Going to a conference by train, yes you can!

Shirley Nieuwland Blogpost 1

Reducing the carbon footprint seems to be an increasingly hot topic in academia. Not only for individuals who want to reduce their personal footprint, but also for universities as a whole. Our university is no exception to this, as it just announced that taking responsibility for sustainable development is one of the main priorities for the coming years as presented in the strategy 2024. Business travel, together with daily commuting, currently forms one of the largest contributors to the university’s carbon footprint. For commuting, the university has been taking quite some steps towards reduction, but for business travel, no real measures have been taken so far. So what can we do ourselves and what role should the university take in this?

Travel by train

Travelling abroad to international conferences is an important aspect of academia. Most of us usually make at least two business trips per year. Inspired by some other PhD colleagues who were already doing this, I decided to see if I could travel by train to conferences more often this year. Going to destinations like London and Paris is easy with high-speed trains running daily for reasonable prices. Did you know you can travel with Eurostar from Rotterdam to London in less than four hours starting from 90 euros if you book well in advance?

However, the first conference I had in my calendar was planned in Venice, a train trip of about 14 – 17 hours that would cost me over 400 euros. I started to regret my resolutions, but I did not want to give up so quickly. After some digging and useful advice from others, I found two helpful websites to plan your trip. First of all Interrail, where you can buy a train ticket which you can use three days in one month and costs a little less than 200 euros (including three pieces of luggage!). It also has a good international rail planner and online seat reservation system. What I found to be useful furthermore is the website Loco2. This website shows you all possible international train connections and prices, and also allows you to book all the tickets at once instead of screening each individual train company’s website. Not cheap, but at least not as expensive is booking all the separate tickets and made very easy. Even though I did not expect this when I started this, I ended up doing all my business trips by train this year. I just travelled to Valencia by train and I have one more trip to Bern planned in November. And yes, the trip does take longer if you have to travel far. But it also allows us to slow down for a bit. To sit down and stare out of the window (amazing views are not uncommon). Read a book. Reflect on ongoing research. And isn’t that precisely what we need as academics?

Shirley Nieuwland Blogpost 2 Shirley Nieuwland Blogpost 3

Offset your carbon footprint

Of course, if you travel outside of Europe, travelling by train (or bus for that matter) is hardly feasible if not impossible. For this, we need to seek other measures. Offsetting your carbon footprint currently seems to be the most realistic option, but there are different ways in doing so. Not all of them are equally sustainable, but a little investigation shows that there are some options that are better than others. For one thing, using the offsetting scheme of the airline company usually is not the best option. Apparently, they base their price on consumer’s willingness to pay and it does not actually offset the actual impact of you getting on the flight. So what are some good options? The best way to offset your carbon footprint is to calculate manually how much your footprint actually is, for example via Eco Passenger, and then donate to a project that compensates an equivalent of that. Good projects to donate to are for example Just Diggit or Forest without Frontiers. If you want to compensate directly, Atmosfair appears to be the best option. There are still issues with compensation, as truly offsetting is never really possible, but at least it is better than nothing.

What is the role of the university?

All in all, it seems that travelling in a more sustainable way often requires spending a bit more money. With mostly a small budget as academics, we might not always be able or willing to afford that. This is where the university comes in. Many other universities worldwide have already taken the lead by implementing sustainable travel policies by sponsoring train travel and offsetting carbon footprints. An example of this is the University of Ghent which even restricts flying certain distances and with that encourages train travel. Hopefully, Erasmus University will soon follow with their new strategy in place. For now, we have to work with our own solutions, but at least I have experienced this summer, that if you want to change something and go to a conference by train, you most definitely can!

Portrait of Shirley Nieuwland


Shirley Nieuwland is a PhD candidate within the Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’ in which she focusses on more sustainable forms of urban tourism. She also founded Paradise Found, a website that is all about responsible travelling.

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