Travel blog: Once Upon a Train

By Lydia Cole (Lecturer, School of Geography and Sustainable Development).

Published on: 26 October 2023.

In late July of 2023, I left St Andrews, bound for Greifswald. This small, University town — quite similar to St Andrews, but significantly bigger — is on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in Northeast Germany. It is home to the Greifswald Mire Centre, one of the world’s leading institutions for the study and conservation of peatland ecosystems. And home to a particular professor of all themes peat-related, Hans Joosten, with whom I went to gather wisdom for a new project.

I was awarded funding from the Scottish Alliance for Geosciences, Environment and Society (SAGES) to cover my travel to and accommodation in Greifswald. Once there, my expenses were limited, with a free desk space in Hans’ awe-inspiring Peatland and Nature Conservation International Library (PeNCIL) and a culture of replacing lunch with endless stories about peatlands. It was a wonderful 10 days of learning from books, but mostly from the esteemed library keeper.

My journey to and from Greifswald was completed entirely by train. The Eurostar from London gave me a quick, subterranean escape route from the island into continental Europe. Then I managed to understand enough signs to successfully transfer trains through Brussels and Cologne, arriving in Berlin in late afternoon. In the beehive that is Berlin Central Station, I was intercepted by Swantje Furtak. Under Hans’ instruction, she accompanied me for the final three hours across country on a regional train to Greifswald. Swantje, a journalist and science communicator, and all-round inspiring person, was travelling to Greifswald to continue co-developing a popular book on peatlands with Hans. We dined on rye bread and ‘German’ cheese, and talked about our beloved peat, as the sun went down over the beautiful agricultural landscape, interspersed with wind turbines and degrading peatlands. I arrived, around 14 hours after leaving London, in time for bed.

On my way home, I meandered across Germany and the Netherlands, visiting old friends, meeting new babies, and sampling regional cuisine. Aside from a few WiFi issues, poor map reading on my part, and rain, my return journey was notably smooth. My only significant delay greeted me, like an old friend, as I crossed the border into Scotland. The train manager announced something about having to deal with rowdy passengers…

Given the time, and the funds, a long train ride can go far beyond getting you from (St) A to B. On my journey this summer, I made a new friend, nurtured multiple older friendships, tried various national train station cuisines, and observed and learnt about the landscapes I was crossing through. Travelling by plane on this occasion would have been a different, more expensive affair. And the journey would have resulted in over 10 times more CO2 being emitted than from travelling the equivalent distance by train (according to this calculator). Not everyone has the time to take the train. Or the funds, particularly given the many occasions where plane travel is temptingly cheaper than the train. I budgeted for train travel in my funding application and scheduled my time to allow for a full day’s travel to get there and a meandering few days of leave on the way back. Can we be more creative in the ways we travel? Who we visit along the way? And which experiences we build into our journeys? I will keep trying.

Here’s the recipe I used to design and book my return train travel to Greifswald:

  • asked Google Maps how to travel using public transport from London to Greifswald to get an initial idea of the options and train companies involved;
  • booked return ticket to Brussels via Eurostar (as it’s the only way to cross the English Channel by train*); travel between Belgium and the Netherlands can now also be booked through Eurostar (since they ‘joined forces’); I’d suggest signing up to the Eurostar newsletter to make sure you catch any cheap ticket deals, especially if you can be flexible in when you travel;
  • booked major travel into and across Germany using the Trainline website/mobile phone app.;
  • booked regional train travel (including slower, cheaper options) within Germany on the Deutsche Bahn (DB) app.; if you will be in Germany for some time and plan to make multiple journeys, there may be discount options available, so look at the website and learn from local colleagues, if possible;
  • both Trainline and DB mobile phone apps are downloaded onto my phone, which means the tickets are easily accessible (you don’t need to print them) and you can quickly see (and be notified) if there are delays/cancellations, etc.;
  • all of these train tickets were booked approximately one month before travelling for piece of mind and to catch any ‘advance’ fairs; several shorter, local train journeys were booked on the day of travel;
  • Remember to pack an appropriate European plug adapter so that you can keep your laptop juiced-up as you work your way across the continent!

This was my approach; if you know of a more efficient/cheaper/better way to design such a journey, please do post a response in the comments below. *Note that travel via cross-channel ferries, as a foot passenger, is an option.

Photography: Lydia Cole

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