With air travel coming under fire for climate reasons, it’s time to rekindle our romance with the train.
When climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City, she hitched a ride on a sailboat, and returned to Europe the same way. In order to reduce her carbon footprint, Thunberg does not fly, though she says she would if it were an emergency.
Thunberg’s fellow Swedes have a word for that—they call it “flygskam,” or “flying shame,” a movement that encourages travelers to stop taking flights because planes rely on fossil fuels, which are bad for the environment.
Many of us don’t have a choice. After all, business travel makes up about 30 percent of air travel in the United States. In fact, 12 percent of Americans take 68 percent of all flights. And about half of Americans don’t fly at all. But those who do can take steps that will help: choosing routes that fly newer aircraft, with more stringent fuel conservation initiatives in place, offsetting our carbon emissions; flying coach, which is more energy-efficient than first-class cabins that take up so much extra space.
Or, we can take a train. In Europe, companies have begun to give extra vacation time to employees who travel by train or choose other less-polluting options than flying. “Slow travel,” as it may come to be called, is slowly gaining in appeal.
Meanwhile, the romance of train travel, a stylish and adventurous way to journey in the 19th century, is rekindling. And after my extraordinary experience crossing the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury Canadian rail service, I can well understand why.
This year will be the Rocky Mountaineer’s 30th anniversary, and the breathtaking trips through the scenic Canadian Rockies are not only becoming more popular—they keep getting better. The Rocky Mountaineer offers access to remote and rugged terrain that could be quite challenging to get to otherwise. It is also the only passenger train that travels along the historic Canadian Pacific rail line, passing over the last spike that completed the line and united Canada as a nation more than 130 years ago.
The Rocky Mountaineer offers three rail routes that connect Vancouver to the spectacular mountain towns of Whistler, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. I took the “First Passage to the West,” across the Continental Divide, from Vancouver to Banff/Lake Louise, and it was one of the most extraordinary travel experiences of my life. The other two routes are “Journey through the Clouds,” a two-day rail trip between Vancouver and Jasper, passing by Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and Pyramid Falls, which is best viewed from the rails. “Rainforest to Gold Rush” is a three-day journey through Whistler, the historic gold rush region of Quesnel, British Columbia’s coastal Rainforest and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. All routes go in both directions, and you can choose which way to go. You can also choose from two levels of service: GoldLeaf, which is the most luxurious, followed by SilverLeaf.
Passengers can sit inside the car and sightsee through the glass windows and roof, which offer panoramic views, or spend time outdoors, on the viewing deck, wrapped in a blanket, as the temperatures can dip. Those who brave the chill will get to feel the clean, fresh air in your lungs; smell the pine; and spot abundant wildlife (including bald eagles, bighorn sheep, grizzly mamas and babies) in their natural habitat, surrounded by the unspoiled and breathtaking scenery, without any filter.
The train wraps around mountainsides and hugs cliffs, dips down into valleys and winds along waterways. The sheer scale and beauty of the wilderness is humbling and inspires silent admiration—apart from gasps!—much of the time. That is, except during the delicious three-course, a la carte meals, served to GoldLeaf passengers in the elegant dining car, accompanied by white tablecloths, award-winning local wines and fresh foods from British Columbia and Alberta, including Pacific wild salmon, regional game and prime Alberta beef (vegetarian options are available). Tip: SilverLeaf passengers are served in their seats, and for this reason alone, it is well worth splurging on Gold. All travelers stay overnight at a local property, which is based on the level of service selected by guests. Many of the properties feature eco-certifications and spas.
The days roll by on the train, accompanied by the gentle tug of the cars on the tracks. All of the locomotives are equipped with a system that automates the shutdown and restart of the train engines, which not only reduces idling time—as well as fuel consumption and exhaust emissions—it makes for a quiet journey. If you end up in Banff, make sure to visit Sky Bistro, and enjoy a delicious mountaintop meal at the 7,510-foot summit of the Banff Gondola, for yet another gobsmacking, jaw-dropping view.