Charter travel by train is winning converts in Europe

For most Europeans, the term “charter vacation” is synonymous with air travel. Since the 1960s, millions of Germans, Scandinavians, Britons and others have taken advantage of popularly priced getaways to soak up the sun in more southerly climes. And although the charter boom has expanded worldwide to and from any number of countries, the basic idea for tour operators has always been to keep costs down with point-to-point flights on chartered aircraft delivering holidaymakers to selected hotels and resorts.

But there’s certainly no rule that says flying is the only way to take a charter vacation. Since introducing its “Blue Train” service less than three years ago, the Swedish tour operator Fritidsresor has discovered that a substantial number of travellers are perfectly happy with the slower pace of train travel. From just 800 seats in a trial season in 2007, Fritidsresor expects to sell about 8,000 trips during 2009.

Fritidsresor has chosen to avoid explicit claims about environmental advantages in marketing Blue Train, but Jim Hofverberg, environmental co-ordinator for the company, believes consumers make the connection nonetheless. “People know that rail travel is energy efficient,” he says. “Our approach is to make available as much information as possible in our annual Environment and Social Responsibility Report and let consumers draw their own conclusions. It’s hard to know how much our customers consider environmental impacts, but the growth we’re seeing in Blue Train bookings tells me that that must be part of the equation.”

Reduced carbon emissions

With the threat of climate change topping the world’s list of pressing environmental challenges, carbon dioxide emissions from travel are a concern for the entire sector. But calculating those emissions is not a simple matter. Fritidsresor notes that the “carbon footprint” of rail travel varies dramatically depending on whether the locomotive is powered by electricity from fossil fuels, hydropower or nuclear energy.

Jim Hofverberg, environmental co-ordinator for Fritisdresor.

Jim Hofverberg, environmental co-ordinator for Fritisdresor.

“One trip may involve several different rail operators,” Hofverberg says. “Here in Sweden, most electricity is from hydro and nuclear. But as soon as we get down to Continental Europe, coal and oil generators account for a large share.”

Because of inherent uncertainties about the sources of power for its Blue Train, Fritidsresor makes no comparison of carbon emissions from rail versus air travel. Instead, the company points to a study by the British operator Virgin Train, which found that rail travel between Manchester and London releases 75 percent less carbon dioxide compared to flying.

Blue Train charters initially carried travellers from Scandinavia to Lake Garda and Verona in Italy. Seeing strong demand, Fritidsresor has expanded destinations to include Alsace and Champagne in France, and Berlin, Bratislava and Prague in Central Europe.

Article published in May 2009