsterdam is three hours, 20 [minutes], and even the six hours, 20 from Paris to Barcelona, by the time you've got to the airport and checked in and everything, it's five hours out of your day [in] flight – and the six-hour train journey is far more relaxing."
Perhaps most importantly, as Smith’s blog points out, international routes are far more competitively priced than most people think. On Seat 61, you can find out how to get from London to Berlin for €69 (£61), Paris to Italy for €35 (£31) one-way, or how to combine trains and make it all the way from London to Moscow for just €205 (£182).
These are the kind of prices that could easily tempt people away from taking cheap flights. And yet – despite Smith’s best efforts – the majority of European travellers wouldn’t even think to consider it as an alternative.
Which begs the question of why. The European travel sector is enormous (Ryanair alone brought in more than £1.4 billion last year) and airline ticket search and sales is big business – in 2016, the flight search and booking engine Skyscanner was sold to a Chinese travel firm for £1.4 billion, becoming one of Scotland’s first "tech unicorns" in the process.
Given the growth potential of a cleaner, greener form of transport, you’d have thought the tech sector would jump at the opportunity to do something similar for trains. And yet, 18 years after it was founded, one of the main sources of pricing and ticketing information remains this one-man blog that (as Smith cheerfully admits) was built using a £3 book called Teach Yourself HTML.
Admittedly, Seat 61 isn’t entirely alone these days. In 2012, a group of entrepreneurs and engineers set up Loco2.com, with the intention of "making the process of buying European train tickets as easy as booking a flight". They’re still "a small team", according to Cristina Astorri, their VP of Marketing, but they’ve seen impressive growth, including "a 74.2 percent sessions increase year-on-year [and a] 44 percent growth in sales" – much of it driven by what Astorri refers to as "the Greta effect".
Similarly, Trainline has invested recently in expanding its operations into Europe, buying up Loco2’s competitor Captain Rail in 2016. Even Expedia – although primarily known as a flight-booking engine – has been getting in on the act, snapping up a start-up called Silverrail in 2017. But none of these booking engines offer comprehensive coverage yet, even within Europe, meaning Seat 61 is still the go-to place for info, especially the further east you get.
In fairness to the tech newcomers, they face a lot of seemingly intractable issues. Some, like the different ticketing conventions in different countries, are historic, and workarounds are emerging as these companies grow. But many of the problems seem to stem from a lack of vision on the part of train operators themselves.
Take the thorny issue of passenger rights, for example, which Astorri and Smith both cite as a major problem. “There have been some instances where the sleeper from Italy has arrived late,” Smith explains, “meaning people have missed their Eurostar back to London, and Eurostar has made them buy a new ticket”.
“I actually spoke at the European Parliament on this issue, and they voted to provide missed connection protection even on separate tickets," he says. "But the irony is, they’re being lobbied hard to overturn this by the train operators themselves," as they're seeking to protect their individual profits.
"In my opinion, they don’t understand their own best interests," he says. "It's very short-sighted."
There are broader political failings too, of course. The inexplicable decision not to tax aviation fuel within Europe, for example, and – in the UK, at least – a long-term failure to invest in rail infrastructure (meanwhile, Heathrow has merrily announced expansion plans for a third runway, which will enable up to 700 new flights a day). But if we really want train travel to take off as a low carbon alternative to flying, Mark says, "we've got to change the culture a bit".
Flying was traditionally seen as glamorous, whereas a love of railways carries connotations of trainspotting. For 60 years, governments have favoured motorway expansion over building new railways. Trains – even the high-speed ones – aren’t new or sexy vehicles for private investment. It’s hard to imagine Silicon Valley types investing in rolling stock in the same way they’ve poured money into Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, for example.
Yet sometimes, the simplest ideas are actually the best. Sometimes existing technology can do the job just as well as shiny new toys. Sometimes, to solve an issue you don’t need an all-singing, all-dancing solution. Just ask the Man in Seat 61.