RUUs – the challenge of sleeping on trains

Over Easter, in the cause of low-carbon travel we rejected a comfortable flight from Budapest to Geneva and took the overnight Wiener Waltzer train via Zurich.

There was something unpleasant about the accommodation. A sense of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns (RUUs): of other peoples’ crumbs which you might find in the sheets, of the potential for pubic hairs on the wall next to your face, of smells still to be discovered, of the inevitability of a nocturnal visit to the very awful toilets.

When considering train travel as an alternative to flight, the calculation of the marginal abatement cost should include at least:

– The cost of acquiring tolerance of someone else’s long red hair near your face
– The cost some Ricky Gervais podcasts and a book sufficiently distracting to draw one’s attention away from the aforementioned Rumsfeldian elements
– The cost of procuring a patient, tolerant, and well-prepared wife who can make plenty of sandwiches and keep children content while cooped up
– The cost of acquiring tolerance of annoying pop music next door
– The cost of perfumes as a cover for the adventure to the loo
– The cost of a device to retain the smell of ripe Reblochon on the return journey
– An appropriate amortisation of the cost of a course in Buddhism

Some observations:

First, there is a dimension of tolerance with squeamishness at one end and stoicism at the other. In our daily lives we get used to cleanliness and comfort and gradually our tolerance of unknowns slides down towards the squeamish end. Unless you are an undertaker, sewage worker, doctor, or other brave soul, you don’t meet squeamish much. Some of the climate change challenge is about shifting out mindset back towards the stoicism end so that we can tolerate RUUs. Think of the earthquake in L’Aquila and you stop worrying about them.

Second, consider airlines. Why don’t reclining seats in airlines provoke thoughts about RUUs while couchettes on trains do? For some reason we believe that aeroplanes are cleaner than trains. There’s some psychology going on there which railway salesmen and makers of transport policy need to understand.

Finally, the outward leg had many more RUUs than the return journey. Was this because we had got used to them? Or was it because the brand of SBB, the Swiss railway company is much less prone to RUU association than the Hungarian equivalent? Or was it a matter of fact that the Swiss do a better job of cleaning the carriages than the Hungarians?

Whatever the answer to these questions, rail travel does not yet appear to be a viable low-carbon alternative to air travel for longer journeys. The rail operators have some way to go before they can compete with the airlines.

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