What does leisure travel look like in a world where driving and flying are prohibitively expensive, and rail travel is more abundant and convenient?
It does not look exactly like today’s travel patterns except by train. Where people choose to travel is influenced by cultural expectations that are themselves influenced by available technology, prices, and marketing. Companies and outfits providing transportation also market the destinations for it, whether it’s a private railway selling real estate in the suburbs on its commuter lines, an airline advertising the resort cities it flies to, or a highway authority promoting leisure drives and auto-oriented development. The transition may annoy people who have gotten used to a set of destinations that are not reachable by sustainable transportation, but as the tourism economy reorients itself to be greener, new forms of leisure travel can replace old ones.
Historic and current examples
Railroads were the first mode of mechanized transportation, and heavily marketed the destinations one could reach by riding them. The involvement of some railroads in suburban development, such as Japanese private railroads or the original Metropolitan Railway, is fairly well-known to the rail advocacy community. Lesser-known but equally important is rail-based tourism. Banff and Jasper owe their existence to transcontinental railways, Lake Louise was founded as a montane resort on top of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Glacier National Park opened thanks to its location next to the (American) Great Northern. Even Niagara Falls, for all its unique natural beauty, benefited from heavy marketing by the New York Central, which offered the fastest route there from New York.
Other than Niagara Falls, the North American examples of rail-based tourism are all in remote areas, where people no longer travel by train. Some may drive, but most fly over them. The American system of national parks, supplemented by some state parks like the Adirondacks and Catskills, has thus reoriented itself around long-distance leisure travel by car. This includes popular spots like Yellowstone, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite in the United States, Schwarzwald in Germany, or the tradition of summer homes in outlying areas in Sweden or the American East Coast.
The airline industry has changed travel patterns in its own way. Planes are fast, and require no linear infrastructure, so they are especially suited for getting to places that are not easy to reach by ground transportation. Mass air travel has created a tourism boom in Hawaii, the Maldives, southern Spain, the Caribbean, any number of Alpine ski resorts, Bali, all of Thailand. Much of this involves direct marketing by the airlines telling people in cold countries that they could enjoy the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean sun. Even the peak season of travel shifted – English vacation travel to the Riviera goes back to the early Industrial Revolution, but when it was by rail and ferry the peak season was winter, whereas it has more recently shifted to the summer.
The politics of vacation travel
In some cases, states and other political actors may promote particular vacation sites with an agenda in mind. Nationalists enjoy promoting national unity through getting people to visit all corners of the country, and if this helps create a homogeneous commercial national culture, then all the better. This was part of the intention of the Nazi program for Autobahn construction and Volkswagen sales, but it’s also very common in democratic states that aim to use highways for nation-building, like midcentury America.
If there’s disputed land, then nationalists may promote vacation travel there in order to instill patriotic feelings toward it among the population. Israel has turned some demolished Arab villages into national forests, and promoted tourism to marginal parts of the country; settler forces are likewise promoting vacation travel to the settlements, cognizant of the fact that the median Israeli doesn’t have strong feelings toward the land in the Territories and wouldn’t mind handing them over in exchange for a peace agreement.
Politics may also dictate promoting certain historic sites, if they are prominent in the national narrative. In the Jewish community, two such trips are prominent, in opposite directions: the first is the organized Israeli high school trips to Poland to see the extermination camps and the ghettos, perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust in the public; the second is Birthright trips for Jews from elsewhere to visit Israel and perhaps find it charming enough to develop Zionist feelings toward it.
So what does this mean?
I bring up the politics and economic history of leisure travel, because a conscious reorientation of vacation travel around a green political agenda is not so different from what’s happened in the last few generations. The big change is that the green agenda starts from how people should travel and works out potential destinations and travel patterns from there, whereas nationalist agendas start from where people should travel and are not as commonly integrated with economic changes in how people can travel.
The point, then, is to figure out what kinds of vacation travel are available by train. Let’s say the map that I put forth in this post is actually built, and in contrast, taxes on jet fuel as well as petrol rise by multiple euros per liter in order to effect a rapid green transition. Where can people go on vacation and where can’t they?
Intercity leisure travel
By far the easiest category of leisure travel to maintain in a decarbonized world is between cities within reasonable high-speed rail range. Tens of millions of people already visit Paris and London every year, for business as well as for tourism. This can continue and intensify, especially if the green transition also includes building more housing in big high-income cities, creating more room for hotels.
High-speed rail lives on thick markets, the opposite of air travel. Once the basic infrastructure is there, scaling it up to very high passenger volumes on a corridor is not difficult; the Shinkansen’s capacity is not much less than 20,000 passengers per hour in each direction. Many people wish to travel to Paris for various reasons, so the TGV makes such travel easier, and thus even more people travel to and from the capital. A bigger and more efficient high-speed rail network permits more such trips, even on corridors that are currently underfull, like the LGV Est network going toward much of Germany or the LGV Sud-Europe Atlantique network eventually connecting to much of Spain.
Germany does not have a Paris, but it does have several sizable cities with tourist attractions. A tightly integrated German high-speed rail network permits many people in Germany and surrounding countries to visit the museums of Berlin, go to Carnival in Cologne, attend Oktoberfest in Munich, see the architecture of Hamburg, or do whatever it is people do in Frankfurt. The international connections likewise stand to facilitate German travel to neighboring countries and their urban attractions: Paris, Amsterdam, Basel, Vienna, Prague.
