The problem with ‘sustainable travel’? It’s boring and expensive

family on a train - Getty
family on a train - Getty

Would you go to the end of the earth for your children? How about the end of the Thameslink line? I ask because I’m currently on the delayed 19:02 to Bedford, seven hours after I started out from Llandridno (which is only a 3.5-hour drive away).

There’s a teenage girl in my carriage watching YouTube videos out loud with no headphones, a man drumming his Vimto tin on the table every few seconds (can you even still buy Vimto?), a driver updating us with metronome regularity to say he has no further information.

The only thing keeping me semi-sane is the comforting thought that at least I’m not stuck on this here with my so-called ‘loved ones’ to make things infinitely worse for me and everyone else onboard. And in just one to eight more hours (nope, still no further information from that driver) I’ll be off it.

See, that’s the trouble with slow travel. It’s slow.

We’re always being told – by everyone including the contestants on the BBC’s Race Across the World – how much richer our travel experiences will be if we take more time over them, that the journey can be the destination. “In travelling over, are we missing the joys of journeying through?” is, in fact, the crux of the much-loved series.

BBC's Race Across the World season 3 - BBC
BBC's Race Across the World season 3 - BBC

But most transport options – I’m looking at you here, trains (especially in the UK) – would make pretty desperate destinations, with very little joy – who’d go on holiday somewhere with sun loungers placed in squashed up rows of two, bog-roll-blocked toilets and menus consisting entirely of such exotic local produce as Hula-Hoops and tiny bottles of Brecon Carreg?

Likewise, we’re often advised – ‘lectured’ would probably be a better word – about the environmental benefits of crawling towards our holidays rather than jetting to them. But factor in the extra food, food miles, accommodation, accommodation staff transportation miles, snacks and snack packaging miles (you think Avanti West Coast’s ‘onboard cleaning team’ are going through the bins to fish out and recycle those Brecon Carreg bottles on minimum wage?) and you might find you’re saving slightly less planet than you think by taking five days to get somewhere you could reach in one.

You’re probably also reinforcing social inequalities. Clearly only the very wealthy, retired and/or those with jobs which allow them unlimited leave have the time to take off not just the days they want to spend on holiday but also an extra week either side to get there and back.

For us unfortunates with, say, five weeks’ annual holiday, a few days’ extra travel time each trip means having to take half as many holidays every year (and, lest Greta and the gang forget, tourism provides a living to one in ten of the world’s population, so fewer holidays this year means less cash in pockets).

kids on a train - Getty
kids on a train - Getty

Then there’s the actual transport. Buses and coaches are little better for the Earth than aeroplanes, and painfully uncomfortable. Bikes and feet will only get you as far as Brighton (and if that’s a sacrifice you’re prepared to make, you might as well just stay home and eat hemp, because even the nuts in your boutique B&B’s organic muesli are imported from somewhere). Boats are fine for a couple of days, but any longer than that and it starts to feel like a convict ship en route to Oz.

Which takes us back to trains – or, rather, planes. Because however infuriating the Michael O’Learys of this world have made flying, once they get started planes rarely get stuck behind a slow-running Peterborough service or just stop inexplicably between stations. If they did, your near and dear wouldn’t notice because no matter how frequent a flier you are, there’s always a new superhero film on the seatback television screen or an attentive steward to keep you fed and watered.

And there, finally, is ‘fast’ travel’s greatest gift to holidaymakers: you sit side-on to your family instead of facing them, you’ve all got earphones, it’s actually considered ‘cute’ if you fall asleep on each other’s shoulders (NB: This is not the case with strangers) – and, crucially, it will all be over in a few hours.

Yes, there may be an environmental cost to flying everywhere at the drop of a panama hat, but consider the mental health cost of spending several days in transit with your little (or big) treasures, and an ecological apocalypse or two suddenly doesn’t seem such a price to pay, does it?