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Holiday by train - from Britain to Sweden

Our holiday this year was great "grounded travel" - we went from the UK to Sweden, going all the way by train! We stopped in multiple cities on the way, in Germany and Denmark as well as Sweden.

I want to tell you how we did it. But before all that there's one handy thing you need to know:

  • Yes you can go by Interrail - it might be the cheapest way - and no you do not need to be a teenage student, any age can do it!

We met LOTS of people on our travels who said "Oh I thought that was just for under-25s". It's not. There are some extra-cheap offers for young people, but even without those it was the most economical way for us to do it.

I'm not going to tell you the details about Interrail passes, because I don't need to: the magnificent Seat 61 Interrail guide is all you need. We bought ourselves Interrail passes, and then added a couple of reservations: there are some services in particular Eurostar (Channel tunnel) where you'll need a reserved seat in addition to the pass. I used the UK phoneline for Deutsche Bahn to book my Eurostar and other reservations, and it was all really easy and friendly.

A nice European train

Taking the train in Europe is great. The trains are generally more modern, spacious and relaxing than UK trains, at least in the countries we've seen. You get to see some great countryside - fields, mountains, lakes, rivers, little town centres - from your seat. And of course there's none of the hassle of flying (getting to the airport; going through security; hanging round after security). We only had to show our passports at two points: the Eurostar, and at the Danish border when we got off a boat.

Oh yes, a boat: we didn't 100% exactly take the train all the way. There was one point in Denmark where we took a rail-replacement bus. And in order to get from Germany to Denmark we took the train that goes on a ferry, woo!

We met lots of lovely people on the way. We shared food with people, we got some excellent local tips for things to do. We even played Yahtzee with some strangers, and played a game of memory-game with a six-year old Swedish girl :)

Playing Yahtzee

How far did we get? Stockholm. It takes two days to get from London to Stockholm (stopover in Hamburg or Cologne) and seat61 has some tips for other ways to do it.

Saloon in our lovely train hostel

We then went into the Swedish countryside and stayed in a... converted train! In a beautiful setting by a lake.

Lakeside train view

We spent about £350 each on getting the Interrail pass that lets you travel on 10 different days (over a stretch of two months), plus about £60 extra on reservations (mainly the Eurostar). In the end we only travelled on seven of the days meaning we could have gone for a cheaper (£300) ticket, but we weren't sure which we'd need.

You can do it much cheaper if you don't want to visit other places on the way. We deliberately wanted to hop around.

Here's our route:

Our route map

Some random tips for you:

  • Use The Man In Seat Sixty-One to work out how to do your trip, wherever you want to go. You can also use the German train website bahn.de for searching all kinds of trains (NOT just German trains), to work out your timetable. You can also make reservations using the site, or as I said before, you can ring their helpful English phoneline.
  • Brussels Midi station (Eurostar) is great for connections, and there are food shops there, but there's not much you can do for a short stopoff (e.g. 3 hours) - there are very few good eateries in the area, for example. Conversely, Paris is good for that sort of thing, and the Eurostar to Paris drops you in the heart of it.
  • The Scandinavian trains were all on time. We were surprised that lots of the trains in Germany were delayed (I really expected them to be more efficient than that...). However the Deutsche Bahn website gives you live information about all of that, and even recommends journeys that take account of any delays live as they happen. It was very useful for us to be Interrailing because it meant we could switch on to a different train, going via a whole different German city, at no extra cost.
  • Our Interrail pass was accepted on a long bus route in Sweden too (we didn't expect it to be), so it's always worth trying.
  • Pack some snacks - sometimes you don't have time to buy food in the station, and sometimes there's no onboard catering.

And enjoy it! We did :)

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Paris climate agreements (COP 21), sustainable energy and Britain

I'm happy that the Paris climate-change discussions seem to have had a positive outcome. Some telling quotes about it, with links to articles covering the Paris outcomes in more detail:

"This is an exciting moment in history. The debate is over and the vision of the future is low carbon." (New Scientist)

"By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster." (George Monbiot in The Guardian)

"The climate deal is at once both historic, important – and inadequate." (Simon Lewis in The Conversation)

and here's an analysis by CarbonBrief

An interesting aspect is the way countries have made commitments, and the agreement reifies a specific global target, while acknowledging that the countries' current commitments cannot actually meet that goal. Countries have to get together again in a few years to check on progress and hopefully to extend the ambition of their commitments, so that they eventually meet the overall target. That might sound like a cop-out but actually it strikes me as good politics/psychology. (However, I'm no expert. At least one observer, James Hansen, thinks it's all hot air without serious action on carbon taxation.)

I'd like to read about the UK's role in the negotiations, especially because the mind boggles on how they could have had much to say about reducing climate change while the current government has deliberately derailed the UK's burgeoning renewable energy industries. (Also for community energy schemes.) To be clear, the problem with what they did is not the fact of reducing subsidies - they were already scheduled to be gradually reduced - but changing the plan and reducing them suddenly, thus creating business uncertainty in that sector and making it a risky sector for investors in the medium term.

