Gatwick airport, 5am: a sea of a thousand grumpy faces, shuffling in queues, headed for the Alps. It’s not a great start to a ski holiday, but it’s how many ski holidays start.
From the UK, there’s no such thing as a quick journey to the Alps. Even if you pick resorts close to Geneva, like Avoriaz, Les Gets or Morzine, it still eats up most of a day.
In 1998, when I first went skiing with some friends to Andorra, I didn’t even realise that there was an alternative to flying to the slopes. But my second trip, to Sauze d’Oulx in Italy, changed all that. Slumped sleepily against a coach window on a transfer from the airport, I spotted a railway track in the valley below, just as we neared the resort. Could we have come by train?
No one in the resort had a clue about the options for travelling by train from the UK. But I kept researching, and eventually found that by taking a Eurostar to Paris and then a TGV to a little train station called Oulx, we could have alighted just 15 minutes from the resort. Door-to-door, the duration is only about an hour more than flying.
The more I researched, the more railjourney options I discovered – to resorts all over the Alps. The research would take ages and booking unfamiliar travel for a group of mates felt daunting. No wonder so many skiers tread the well-beaten airport route – but they are missing out on some awesome rail journeys.
Since then, I’ve travelled to resorts by train with friends every time. Morzine, with its huge variety of catered chalets and epic slopes is a favourite, and the train journey is definitely part of the holiday. Pop open the bubbles at 9am as your Eurostar speeds towards France, share food, play games, tell stories… and time glides by like the scenery. For big groups particularly, where not everyone knows each other initially, the camaraderie of the train journey has a wonderful bonding effect. I’ve witnessed so many happy children enjoying the journeys too. It’s quite something.
“Studies of the total carbon emissions produced by French ski resorts have shown that the transportation of holidaymakers to and within the resort is by far the biggest factor”
When I launched Snowcarbon ten years ago, to help more skiers enjoy journeys like ours, travelling to resorts by train was still regarded as a bit eccentric. Indeed, if someone in resort asked me about my journey and I told them I’d come by train, they’d often say “Yes, but which airport did you fly to?”, and then I’d watch their eyes widen as I explained that I’d come all the way by train, and that it didn’t take a great deal longer than flying. At the time, the default mode of the ski industry was all about getting bums on plane seats, the only exception to this being the direct Eurostar Ski Train. But the industry is responding to the climate emergency and there’s great warmth towards rail travel.
By train, you really do save a load of carbon and pollution. Travel from London to Les Gets by plane for example, and the journey produces around 80kg of CO2, per person; the equivalent car journey creates around 205kg of CO2 (per vehicle); but going by train is estimated at only 15kg of CO2, per person. Studies of the total carbon emissions produced by French ski resorts have shown that the transportation of holidaymakers to and within the resort is by far the biggest factor, at 57%. That means that if we want resorts to become sustainable, train travel is a major part of the solution.
It’s crazy, but booking these journeys is far more difficult than it should be. Online booking systems frequently fail to show skiers the best available options. The algorithms that power online searches can’t cope with the convoluted fare system, and the unfortunate knock-on effect is that they don’t even show some of the important journey schedules. As a rule, sometimes you can trust what you see online, and sometimes you can’t. Clearly, that’s a ridiculous state of affairs. Using an expert railbooking agent to book your tickets for you gets around this problem. But few people know they exist.
“Many of the solutions are simple, but we need political action to force the various rail companies to get their act together.”
For ski tour operators who want to create railinclusive ski packages, it’s frustrating too. Eurostar and SNCF seem to have a philosophy of wanting to sell everything directly themselves, instead of collaborating with the travel industry. It’s like watching a person trying to eat soup with their hands when someone sitting next to them is offering them a spoon.
Many of the solutions are simple, but we need political action to force the various rail companies to get their act together. That means resorts, and regions and mayors getting proactive. We are starting to see this happen.
More direct trains into the Alps are needed, too. For example, in recent years, there have been only two TGVs running to Cluses, Sallanches and St Gervais stations each Saturday in winter. Yet those stations in turn serve the resorts of Morzine, Les Gets, Avoriaz, Flaine, Les Carroz, Samoens, Megeve, St Gervais, Les Contamines and Chamonix. By contrast, Moutiers, Aime La Plagne and Bourg St Maurice get eight TGVs per Saturday – and they also need more capacity themselves too.
Montagne Verte has an initiative to engage SNCF, with a view to creating better transport options – including direct TGV services from Lille or Paris-Nord. It’s just what the doctor ordered. These options would mean that skiers from the UK, Belgium and Holland would have more options that avoid a change of station in Paris and add more rail capacity into the valley.
We need this proactive approach at a time when Eurostar have cancelled the direct Ski Train to Bourg St Maurice for this winter. ‘Save The Ski Train’, a joint campaign by Snowcarbon, Protect Our Winters FR and UK and Ski Flight Free, has at least created a silver lining of galvanising support by skiers and the ski industry for more and better rail services to the Alps. Eurostar hasn’t decided on whether to run the train during the 2021-22 ski season, but whether it does or not, we need a revolution to enable more skiers to travel to the Alps sustainably. Gatwick airport at 5am? It will seem like it was all just a bad dream.