When travelling to Engelberg in Switzerland last week I was blown away by just how efficient and state of the art the Swiss rail service is. Within minutes of stepping off the plane in Zurich airport we were boarding the luxurious double-decker train that was to take us to the mountains.
It was such a pleasurable experience that we didn’t want the journey to end. However, being Swiss Rail, there was no chance that our journey was going to be delayed in any way whatsoever and we arrived at our destination bang on schedule.
It’s a far cry from the frequently delayed, dirty and overcrowded trains run by British rail companies. So, when three days after my return to the UK (during which time I’d had to wait half an hour for a local train, been left stranded part way home as a result of engineering works, and been charged £6.50 for a journey which should have cost £1.50) the news came that British rail companies are to increase fares by as much as 13%, I was astounded.
If our rail service was anywhere near as good as those in Switzerland, France and many of our other European counterparts, or if there was even a remote chance that increased fares might result in the provision of an equivalent service, I wouldn’t object quite so much to these disproportionate price hikes. But the reality is that even after numerous fare increases over recent years which make our average fares some of the highest in Europe, our rail service falls a long way short of those of our neighbours on the continent.
What makes these increases all the more perverse (if the fact that we’re currently in the depths of a recession isn’t enough) is the fact that in many instances it is actually cheaper to fly between British cities than it is to travel by train. When travelling back to my home town of Edinburgh, it’s invariably a toss-up between taking the train or flying, with the train only winning out due to the lower hassle factor (in theory!). With the standard train fare from London to Edinburgh being in the region of £100 it can even be cheaper to fly to the continent. Indeed, when making plans for the Bank Holiday weekend I easily managed to justify a trip to visit some friends in the Alps by the fact that the flights were only £30 more than a train fare to Edinburgh. Sorry Mum, I promise I’ll make it back up some time soon… I’ll start saving now!
At a time when we’re trying to encourage greener travel, it seems crazy that train fares are being pushed up. With the ski industry as my reference, although rail is a great way of getting to the Alps (assuming you live in the south of England and don’t have to rely on British trains!), when faced with the option of flying for the same price (or even cheaper), only the most dedicated environmentalists will opt for the train.
However, there are companies out there who are striving to promote greener travel and make it more affordable. Snowcarbon is a website which was set up by ski travel journalists Daniel Elkan and Mark Hodson to promote and facilitate rail travel to the mountains. It offers advice on which resorts are most easily accessible by rail and the best deals on fares and packages, which you can book via the site.
The Ski Club of Great Britain is also heavily involved in promoting rail travel to the Alps and offers an additional travel allowance to Ski Club Leaders travelling out to resort by train. Also, in its winter 2011/12 programme, their holidays operation, Ski Club Freshtracks is offering a holiday to Les Arcs, travelling by Eurostar, which has been heavily subsidised by the Club’s environmental working group in order to offer the package (which also includes 7 nights half board accommodation and mountain guides for 3 days) for the incredible price of £799 pp. Check out the Ski Club Freshtracks website for more information.
Travelling by Swiss Rail or Eurostar isn’t necessarily particularly cheap but the stress-free and pleasant journey on a fast and reliable service is well worth the fare. Which is more than can be said for British trains where the experience is invariably stressful, the service unreliable and you have to pay top dollar for the privilege.
Indeed, as I write this post, I am waiting for a train which should have been here 20 minutes ago but has been inexplicably delayed, the inordinate fare having already been deducted from my Oyster card.
And now they’re predicting travel chaos on the railways over the Bank Holiday weekend (just for a change!). It wouldn’t happen in Switzerland, that’s for sure!