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Europe's trains may be your ticket to fighting global warming

February 18, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

THE growth in lowfare air carriers flying in Europe coincides with a growing awareness of the environmental effects of air travel.

The amount of carbon dioxide (which many scientists link to global warming) generated per passenger on short-haul flights is about four times that generated by a train trip, according to the Carbon Neutral Co. The company, based in Britain, helps businesses and individuals mitigate their contribution to global warming.

So a train may be better for the environment, but navigating the rails in Europe can be a daunting experience. You have to figure out destinations, costs and schedules.

Fortunately, there is a website that provides help.

The Man in Seat 61 ( is for travelers who don't like to fly, those who are worried about the environmental effects of flying and those who are simply up for adventure. Mark Smith, a train aficionado, founded it six years ago as a hobby.

It's named for Smith's favorite first-class seat on the Eurostar train from London to Paris. "It's one of a pair of individual seats with table that actually lines up with the window," Smith says on his website.

His work earned him recognition in the 2006 Responsible Tourism Awards as the person who made the greatest contribution to responsible tourism. The awards are sponsored by the Times of London, World Travel Market, Geographical magazine and, a British-based travel agency that promotes environmentally friendly travel.

Smith lives in Buckinghamshire, England, and commutes (by train, of course) to London, which is when he finds the time to keep his website current. He has a government job dealing with British train fares and regulations and in the past worked for British Rail.

No trip seems too far and no destination too exotic to escape his notice. He has had train adventures in Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Albania, Malta, Turkey, Russia, Siberia and Japan.

"Why experience a plane?" Smith asks. "If you travel by train, you experience travel the way Europeans travel."

Many Americans mistakenly assume that flying is the fastest way to get around. In some cases, such as for longer distances, it can be. But for shorter hops, it can be quicker to travel by train, Smith says.

For example, in October, I took Eurostar from London to Paris. Total travel time was about 2 1/2 hours, from city center to city center. For a one-hour flight, I would have had to travel to an airport outside of London, wait at the airport, fly, then travel from the airport into Paris. I figured I saved at least a couple of hours.

Oddly, Eurostar is unlike other trains in Europe and does not sell cheap one-way tickets. Smith suggests booking the cheaper round-trip ticket for a one-way journey and discarding the return.

He also argues for buying tickets from the websites of the train companies rather than buying a Eurail pass. His website provides links to the various train companies' websites.

"Americans are genetically programmed to ask for a $500 rail pass for a $50 journey," he said. "You can get some terrific bargains by going direct to the trains' websites."

As for the award he received for promoting eco-friendly travel, he is humble.

"It's an amateur site, and it's just amazing that it's been recognized officially," he said. "There's this groundswell of avoiding flying.... The alternates are a lot more rewarding and a lot more practical than people expect."

Contact James Gilden at

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