Low and slow: can long-haul business travel be low carbon?

Walking on the frozen harbour at Vladivostok, the start of my train journey.

Business travel is an inevitable element of many jobs, but it usually comes with a formidable, and hidden, carbon footprint. The further the distance to travel, the greater the emissions and the fewer low carbon alternatives. Does this have to be the case?

Earlier in 2020, I decided to try to challenge this. I returned from a business trip in Tokyo back to London via the Trans-Siberian Express in order to make my long-haul business travel more sustainable. This blog summarises my adventure as I reduced my carbon footprint by over 2 tonnes of CO2e as well as get a week’s work done.

My journey in data
  • The journey back took me over 200 hours. This was over 1000% increase in business travel time.
  • Costs were more expensive by 46% – less than anticipated, and cheaper than flying if purchasing one-way tickets.
  • I reduced my carbon footprint by 2,305kg CO2e, an incredible 75% reduction.
  • Emissions for each hour of journey dropped from 170kg compared to only 4kg – showing that low and slow is the way to go. 

Slow business travel: making this work with work

“Good idea!” These words, accompanied with an emphatic point of a finger, came from one of my clients when I explained my plan to take the Trans-Siberian railway back home. He was the senior vice president of one of the largest energy companies in Japan and the reason I was making the visit in the first place. He had made a similar journey as a student some 40 years prior, and enjoyed spending the next sake sharing his adventures. Clearly the journey was an investment in lifelong stories.

So, I had the endorsement of the client, but what about my employer – could I really justify taking 10 days to get back to the office, instead of two? Could I work while trundling through the snow of Siberia? Fortunate for me, I have a very portable job, a flexible working policy and an encouraging team. Without one of these, it would have been difficult.

I guaranteed to cover any additional costs or time through my own wallet and annual leave budget, but even so it was unknown as to whether the extreme-remote working would be successful.

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Falling at the first hurdle: some of the challenges of such business travel 

My aim to not fly back was scuppered when I discovered ferries between Sakaiminato (Japan), Donghae (South Korea) and Vladivostok (Russia), were suspended indefinitely due to diplomatic tensions. Without a wealth of time for diplomacy to heal itself, I was left to make the flight from Tokyo directly to Vladivostok. Disappointing as this increased the carbon footprint considerably.

Another diplomatic barrier that almost derailed the rail journey was that of Belarussian entry policy. If I had been visiting Belarus by flying there would have been no visa required, but travel across land, from Russia, and it is a different story.

Had I planned for this prior to the journey, it would have merely been a €60 frustration. But, as I discovered this detail onboard the train, it was a desperate taxi journey through Moscow rush hour to find the Belarus Embassy. I completed the application with 24 minutes before the office closed. It would not reopen until days later and my opportunity to continue my journey evaporated.

Pacing yourself: Life on the longest railway in the world

  • 9,258,000m of rail track.
  • 9,700 minutes on board.
  • 140 stops with an average of 8.4 mins stopping (mode=2; median=3).

There is a long way and a lot of time to calculate things like, the average speed is only 40mph. I discovered numerous benefits to slow business travel.

First, was the stories. The Trans-Siberian is no adventure travel haven filled with backpackers. The carriage is mostly loaded with local Russians doing (relatively) local journeys. Apart from police, conductors and the chef, I was the only person there the entire length of the journey.

I became known as the ‘Londonets’. Interaction was expected, even without a common language. The sharing of rum, pot noodle, even shampoo, with jade geologists, special forces trainers and train conductors gave me exposure to a whole world of people. Every one of them friendly, inquisitive and generous when they got to know you.

Second, was the work opportunity. I conducted a 41 hour working week without too much trouble at all. No onboard wifi but 4G connection via a €5 unlimited data SIM card. The most glorious experience was the daily time zone shift. Moving from +10 to +3 resulted in gaining one or two hours every other day, allowing you a little more flexibility to fit in the eight work hours. Anyone who has pleaded for that extra hour in the day, this journey is for you. Even when the train stopped, you did not get too distracted from work. -17 degrees centigrade tends to keep you concentrated on staying inside.

Finally, and most significantly, the pressure of travel was removed. The great benefit that when your journey gets that long, it becomes a lifestyle. Going so slowly, you lose the concept of going from A to B and focus on the movement. In an era of mindfulness, it is a great exercise in being present rather than rushing to get something finished.

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Russian dolls: Interoperability of travel operators

For the last segment of my trip, I challenged myself to get back from Moscow to my house via public transport in less than 48 hours. To my surprise, this was very easy.

Armed with a Belarussian transit visa and a stack of printouts of train tickets, I voyaged from Moscow to Berlin, via Brest. Then, Berlin to Cologne, Cologne to Brussels, Brussels to London St Pancras, a London Underground, a bus and a short walk to my bed. Total time was 36 hours, 19 minutes.

Each step was seamless, but, the connecting the whole thing was the antithesis. This was a complex, rare journey spanning seven countries, of which only four sit in the Schengen region. I used three different booking agents, each had slightly different agreements on which networks they cover. The research required was considerable (and thank you seat61).

This is one thing that needs attention. A single overarching platform where I can roam by all rail is the seamless customer experience that long-distance business travel commands. Until we have that, potential customers will not even be aware of the opportunities for long-distance train travel and will not demand it. Without the demand, long-distance routes will not run. To use metaphors, one large Russian doll can solve the chicken and egg.

Next steps

Would I do this again? Undoubtedly. But, policies among businesses and regulators need to evolve allow the business models that can offer this slow and low carbon alternative to flying.

Happily, it looks increasingly that we are moving towards that direction. I encourage policymakers to emphasise interoperable mobility (across modes as well as markets) as a key driver for climate action.

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