From the city to the slopes: take the slow train to the Alps
An average flight to the French Alps emits just over 122 kilograms of CO2 per passenger.
This does not take into account the carbon cost of travel to and from the airport, nor the high emissions from the ski industry itself, which attracts more than 50 million tourists to France each year.
It is therefore not surprising that many skiers seek to find a greener option for their trip to the slopes.
And with an equivalent train journey producing up to 90% less CO2 per person – 12 kilograms, to be exact – could this humble powerhouse offer the most climate-friendly solution to reaching our favorite ski resorts?
I took the slow train to the Alps to find out.
An early start
After waking up at 6am, I took the tube to London St Pancras – the first of five trains that would take me from gray London to the snowy Alps.
A stream of sleepy commuters swamped the car, but it wasn’t long before I reached the Eurostar terminus and made my way aboard.
Easy check-in, comfortable seats and free wifi are just some of the benefits of taking the train over the plane.
And after enjoying a free coffee, I got to work as the train glided under the English Channel and dropped me off at Gare du Nord.
Unlike flying – where queues after arrival can take forever – from the Eurostar customs checks are carried out before boarding. This means that passengers can leave the station immediately upon arrival.
For me, that involved a brisk walk on the platform and a short metro ride to central Paris, where I had planned to have lunch before my connecting train.
I strolled along the Seine, browsed the shelves of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and found something to eat in a café overlooking Our Lady.
It was the best time to reflect on my journey so far.
If I had taken a flight, there is no doubt that I would have already arrived at my destination. Airplanes, after all, are faster, cheaper and more convenient – providing direct access to every conceivable destination in the world.
As trains wind through the country, planes hover overhead, covering huge distances with unnerving ease.
But as we all know, take a flight is not smooth.
Check-in queues, baggage fees, and security restrictions are just a few of the concerns travelers face when choosing to travel. And while practical issues like these discourage air travel, the experience is also worth considering.
Airports are not friendly places. At best, they are acceptable; at worst, diabolical. They offer a tedious array of automated processes, uncomfortable seating, and overpriced meals. Most passengers seek to spend as little time there as possible, opting for expensive upgrades to speed up the check-in process and ensure they board the plane before everyone else.
The trains, on the other hand, have a unique charm rooted in the country and culture they pass through.
Think of Paris, where the grand arches of Gare du Nord stretch above the tracks. Or in London, where each tube line has its own embossed fabric on the seats.
Features like these make the traveler feel like, well, they’re traveling – a far cry from the artificial limbo of air travel.
While airports are tucked away in the most remote corners of every city, train passengers can disembark right in the middle of the action – just steps from hotels, tourist destinations and, in my case, my next train.
From France to Switzerland – and back
After my leisurely lunch in the French capital, it was a short walk along the Seine to reach the next station of my trip – Gare de Lyon.
From there, I took the 2:18 p.m. TGV Lyria service between Paris and Geneva, a three-and-a-half-hour journey from the city to the slopes.
Along the way, I did what all long-distance rail travelers do. I was sleeping.
It was the kind of nap I’ve only had a handful of times in my life—a sleep so memorable I can barely remember how long it lasted or precisely when it started.
I woke up to spectacular views of the sunset over the French Alps, as the train rounded a series of frozen lakes and meandered between an array of bucolic, snow-capped towns.
Before I knew it, I was arriving at Geneva Central Station, ready for the next leg of my journey – a five-minute train connection to Geneva airport.
This might seem like an unusual destination for someone looking to avoid aviation. But with flights being by far the most popular way to reach the slopes, the vast majority of transfer services still operate from the airport, offering direct connections to the area’s top resorts.
Just over forty minutes later, my driver from Skiidy Gonzales took me back across the French border and into the Alps – all in time for a dinner and a drink before bed.
In total, my train journey to the Alps took eight hours and cost over €300. The equivalent plane journey would have taken four hours, with an average round-trip price of just under €140.
With numbers well in favor of air travel, the question remains: why are more and more people opting for the slowest and most inconvenient mode of transport?
After returning home, I spoke with Daniel Elkan about Snowcarbonan independent travel expert who sees an increase in the number of people taking the train to the Alps.
“Skiers are realizing that they no longer have to spend hours in airport queues, cramped flights and transfers,” says Elkan.
“They could be sitting in a comfortable wagon with their friends or family, with the scenery rolling by – at a fraction of the pollution and emissions of flying or driving.
“It’s essential that skiers who care about the planet – as well as snow levels – think about how they get to ski resorts. It’s a collective effort to transform the way we travel.
This feeling finds an echo in the resort of Morzine, which is bearing the brunt of the climate crisis on its slopes.
Green Mountain – an environmental association based in the resort – has set up the “Pass AlpinExpress”, a discount card allowing train travelers to benefit from accommodation, transfers and ski hire at reduced prices throughout the region.
“We run a tourist resort and encourage people to come here,” says Sara Burdon, head of communications and promotion at Morzine Tourist Office.
“But we can still have a huge impact in the actions we take, and encouraging people to put train over plane is one of the sustainable ways we can better protect our ski slopes.”
For Elkan, “it’s crazy” that incentives like these are barely available in the ski industry.
“These discounts […] provide social proof that businesses in Morzine would prefer people to come by train,” explains the travel expert.
“There’s so much potential. It’s just not realized yet.”
Watch the video above to see the journey for yourself.