We went to Ireland! Part 2
In the previous blog, I told the story of our trip to Ireland. I shared the reasons for our going, what we learned there, and I told how beautiful a country it was. I also mentioned that us all flying there in a time of climate crisis was an irresponsible folly. I pleaded with heart and soul for us as a society to change the way we view travelling, and our relation to time and productivity. I spoke of this bittersweet feeling of living at the expense of others and future generations.
How special is it to contemplate the ruin of the world while eating brioche, is it not?
In this blog, I will move past bittersweet memories and rather express plain desperation in the face of the multifaceted reality of international mobility in Europe. In this blog, I will tell the tale of how I tried to reach Ireland by trains and ferry, and how it completely failed.
How to get to Ireland without flying? A step-by-step guide
Step one: Be intimidated
Getting to Ireland without flying is nothing short of a huge undertaking. It is first intimidating. To find information, one must browse through countless websites, filter a huge quantity of information, try to figure out what are the ways to cross the sea and how compatible they are with where you come from and where you’re going. Many harbours are small towns of which you’ve never heard before, so you need a map at the ready and an excellent wifi connection to alleviate the frustration. Collecting and using information is what I do for a living, and I grew up on internet. Still, the task was daunting.
Step two: Be confused
After the intimidation comes the confusion. As it turns out, there are two main possibilities that decline in many more. First, you can take a ferry from France straight to Ireland. Careful though, as not all lines are open year-round. Second, you can take the Eurostar to London, and then embark on a series of trains and ferry to cross to Ireland. In each case, you have multiple service providers, multiple ports of departure, multiple ports of arrival. Additionally, there is no central, public European train operator or platform. Although some private websites centralize train travelling in Europe, none connects with ferries. Also, the Eurostar requires a separate booking.
This poses several issues, generating confusion. First, it is a painfully tedious process to ensure that your itinerary is even possible. Can you take this train and then that one? But then, will you be on time for the ferry? Wait, was this ferry leaving from Brittany or from Normandy? Second, you are vulnerable as a customer. What happens if your train is delayed, and you miss a connection? What happens if your connection is a ferry that comes every two or three days? If you booked through a centralized platform and have a single reservation, you should be fine. But it is not possible to have a single reservation with ferries and the Eurostar, they require separate bookings. Refund policies are notoriously and intentionally hard to interpret and vary between operators.
Have I mentioned that you will have at least four train operators for this trip and at least one other for the ferry? That’s a lot of small print to go through, especially if you want to travel economy. Third, as you are already confused with time estimates, physical possibilities of connection, risk calculation, you also must compute prices. Adding the prices from one tab to the other, forgetting the previous one, drowning in fifty tabs all the while you curse this damned system.
In light of all this and after countless hours of research, I opted to go through France. I did not like the risk of a separate booking for the Eurostar, I was not familiar with the operators that organize transit to Ireland from London, and the trip did not seem very enjoyable. Also, the London itinerary is everything but a straight line. Actually, it is not “everything but”, it is literally a question mark. Comment “TrainConspiracy” if you also believe that this is a coup orchestrated by airlines.
Booking trains and ferries is a confusing mess. But stay on guard, we still have to take these trains and ferries.
Step three: Be excited
It took me the afternoon and some, but here it is: I booked my itinerary. First, a night train from Vienna to Paris. From there, I have about 1h45 to change station and catch my train to Normandy, in Cherbourg-En-Cotentin. Then, I spend two days in what I expect to be a charming little harbour town. Indeed, it wasn’t possible to have a direct ferry connection. I was missing the previous ferry by about 15 minutes. But isn’t this the whole point of my tirade in part 1? Slow travel can be immensely enjoyable in addition to being an inherently more sustainable philosophy. Therefore, I would spend the weekend in Normandy. Then, a ferry would take me to Dublin, where I would jump on a train to Cork. The ferry is an overnight journey: you leave mid-afternoon and arrive in the morning. This gives plenty of time to enjoy some beautiful views of the coasts and the sea, fresh air, and to also be open to chance encounters or discovery on the way.
The last step of excitedness is to share your fantastic itinerary to anyone and everyone willing to lend an ear. Inevitably, you will have some sense of rightfulness and your tale will slowly distillate some sense of moral superiority. You are a great human being, you didn’t take the plane. Now, you get to say: “Oh, do you still travel by plane? Have you heard of climate change, you mere mortal?”
Step four: Be self-aware
Travelling is for the privileged. Travelling without plane, in this system, is for the immensely privileged. Let us assume that you are a middle-class person, supposing that this concept still exists. You have a job and responsibilities. You might have a family who depends on you, friends. You have aspirations and dreams, you have ideals by which you live. You have morals and ethics, but not necessarily the time to question the entire system every time you must make a decision. You have enough money to get by, maybe to go on holiday every other year.