Renewable energy technologies are getting close to parity with fossil fuel generation, i.e. reaching a tipping point where people start to invest in them for simple financial reasons rather than altruism, and that could be the start of a really big acceleration. According to Simon Lewis (see above) the Paris agreement will help to accelerate the technologies' maturity, efficiency and profitability. I'd like to see British engineering play its part in this, and if the current UK government could only see which way the wind is blowing (ha!) and help British engineering to do this, that would be just great.

If you're interested in the technology/engineering/IT side of all this here are two excellent excellent things to read, which give lots of really concrete ideas:

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Climate change: you do not need to know the facts

On the radio this morning one of the guests was asked, "Apart from changing your light-bulbs, what have you personally done about climate change?" and they said "Well it's complex, I don't know all the facts, so... well we've changed our light-bulbs, but..." [done nothing else].

That's a pathetic excuse. You do not need to know the details.

Almost no-one claims to understand the details of international finance, but we still reckon we know what should be done about bonuses, and we make decisions about which bank to put our money in. But the vested interests in the climate debate seem to be succeeding in making things seem too complex for us mere mortals to understand or do anything about.

But it's really easy to know what to do, and you don't need to follow the ins-and-outs. Here's what to do:

  • Avoid international flights
  • Insulate your home, and get a new boiler if yours is ancient
  • Use public transport more often instead of the car
  • Try and choose food that's local and in-season

There's acres of detail available if you want to read more detail, e.g. some tips from New Scientist and this excellent free book about energy but the basic advice is as simple and boring and unchanging as the above stuff.

As an academic researcher I've hated having to avoid international flights. There have been some brilliant opportunities popped up over the past year, to go and do some research visits or go to international conferences - and I've taken up some of them, but some of them I've let slip specifically because of all the international flying that would be involved. And that's my loss. Just like it's a loss to not have the freedom to go flying off on holiday every year, or to have energy-saving lightbulbs that still take a few seconds to warm up to their full brightness which is a hassle.

You can see how it adds up in our brains. Hassle + complex = ignore it for now, maybe think about it later. That's a natural reaction. But the complexity is irrelevant, because we can all do these things we need to, so we need to try.

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Cooker that turns heat into sound into electricity

I saw this a while back but it turns out my uni is involved: Score, the stove that turns heat into sound into electricity. It's an intriguing project for technical reasons: turn heat into sound? Sound into electricity?

And in case you're wondering why anyone would want to turn heat into sound into electricity in real life: well it's for the developing world, where people often use stoves for cooking, and they could benefit themselves (e.g. with LED lighting) if they could harvest some of the surplus energy as electricity. Nice project.

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My CO2-saving score: 55%

A while ago New Scientist ran an article with lots of practical advice about cutting your carbon footprint, along with numbers (measured in tonnes of CO2) to tell you how important each one was. So I had a go. Here's the results so far.

Things I've done:

  • Avoid air travel as much as possible, this is one of the biggest things. I've had holidays by train, been to conferences by ferry, all great. Although I haven't always been able to avoid planes for going to certain places. NS said I could save 1.6 tonnes CO2, so let's say my score here is 0.8 tonnes
  • Convert electricity supply over to a green supplier. (It's cheaper than our old one too...) Score: 0.8 tonnes
  • Paid attention to buying food that's local(ish) and in-season. The asparagus season is just ending, it was nice. Score: 0.7 tonnes
  • Turn the thermostat down "by 2º" in winter. Bit confusing this, what if it's already turned down? Anyway I think I did do. Score: 0.4 tonnes
  • Run the washing machine at 30º rather than 40º, and cut down on tumble drying. Still do use the tumble dryer, so out of 0.25 tonnes I score about 0.15 tonnes
  • Energy-saving lightbulbs, of course. There's a couple of fittings where they don't fit so I don't score the full 0.15 tonnes here: 0.1 tonnes
  • Avoid canned drinks (aluminium smelting is a massive energy-user apparently). This is tricky cos I like cans of pop, and I like cans of beer. Glass bottles are better apparently, not sure if plastic bottles are OK. But I've been boycotting Coke anyway, so I've definitely cut down on cans to some extent, let's say out of 0.3 tonnes I score 0.15 tonnes
  • Avoid leaving things on standby. Bought a really clever device which detects when the telly is off and turns off the set-top box, the DVD player, etc. Score: 0.04 tonnes

Things I can't/won't do:

  • Various things that we can't do since we're only renting, e.g. "buy a wood-burning stove" (0.9 tonnes), change the home insulation (0.8 tonnes), change to a more modern boiler.
  • Go vegan (1 tonne). No way, sorry. I like vegan food sometimes but that's a lot to ask.
  • Get a microwave - no room for one in our flat.

Things I already did:

  • Not owning a car (1.5 tonnes). No point having a car anyway if you live in London.

So, out of a possible 8.44 tonnes I score 4.64, or 55%. Not bad, that's a saving of about half an average UK person's CO2 usage apparently, although as a percentage it looks a bit lower than I was hoping. Well, let's hope it's worth it...

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