Naseem Khan: Take the train, Mrs Beckett - you'll see so much more

Here was a new way of travelling: no crowds and no irritating person in front tipping their seat back
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The statistics became too much. Unlike Margaret Beckett, with her flights to meetings of Europe's environment ministers in Brussels, I was shaken by the data on carbon emissions. A mere 24kg of CO 2 to travel by train from London to Edinburgh and back, but a staggering 206kg to take the same route by air. Six times as much to go to Barcelona and back by air. Heaven knows how much carbon Mrs Beckett has expended.

So when the time came to go to Germany to see an aged aunt, I struggled for a bit with alternatives of speed and cheapness. But in the end, conscience won out and I decided to go by train, and on the way, I discovered a few things that I offer to travelling ministers.

I can't say I approached it all entirely as a moral campaign. Once I'd booked by travel from London to Essen, it began to seem rather a wheeze. And I'd have been inhuman to have resisted the admiration of my friends. "Trains ..." they said, wonderingly, with a nostalgic light in their eyes.

It made me feel pleasantly intrepid. And like a pioneer I set off equipped to deal with every eventuality except for snake bite. I carried a ridiculous amount of food - as if mainland Europe had none - and more books than I'd ever get through in a week of flu. More sensibly, knowing I would not find any kindly check-in desk, I travelled light.

At first, as I settled into my Eurostar seat, it did all seem rather miraculous. Never mind such surprises as the fact that I was travelling backwards out of England. I hadn't thought to specify that I wanted to face forwards - the fault of being used to planes. Never mind my bewilderment when I automatically felt for a seat belt as we set off and couldn't find it. I was wooed immediately - backwards or not - by it all. Here was a new way of travelling: no crowds, no cramped space, no irritating person in front of me who tipped the seat back as far as it would go, leaving me a cubbyhole to scrabble about in. This was truly civilised, I thought, as we skimmed with an unearthly quietness through a chill and wintery Kent.

"You'll see much more that way," friends had said, and I had had to stifle a sarcasm. But they were right. I did see more. As France merged imperceptibly into Belgium all sorts of vignettes bobbed up beside me: small buried towns - such as Pepinster and Welkenraedt - whose existence I had never suspected. Impossibly neat fields of broccoli standing to attention like Anthony Gormley's manikins. A little river rushed at the train and then as suddenly retreated. I dozed, I ate, I gazed, I dozed. It was all inestimably satisfying because time and distance travelled gently hand in hand. There was none of the abrupt telescoping that comes with air travel. In a train you live in the permanent present.

And so I chugged my way happily until we reached Brussels, when I lost my serenity. The train that would take me on into Germany was not due for well over an hour. I found myself nervously hanging round the indicator board, while trains came and went around me. My isolation suddenly hit me. No one knew I was there. No one would call my train for me. No one would make sure I found it.

I was in a foreign city without a support structure. I dithered and fretted in a cold concourse where everybody seemed to know exactly what they were doing. And then I took a deep breath. I did something bold. I left the station. It was my rubicon, and I felt as if I was leaving mother.

I'd been conditioned, I realised with shame, as I sat in a friendly Greek café a mere 300 yards away. I'd grown to depend on being nannied. Think of it: there we sit in airport lounges, waiting meekly for the call to move. "Passengers for Flight X, go to departure lounge Z," and obediently off we trot. Lulled into passivity, we are objects more than people. We are ferried to and fro by airlines like packages. We are cosseted by airport shops that, like over-hectic entertainers, seek to persuade us that we are actually having a very good time.

It is curious how air travel and train travel have now changed places. Once air was costly and trains were cheap: Sadly, no more. (If they really want us to use them, why not institute Train Miles instead of Air Miles?) Once upon a time going by air was exciting and adventurous. A long time ago. Now it is the train that - if you have the time - offers excitement. It may not always be in the way that you want. It is unpredictable, subject to the vagaries of weather, language and human confusion. The system defeated me in Essen Hauptbahnhof - arguably the most horrid station in Europe - when a distorted tannoy put me on the wrong train. But the seasoned traveller takes reverses in her stride. (Am I being smug? Yes.) OK, I missed my connection. I could take in Cologne's wondrous cathedral - conveniently next to the station - instead.

By now, the anxiety of Brussels was far behind me. I had become au fait with insecurity. I had found my feet and discovered the pleasures of the ground. I had rediscovered my independence.

Pity the Cabinet ministers who have to shuttle from terminal to terminal, whose time is constantly telescoped and whose food is incessantly airline plastic. Real Europeans experience the Continent's variety and they go by train.

Naseem Khan's most recent book is 'Asians in Britain', with Tim Smith (Dewi Lewis)