Just before the corona crisis, university lecturer Miko Flohr was on the platform of Voorschoten station at half past six in the morning, about to set off on his journey to Paestum in Southern Italy. It’s a two-day trip, according to the schedule. “I’ve done it in one day, on occasion, but now I’ve decided to break the journey into two parts. The route is Leiden – Utrecht – Basel – Zürich – Milan – Rome – Salerno. There are two museums I’d like to visit in connection with my research, so I’ll stop off en route.”
“I like to take the train for as many trips as possible. Yes, it’s for environmental reasons – not that my none-flown business trips make much of a difference”, he says. “But I believe it should be normal practice for academics to go by train. The best way to encourage that is simply to do it.”
The good news is that he’s not alone. Leiden’s academics travel more and more often by train rather than by plane. Despite the university population’s growth, figures from business travel agency Uniglobe, who book the university trips, reveal that over the past two years, the number of bookings for airline tickets has been dropping slightly while, compared to 2016, far more train tickets have been booked. The number of train tickets booked by Uniglobe for the university increased by 82 per cent compared to 2016, from 494 to 899.
The not-so-good news is that train journeys are still very much in the minority. In 2019, 4,643 airline tickets were booked through Uniglobe, which is considerably lower than in 2017 (5,133) and lower than in 2016 (4,782), when only nine per cent of all tickets were train tickets and 91 per cent were airline tickets. In 2019, those percentages were 16 and 84 respectively. On a side note, these journeys are not all the trips made on university business; presumably, not everyone uses Uniglobe.
In addition, flying is still one of the university’s largest causes of pollution. The largest energy guzzler is electricity, but the university compensates for that. If you don’t count electricity, flights are the biggest polluter, amounting to 63 per cent of the overall emissions in 2018.
The problem applies to the entire academic community. “We know that science is carbon intensive”, explains Thomas Franssen, a researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies. “For many academics, attending international conferences is not just for prestige, it really is important for their careers. If you take climate change seriously – and many scientists do – what does it mean for the production of knowledge and what we regard as good science? Well done for getting your article into Nature, but does that matter when all sorts of plants and animals are disappearing? This summer, we’re organising a panel at a major conference for researchers in my field, where we’ll discuss this issue. How do we create a system that helps solve climate change, instead of exacerbating the problem?”
Recently, there was a conference in Leiden to discuss technological solutions. After all, why fly if you can Skype? Parke Wilde, Professor of Consumer Economics at Tufts University in Boston, was the keynote speaker, speaking, in fact, from the United States. “I record my speech and they play it back, then I ring in to answer any questions afterwards”, he explains over the phone.
“Technology is getting better and better but it’s still a work in progress. To avoid embarrassing situations, always test everything in advance: whether you have enough band width and whether the program works. If you can get it all set up, teleconferences really are a good way of replacing a ‘physical’ meeting.”
Nonetheless, networks are still relevant and it’s especially important for young researchers to make contact personally”, he adds. “They still need to build a network so, sometimes flying is unavoidable.”
“Technology is the greenest solution, and probably the way forwards”, says Tim Vergeer, a PhD student. But he’s aware of the disadvantages to new academics. “As a PhD student, you’re a nobody, so why would anybody invite you to a video conference? If you want to make a name for yourself, you really do need to attend conferences in person. There, you can meet people from all over the world who can help you with your research.”
Moreover, the railway network can be impractical and train journeys can be expensive, which is why Vergeer often goes by air. “I think going by train is easier; you don’t have all the fuss of an airport. There are direct connections to Paris and London, but I take a plane for anything further afield.
He calculates the difference in price and time for a trip to Florence. “According to NS International, at the end of this month, I’d pay 226 Euros for a single journey, it takes 19 hours and I’d have to change three times. A cheaper option would be 163 Euros for a single, but then I’d need to change yet again. With Cheaptickets, I’d pay 150 Euros for a return, and it would take me two hours. It just wouldn’t occur to me to go by train.”
PhD students can get grants to help pay for travel expenses, he explains. “I could go by train for environmental reasons, but then I would not be able to attend as many conferences or visit foreign libraries as often.”
“On the one hand, you can’t explain to the taxpayers why you go by plane, because we’re all supposed to be travelling green”, Vergeer continues. “On the other, no one can explain why it costs more if you go by train while that money could be used for other things. You can’t win, really.”
What does Leiden University think of it? The 2016-2020 Environmental Policy Plan reads “Business travel remains a necessity if we, a leading international research university, want to maintain national and international ties. Such journeys should be based on responsible and sustainable means of transport.”
The guidelines say journeys under six hours should be by train as often as possible. That seems to be working out: about 95 per cent of short journeys are made by rail. If people had travelled by train for the last five per cent, CO2 emissions would have dropped by 45 tonnes, according to the calculations in the report. Most flights were to London.
“For trips within Europe, I prefer to go by train”, says Jos Damen, head of Leiden’s Africa Studies Centre’s library. “But it’s not always a feasible option. There are destinations in Europe that are relatively close but easier to reach by plane, like Edinburgh and Uppsala. A train to Edinburgh would take you two days.”
“I say: only travel if you need to, take the train if you can. To get to Africa, you need to fly. I try to assess whether my presence is actually required. For instance, recently there was a meeting in an African country about a project, but I didn’t need to give a presentation. It would have been useful to attend, but not actually necessary, so I didn’t go.”
That is not to say there are never any problems. “I’ve just got back from Frankfurt, after attending a meeting of a committee of university libraries. I was supposed to catch the train at half past seven and arrive at one, with only one change. In the end, it took me from half past seven to half past four the next morning and six trains, two buses and a taxi.”
“A flight might only be an hour”, says Damen. “But you need to be at the airport two hours in advance. And airports are usually outside the city. A train takes you straight to the centre, so that saves time.”
Flohr, too, sees the advantages: “I can work on my laptop in the train, so travel isn’t a waste of time.”
- In 2019, 899 train tickets were booked through Uniglobe; that number was 494 in 2016.
- The number of airline ticket bookings has dropped since 2017, from 5,138 to 4,643 even though there are more people working for the university. However, this does not include all airline tickets; presumably, not everyone uses Uniglobe.
- The most popular airline destinations in 2019 were Geneva and London.
- The average train ticket costs about 130 Euros, while a plane ticket costs around 440 Euros.
- Calculations put the university’s gross CO2 emissions in 2017 at 51,964 tonnes. In 2018, the emissions were 49,808 of which more than 58 per cent is released when electricity is produced. Business travel comes in at second place with 16 per cent in 2018, which is mainly due to flights.
- These calculations do not include compensation for electricity or natural gas. If that compensation is included, Leiden University’s CO2 emissions in 2018 amounted to 12,705 tonnes.
- CO2 emissions were much higher in 2016: 22,446 tonnes, but that is due to the fact that natural gas was not compensated.
If the university were to compensate for airline flights, the nett emissions would be 5,200 tonnes of CO2.