Guest post by Daniel Elkan from Snowcarbon

There’s an old joke about a tourist who gets lost in the countryside. He approaches a farmer to ask directions. The farmer stops and pauses, thinking, for what seems like a long while, before offering the following advice: “I wouldn’t start from here:”

Sometimes, it feels as if there’s a parallel with travel to ski resorts, which by their very nature are not the easiest places to get to. And yet, it’s not so much that we are starting out from the wrong place, it’s that we are travelling in the wrong way.

Train tracks through snow covered mountains
Photo: Daniel Elkan

The vast majority of journeys to ski resorts are still done by car or plane: long drives, or flights combined with long road transfers. The environmental cost, measured in fossil-fuel extraction, pollution and contribution to global warming, is huge.

What’s more, for ski resorts themselves, the journeys to reach them are actually the biggest factor in terms of carbon pollution. In 2010, a study by Mountain Riders measured the total carbon emissions of a typical French ski resort.  It turned out that 64% of the resort’s carbon footprint results solely from travel to the resort by holidaymakers.

That means that by far the most effective way to minimise the environmental impact of your own ski holiday is to choose a sustainable mode of transport.

So, how do plane, train or car compare in terms of carbon emissions?

In 2011, Snowcarbon commissioned carbon-consultancy Best Foot Forward to find out. BFF measured the emissions for journeys between London and a number of Alpine ski resorts.

For example, for London to Tignes:

  • by plane = 82kg of C02 (per person)
  • by car = 229kg of CO2 (per car)
  • by train = 14kg of CO2 (per person)

The crazy thing is that there are so many train routes into the Alps that don’t get used anywhere near their true potential or capacity. Instead we have a situation where, every week, hundreds of thousands of skiers and snowboarders head for airports to shuffle through queues to board cramped flights and then wait for tedious transfers. Journeys by plane that look quick on paper translate in reality to eight or nine hours, or far longer when you take transfer day traffic, common in the Tarentaise, into the equation.

Quite a few families opt to drive. But for many, this is a recipe for frustrated, fidgety children in the rear, backache in the front and pollution all the way.

Improve your footprint and your journey

It’s not just in ecological terms that rail travel beats flying or driving when it comes to travelling to ski resorts. Trains offer space to stretch your legs, comfier seats, and constant scenery.  You also get to spend quality, social time with rest of your party. A friend of mine recently described it as ‘like being in your living room with your friends, while gliding towards the Alps.’

When I organise a big chalet holiday for friends who don’t all know each other, the train journey is a really important part of the holiday. By the time we’ve arrived in resort, people have bonded and new friendships are already forming. That wouldn’t happen in the same way by any other means of transport.

Skiers boarding the ski train
Photo: Daniel Elkan

What constantly surprises me too, even after travelling to the Alps by train for over 20 years, is that for many journeys rail travel doesn’t take much longer than flying, and can even be faster door-to-door if you live in or close to London.

A few years ago I raced fellow ski journalist Neil English from London to the hot tub of a chalet in Meribel. He flew. I went by train, via Paris.  There was only 35 minutes in it. Watch Plane vs Train – race to the Alps here.

So why aren’t more people doing it?

Despite the advantages of rail travel to European ski resorts, the majority of journeys are still by plane or car.  There are a number of reasons for this, and they interlink and reinforce each other.

Firstly, for years, the ski industry’s default mode of travel has been flying.

Tour operators routinely package up holidays with flights and, despite the growth in independent travel, the mindset that one needs to fly to go skiing, continues. More tour operators are looking to include rail travel in their programmes, but the rail industry itself is part of the problem, with no proactive, accessible programme that encourages tour operators to incorporate rail into their holidays. Margins in the ski industry are tight, so tour operators can find it difficult to invest in experimentation.

What’s more, finding out how to travel to ski resorts by train can be difficult for people unfamiliar with these journeys. The booking process is actually fraught with hidden hurdles, and in most cases rail and connecting bus services are, well, not connected.  

Eurostar in the Alps
Photo: SNCF

But if that’s the bad news, it’s also the good news.  

These hurdles are all surmountable; the barriers to sustainable travel can be overcome. If we give people the information they need, if we coordinate transport better, and if the rail and ski industries work together to help tour operators build rail travel into their holidays, then the potential for increasing travel by rail is huge.

POW UK and Snowcarbon are taking steps in this direction, working together on initiatives to make this possible. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s make tracks.  

Plan your next winter trip using Snowcarbon’s Journey Planner, now updated for winter 19/20:

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