Intercity travel and smaller cities
Big cities are the most obvious centers of modern rail-based tourism. What else is there? For one, small cities and towns that one encounters on the way on corridors designed to connect the biggest cities. Would Erfurt justify a high-speed line on its own? No. But it has an ICE line, built at great expense, so now it is a plausible place for travel within Germany. The same can be said about cities that are not on any plausible line but could easily connect to one via a regional rail transfer. When I fished for suggestions on Twitter I got a combination of cities on top of a fast rail link to Berlin, like Leipzig and Nuremberg, and ones that would require transferring, like Münster and Heidelberg.
Even auto-oriented vacation sites can have specific portions that are rail-accessible, if they happen to lie near or between large cities. In North America the best example is Niagara Falls, conveniently located on the most plausible high-speed rail route between New York and Toronto. In Germany, South Baden is normally auto-oriented, but Freiburg is big enough to have intercity rail, and as investment in the railroad increases, it will be easier for people from Frankfurt, Munich, and the Rhine-Ruhr to visit.
Farther south, some Swiss ski resorts have decent enough rail connections that people could get there without too much inconvenience. If the German high-speed rail network expands with fast connections to Basel (as is planned) and Zurich (which is nowhere on the horizon), and Switzerland keeps building more tunnels to feed the Gotthard Base Tunnel (which is in the Rail 2035 plan but with low average speed), then people from much of central and southern Germany could visit select Swiss ski resorts in a handful of hours.
The green transition as I think most people understand it in the 21st century is an intensely urban affair. Berlin offers a comfortable living without a car, and as the German electric grid replaces coal with renewables (slower than it should, but still) it slowly offers lower-carbon electricity, even if it is far from Scandinavia or France. Small towns in contrast have close to 100% car ownership, the exceptions being people too poor to own a car. But the world isn’t 100% urban, and even very developed countries aren’t. So what about travel outside cities large and small?
The answer to that question is that it depends on what cities and what railroads happen to be nearby. This is to a large extent also true of ordinary economic development even today – a farming town 20 km from a big city soon turns into a booming commuter town, by rail or by highway. Popular forests, trails, mountains, and rivers are often accessible by railroad, depending on local conditions. For example, some of the Schwarzwald valleys are equipped with regional railways connecting to Freiburg.
Here, it may be easier to give New York examples than Berlin ones. Metro-North runs along the banks of the Hudson, allowing riders to see the Palisades on the other side. The vast majority of travelers on the Hudson Line do not care about the views, but rather ride the train to commute from their suburbs to Manhattan. But the line is still useful for leisure trips, and some people do take it up on weekends, for example to Poughkeepsie. The Appalachian Trail intersects Metro-North as well, though not many people take the train there. Mountains are obstacles for rail construction, but rivers are the opposite, many attracting railroads near their banks, such as the Hudson and the Rhine.
Conversely, while New York supplies the example of the Hudson Line, Germany supplies an urban geography that facilitates leisure travel by rail out of the city, in that it has a clear delineation between city and country, with undeveloped gaps between cities and their suburbs. While this isn’t great for urban rail usage, this can work well for leisure rail usage, because these gaps can be developed as parkland.
Where’s the catch?
Trains are great, but they travel at 300-360 km/h at most. An aggressive program of investment could get European trains to average around 200-240 km/h including stops and slow zones. This allows fast travel at the scale of a big European country or even that of two big European countries, but does not allow as much diversity of climate zones and biomes as planes do.
This does not mean trains offer monotonous urban travel. Far from it – there’s real difference in culture, climate, topography, and architecture within the German-speaking world alone, Basel and Cologne looking completely different from each other even as both are very pretty. But it does limit people to a smaller tranche of the world, or even Europe, than planes do. A Berliner who travels by train alone can reach Italy, but even with a Europe-scale high-speed rail program, it’s somewhat less than 4:45 to Venice, 5:00 to Milan, 5:30 to Florence, 6:45 to Rome, 7:45 to Naples. It’s viable for a long vacation but not as conveniently as today by plane with airfare set at a level designed to redraw coastlines. Even in Italy, there’s great access to interesting historic cities, but less so to coastal resorts designed around universal car use, located in topographies where rail is too difficult.
The situation of Spanish resorts is especially dicey. There isn’t enough traffic from within Spain to sustain them, there are so many. Germany is too far and so is Britain if planes are not available at today’s scale. What’s more, people who are willing to travel 7 or 8 hours to a Spanish resort can equally travel 5 hours to a French or Italian one. The French Riviera has gotten expensive, so tourism there from Northern Europe feels higher-income to me than tourism to Alicante, but if people must travel by train, then Nice is 4:30 from Paris and Alicante is 7:30, and the same trip time difference persists for travelers from Britain and Germany.
Is it feasible?
High carbon taxes are not just economically feasible and desirable, but also politically feasible in the context of Europe. The jet fuel tax the EU is discussing as part of the Green Deal program is noticeable but not enough to kill airlines – but what environmental policy is not doing, the corona virus crisis might. If low-cost air travel collapses, then much of the market for leisure travel specifically will have to reorient itself around other modes. If Europe decides to get more serious about fighting car pollution, perhaps noticing how much more breathable the air in Paris or Northern Italy is now than when people drive, then taxes and regulations reducing mass motorization become plausible too.
The transition may look weird – people whose dream vacation involved a long drive all over Italy or France or Germany may find that said vacation is out of their reach. That is fine. Other vacations become more plausible with better rail service, especially if they’re in big cities, but also if they involve any of a large number of natural or small-town destinations that happen to be on or near a big city-focused intercity rail network.