Can this hypothetical person afford to go from Vienna to Ireland without taking a plane? No, they cannot. They cannot for lack of time, lack of money, and lack of mental space to take on such load. They cannot for lack of support from their employers, colleagues and even relatives. Let me get into details. First, travelling like this takes time. My outbound trip from Vienna had me leaving a Thursday night, to arrive the next week on Monday in the early afternoon. That is about 90 hours. If you cut the two days in Cherbourg, it is still a bit under two days of travelling.
Second, it is extremely expensive. Excluding food and any spending during the stay in Ireland, transport and accommodation amounted to about 1000€ for the round trip. Cutting the hotel in Cherbourg, this falls to 900€. Third, the mental burden to prepare this is huge. It is a ton of organisation, on top of which comes a series of very real risks to manage in case something in your long and complex journey goes wrong. Fourth, when undertaking such journey, you are met with incomprehension. If travelling for work, your employer might not be as understanding or aware of environmental impacts and refuse to allow you the extra time and money for travelling. Glossing over the fact that we’ve collectively accepted to give such authority on responsible adults to other people, it is outright insane that companies have no issue investing in expensive status symbols for their employees (e.g. Apple products, luxurious company cars, more expensive hotels) but they refuse to pay an extra for a train over a cheaper flight. Again, we need to gloss over the fact that flying is cheaper than rail.
Besides your employer, colleagues and relatives might also question your sanity. Everybody flies, why do you need to be special? The plane is going to fly anyway, you’re investing a ton of time, energy and money for virtually no return.
Last, I would like to note that as a white European man, not displaying anything against so-called conservative “values”, I did not have to face any form of racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination. I didn’t have to apply for visas, I didn’t have to fear being sexually assaulted on the night train or ferry. I didn’t have to worry about harassment on the way, not even weird looks. A sense of safety regardless of my situation is absolutely another privilege which I had when organizing this journey.
A perspective on failure
At the start of this blog, I announced that I would explain how I tried to reach Ireland by trains and ferry, and how it completely failed. We have reached the end of this blog post and I have yet to tell about my journey, for now all I explained was the plan. Yet even before explaining how the journey unfolded, we can already call it for what it is.
There is no other word than failure to describe the reality of planning such a trip. There is no other feeling than plain desperation in the face of the reality of international mobility in Europe. There is absolutely no chance to phase out mass plane travel with such infrastructures, such services. It takes less time to actually fly to most destinations in Europe than it takes to organize a journey with “green” mobility (e.g. bikes, trains, boats). One might argue that mobility to Ireland isn’t representative of Europe, but sadly it is representative. Try Amsterdam-Copenhagen for instance. Two capitals of two neighbouring countries. You need at least 6 different trains and 11 to 19h of travel by train. If you want to take a bike with you, add 100€ on the bill and 3 more trains at least. Try the ferry from Kiel, Germany, to Oslo, Norway. Last I checked, it was 470€ per trip. Try going to Spain or Portugal from elsewhere in Europe, or to Italy. You need to be a fucking hero. To top it off, the sweet irony of this situation is that the European rail network is touted as the best in the world.
The current situation is not the result of a vast superiority of air travel to any other forms of transportation. It is the result of decades of absolute garbage public policies. It is the result of many tax breaks to greedy, money hungry airline companies which completely dehumanized travelling. In airports, you are a potential danger, aggressively screened by stressed employees. On the plane, you are stuffed to the maximum level they can get away with, while flight attendants suffer through terrible working conditions. When buying a ticket, you are the prey to predatory commercial practices which take advantage of unaware consumers. Arrived at your destination, you are a consumer of this country rather than a discovery-hungry traveller.
We hear now of CO2 neutral airport, or CO2 offsetting. I hope not to break the news to anyone, but it is sadly a disgusting lie at best, a criminal one otherwise. Any improvements that the air travel industry put in place in recent years, be it better working conditions, customers rights, or more efficient engines was either greenwashing, or was constrained by legislation that was lobbied against by the industry, or it has been motivated by profit. In that, this industry is not different from any other: in capitalism, there is no other value than profit.
We are now facing ecological collapse, climate change, disruption of nutrient cycles, and so on. What is the response? The response is that there is no money for the environment, and no cutting into corporate profit. Let alone corporations and oligarchs having to pay damages (tips and tricks: oligarchs are not just from Russia), it is unthinkable for us to even fathom that less profit than maximum profit for the few could be considered politically.
To end this blog, I plead that we, as a society, should elect a day of the year in which we gather and celebrate that which we truly stand for: shareholders. Enough with Earth Day, Earth Overshoot Day, Black History Month, Women’s day, and so on. Clearly, they are not what we value. All hail Profit, our Lord and Saviour.
In the next blog, I will tell the story of what actually happened during my very eventful trip to Ireland.