Making Tracks to the Alps

This is a guest feature from Protect Our Winters UK, a charity aimed at educating and empowering outdoors enthusiasts to take action against climate change. Join POW UK.

There’s an old joke about a tourist who gets lost in the countryside. He approaches a farmer to ask directions. The farmer stops and pauses, thinking, for what seems like a long while, before offering the following advice: “I wouldn’t start from here:”

Sometimes, it feels as if there’s a parallel with travel to ski resorts, which by their very nature are not the easiest places to get to. And yet, it’s not so much that we are starting out from the wrong place, it’s that we are travelling in the wrong way.

Train tracks through snow covered mountains
Photo: Daniel Elkan, SnowCarbon

The vast majority of journeys to ski resorts are still done by car or plane: long drives, or flights combined with long road transfers. The environmental cost, measured in fossil-fuel extraction, pollution and contribution to global warming, is huge. 

What’s more, for ski resorts themselves, the journeys to reach them are actually the biggest factor in terms of carbon pollution. In 2010, a study by Mountain Riders measured the total carbon emissions of a typical French ski resort.  It turned out that 64% of the resort’s carbon footprint results solely from travel to the resort by holidaymakers. 

That means that by far the most effective way to minimise the environmental impact of your own ski holiday is to choose a sustainable mode of transport. 

So, how do plane, train or car compare in terms of carbon emissions? 

In 2011, Snowcarbon commissioned carbon-consultancy Best Foot Forward to find out. BFF measured the emissions for journeys between London and a number of Alpine ski resorts. 

For example, for London to Tignes:

  • by plane = 82kg of C02 (per person)
  • by car = 229kg of CO2 (per car)
  • by train = 14kg of CO2 (per person)

The crazy thing is that there are so many train routes into the Alps that don’t get used anywhere near their true potential or capacity. Instead we have a situation where, every week, hundreds of thousands of skiers and snowboarders head for airports to shuffle through queues to board cramped flights and then wait for tedious transfers. Journeys by plane that look quick on paper translate in reality to eight or nine hours, or far longer when you take transfer day traffic, common in the Tarentaise, into the equation.

Quite a few families opt to drive. But for many, this is a recipe for frustrated, fidgety children in the rear, backache in the front and pollution all the way. 

Improve your footprint and your journey 

It’s not just in ecological terms that rail travel beats flying or driving when it comes to travelling to ski resorts. Trains offer space to stretch your legs, comfier seats, and constant scenery.  You also get to spend quality, social time with rest of your party. A friend of mine recently described it as ‘like being in your living room with your friends, while gliding towards the Alps.’

When I organise a big chalet holiday for friends who don’t all know each other, the train journey is a really important part of the holiday. By the time we’ve arrived in resort, people have bonded and new friendships are already forming. That wouldn’t happen in the same way by any other means of transport. 

Skiers boarding the ski train
Photo: Daniel Elkan

What constantly surprises me too, even after travelling to the Alps by train for over 20 years, is that for many journeys rail travel doesn’t take much longer than flying, and can even be faster door-to-door if you live in or close to London. 

A few years ago I raced fellow ski journalist Neil English from London to the hot tub of a chalet in Meribel. He flew. I went by train, via Paris.  There was only 35 minutes in it…

Plane vs Train – race to the Alps

So why aren’t more people doing it?

Despite the advantages of rail travel to European ski resorts, the majority of journeys are still by plane or car.  There are a number of reasons for this, and they interlink and reinforce each other. 

Firstly, for years, the ski industry’s default mode of travel has been flying. 

Tour operators routinely package up holidays with flights and, despite the growth in independent travel, the mindset that one needs to fly to go skiing, continues. More tour operators are looking to include rail travel in their programmes, but the rail industry itself is part of the problem, with no proactive, accessible programme that encourages tour operators to incorporate rail into their holidays. Margins in the ski industry are tight, so tour operators can find it difficult to invest in experimentation. 

What’s more, finding out how to travel to ski resorts by train can be difficult for people unfamiliar with these journeys. The booking process is actually fraught with hidden hurdles, and in most cases rail and connecting bus services are, well, not connected.  

Eurostar in the Alps
Photo: SNCF

But if that’s the bad news, it’s also the good news.  

These hurdles are all surmountable; the barriers to sustainable travel can be overcome. If we give people the information they need, if we coordinate transport better, and if the rail and ski industries work together to help tour operators build rail travel into their holidays, then the potential for increasing travel by rail is huge. 

This article was originally published on the blog of Protect Our Winters UK and was written by Daniel Elkan, founder of SnowCarbon. Plan your next winter trip using Snowcarbon’s Journey Planner, now updated for winter 19/20:

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  1. John Moss says:

    I used to go by train when you could get an overnight train with a couchette and actually sleep.
    You also got skiing on both Saturdays and in the three valleys that was pretty much a full eight days.
    I’d love to see an overnight service from, say Leeds, serving lots of the north of England. Leaving at 6pm arriving at 6am is entirely feasible.
    Come on Virgin Trains. Step up!

    1. SportPursuit says:

      Thanks for the insight John, it’s definitely a case of the more options there are that serve different parts of the country, the more people will see the train as a viable option. Especially if it maximises time on the piste! Let’s keep our fingers crossed…

  2. Steve says:

    And what is the difference in cost I wonder door to door? Any ideas?

    1. SportPursuit says:

      Great question Steve! When cost is a concern it often seems like the cheapest way may be a budget flight, but the train can sometimes surprise with the value, especially when you count the additional expenses of flying: travel to the airport, luggage charges, and long transfers. The best resource we’ve found for this is SnowCarbon, who compare and update with live prices when the ski trains are on sale:

  3. Libby Shaw says:

    We’ve looked at train travel a few times. Unless you can do a very standard travel on Friday evening or Saturday morning and return a full week later it seems very inflexible.
    We’ve got good train connections from the North West to London, and we can get to central London in a couple of hours, but once we’ve added in peak Friday travel for a family, the price hikes up pretty quickly too.

    1. SportPursuit says:

      Hi Libby, thanks for the comment – you’re absolutely right that there aren’t a huge range of options in terms of timings at the moment on the train travel – we really hope this is something that will change soon as more people start to use the services. We’ve also found that the Snowcarbon website ( can have some other options that involve Eurostar and a national rail provider, which might help make it more flexible. Either way, it’s great that you’re considering it and being open to making the change!

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