17 MARCH 2007, Page 84

Trains and boats not planes

Samantha Weinberg decides to give up flying We spent Christmas and New Year in Tangier. It was spicy and colourful, smelly, exotic and wonderful — everything we could have hoped for. But, surprisingly, the best bit about it was the journey: we travelled to Morocco by train and boat.

I’d been slightly dreading it. Our children, Alfie and Notty, are six and four, not the best ages for spending long hours sitting still. Would they drive us/each other/our fellow passengers mad? I could only pack their bags full of books and games and hope not. We’d made the commitment after all, the tickets were booked and there was no turning back.

It was last summer, after an idle morning on the computer calculating our family’s carbon footprint and discovering that a whopping 80 per cent of it was attributable to air travel, that we decided to give up flying. We would, instead, become ‘slow travellers’, cutting out the planes and sticking to trains and automobiles. We knew that, on the grand scale of things, it would be a small gesture, a particle of cleaner air in the purple cloud of world carbon emissions. But to a family like us, who love the adventure of foreign places, and who have always hopped on a plane at the slightest excuse — both for work and for pleasure — it’s a big deal. Especially in winter.

Our friends and family divided themselves roughly into two camps: those who thought we were crazy, and the rest who couldn’t believe we’d stick it. Both camps agreed that going to Morocco and back on a train with two young children was the height of nuttiness. But the days were getting shorter and we needed to prove — if only to ourselves — that it could be done, that rejecting flying did not mean we had to confine ourselves to our small corner of Europe. Unlike Tony Blair, who recently backtracked on his pledge to stop flying when he leaves office, we were determined to stick to our metaphorical guns.

Planning the trip was gratifyingly easy. There’s a great website called www.seat61.com, set up by a retired railway fanatic, who has worked out every train route from London to Europe and beyond, along with times and prices. It was the prices that were harder to stomach — considerably more than easyJet, about comparable to a short-notice, peak-season BA fare. But once we factored in two nights accommodation, on the ‘train-hotel’ between Paris and Madrid and back, it began to seem almost reasonable. Certainly, mile for mile, the cost of French and Spanish trains was a fraction of the British ones.

The first twinges of anxiety arrived as our departure date approached. This translated into snarkiness when anyone appeared to doubt our decision. ‘The damage done by planes is being hyped up by the media: trains aren’t much better,’ said one high-flying friend. (He’s wrong. Emissions directly into the atmosphere can magnify the damage several-fold. By travelling by train we probably reduced the damage caused by our trip to a tenth of the equivalent plane trip.) And when the day came and we arrived at our local Wiltshire station to find the London train had been cancelled, threatening our whole itinerary, I nearly lost the plot altogether. Thankfully, we made it, and once we were off British soil, the trains ran with astonishing punctuality.

They were more comfortable too. Our berths on the train-hotel were made up with crisp cotton sheets. There were linen tablecloths in the dining car, a proper menu and large wine glasses.

The following day, whizzing through the winter sunshine down to the Spanish coast, through Cordoba and beyond, I realised the more tangible benefit of our train travel: like our method of transport, we had slowed down. All four of us were able to be happy doing not very much (well, with a bit of portable DVD action from the kids), gazing out of the window, dreaming about Spanish farms, reading. We’d calmed our pace even before we reached our final destination, which made the delayed ferry, the snarled up Tangerian rushhour traffic, the African sense of time-keeping authentic rather than unbearable. We’d begun our holiday before we even arrived.

I don’t know exactly how many carbon tonnes we saved by going by train. We’re certainly not going to save the planet alone. But we did what we could, and our trip was better for it. We’ve changed our travel philosophy so that getting there has become as important — and as much fun — as being there. I’m not sure we can go back now. We don’t want to. So, come Easter, we’re heading to Venice: first stop, Waterloo Station.