14 September, 2023

Low-carbon travel from Dublin to Strasbourg

This week I was in Strasbourg from Dublin for European Parliament debates and votes this week. I traveled by buses, trains and ferry. If you’re curious about ‘low-carbon’ travel you might like this account of my journey. Living in Stoneybatter in Dublin 7 I was able to walk down the road and take the FerryLink shuttle bus that goes from the Ashling Hotel near Heuston Station to the ferry terminals at Dublin Port, stopping en route at Bachelors Walk and Customs House Quay in the city centre. A  trip down the Liffey Quays: ‘Grand yet human in scale, varying, yet orderly” according to the Architectural Review back in 1974‘ brought me to the Irish ferries terminal, dwarfed by the 12 deck high MV Ulysses behind. Once you check in, a shuttlebus brings you a few hundred metres to the front of the High Speed Craft Dublin Swift which gets to Holyhead in just two hours From Dublin Port we head  past the Pigeon House chimneys and out into Dublin Bay past the Poolbeg Lighthouse heading east to Wales. Interestingly the HSC Dublin Swift started life as a United States troop carrier, and was used in rescue operations after the Japanese Tsunami back in 2011. So even though the leg room is good, I’m a bit nostalgic for the old HSC Jonathan Swift which had a more comfortable interior.

On board there’s time for coffee, and decent wi-fi for Zoom calls, though the sky was  looking fairly gray after last week’s mini-heatwave. The SailRail ticket is a wonderfully old-fashioned piece of paper, and their train image looks a bit like an old CIE 001 Class locomotive from 1955, built in the old Metropolitan-Vickers plant in Manchester.  Why Sailrail? Well, it’s better for the planet, about six times better, so as someone who travels a lot for work by planes, trains and ferries, I try where I can to let the train take the strain  Once I arrived in Holyhead after a two hour crossing it was down with the gangplank, and off go the cars. Cue disgruntled mutterings from those of us who have to wait for the bus to the ferry terminal. You then walk through the terminal to the rail station where there’s a welcome stand and the women there gave me a map of Holyhead, and some key Welsh phrases to learn. It was a lovely touch from th Welsh Tourism agency. Then it was time to hop on a train and  head to Chester via the north Wales coastline, with fine views of the Gwynt y Môr wind farm, 15 km. offshore.  

I changed to a faster train at Chester that powered down to London Euston through Stafford and Milton Keynes. When the first phase of High Speed 2 opens in the late 2020s it may shave an hour of the 4 hour Holyhead London trip. On arriving at Euston, after a four hour trip from Holyhead I take a 15 minute walk to St.Pancras International, avoiding the polluted Euston Road by taking the ‘Wellbeing Walk’ through Somers Town. It was my first time using the ‘Smart Check’ app at St. Pancras which allows you to fast-track straight through check-in without a ticket check, and side-skip UK passport checks.There I hopped on a Eurostar headed for Paris. You head across the English Channel through a tunnel that is 50km long, that was opened in 1993.You arrive after two hours in Paris Gare du Nord and the clock has moved forward by an hour so it is early evening.I then took  a short stroll to Gare de l’Est. I had some time to spare in in Paris and was impressed with the number of cyclists. There has been a huge rise in cycling numbers here under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. At 8.30pm I get on to my last train, a two hour hop by TGV across France to Strasbourg on the Franco-German border, and time to prepare for tomorrow’s meetings. It was a full-on day of travel, but a significantly lower environmental footprint then flying, and more leg-room and less airport hassle.

As regards cost: the  Eurostar and continental trains prices rise closer to departure. A Sailrail ticket generally cost €52s to London, the Ferrylink bus costs €4.50. Looking at prices, the London Paris Eurostar costs €86 in a fortnight’s time, and the French train ticket €45 from SNCF, so under €200 for the whole trip. It is true that flights are much cheaper! They often are, as airlines don’t pay tax on their fuel, but the Greens in the European Parliament  are working on ‘fairer fares’ and a level playing field. Carbon? Sure, Ferries use marine diesel oil, a dirty fuel on each trip, but foot passengers are only a small share of that, the bulk is cars and trucks. On balance the SailRail combo is many times cleaner than flying,  Recently Minister Eamon Ryan and his French counter-part announced improvements that are making  Sailrail journeys between Ireland and France easier. Here’s a write-up in @TheJournal about the Sailrail changes that will hopefully make low-carbon travel a more attractive option.

Oh, and if you’re planning a SailRail trip via the UK Mark Smith of Seat61.com is the guru for travel advice. Thanks as always @seatsixtyone.  Also, this week in Strasbourg we adopted a new law known as the ReFuelEU Regulation which will mandate the use of 'Sustainable Aviation Fuels' for aircraft in the years to come. The requirement starts at 2% in 2025, rises to 5% in 2030, and wit will take many years until the figure reaches 50%. In the meantime aviation numbers continue to rise. So, for the moment the greenest option is to avoid flying, or fly less, if you can. 

Do I fly? Sure I do, and my job would be a real challenge if I didn’t. But when and where I can I try and take trains and ferries, and around half of the 200,000 km. I’ve travelled over the last four years as an MEP were ‘low-carbon’.

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