The story so far

By Daniel Elkan

When you arrive at an airport to join thousands of skiers in slow-moving queues; when you think of all the flights taking off, and the tonnes of carbon; when you are on a long, tedious transfer to resort… Do you ever wonder whether there’s a better way of getting to the slopes?" 

How it started

In 1998 some friends invited me on a ski trip to Andorra. I’d never been skiing. My family don’t ski. The whole thing was a new world to me. 

My friends told me to be at Gatwick at 5am one Saturday in January. I turned up, joined the queue, and thought, ‘it’s only a two-hour flight, this journey won’t take long’. 

But it did… 

That week, however, I fell in love with the mountains. I couldn’t believe that such a stunning winter environment could exist. Getting there by plane was a nightmare, but I just thought that particular journey was a one off. 

It wasn’t…

Later that same winter, I went skiing (well, snowboarding) again. This time to the Italian resort of Sauze d’Oulx in Italy. It was a different resort in a different country, but the journey followed the same pattern: get up insanely early, head to the airport, navigate queues on both sides of a cramped flight, to pile on to yet another transfer for several bum-numbing hours. Sound familiar? 

Flying was the only option my friends thought viable, and as a newcomer to skiing, I was none the wiser.

The first glimpse...

But on that trip to Sauze, something changed. Slumped against the coach window on the final approach to the resort village, I noticed something glinting in the sunlight down in the valley below us. I’d just made it out to be a railway track before it disappeared from view as our coach rounded a bend. 

I started to wonder if we could have come by train. The Sauze tourist office told me there was a station only a few minutes away – Oulx. They had no idea how long it would take from London.

Back in the UK, I dug out an old European rail timetable from my parents’ attic – a remnant of a student Interrail trip years before. Incredibly, London to Oulx required only two trains: a Eurostar to Paris and a TGV from Paris to Oulx. Door-to-door, it looked almost as quick as flying.

More resorts...

How many other resorts could be reached easily by train? I started researching. I got a rail map of Europe and began plotting possible routes and looking up timetables. The more I researched, the more I discovered. Plenty of resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy - even Andorra – could be reached by daytime or overnight train.

I persuaded my skiing friends to let me plan our next ski holiday, so that we could go by train. What if the journey didn’t work out as envisaged? It would be my fault. Yet there was no way I was going to be herded through airports for the rest of my skiing days without at least giving the train a go.

Our first experience...

The moment the Eurostar slipped quietly out of Waterloo, my fears melted away. Eyes twinkled, banter flew across the train table, scenery slid by. Our holiday had already begun. Finding the information had been a struggle, but the journey was a great success.  

We kept travelling that way. Sometimes by day, sometimes overnight, dreaming like kids about the snowy slopes that awaited us. If the journeys took a little longer than flying, the enjoyment made them feel shorter. And in resorts, people were curious – often envious – when they heard we’d come by train. 

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A few years later, in 2004, when I started working as a journalist, I wrote a feature for The Guardian about how to travel to ski resorts by train. Soon I was writing articles like this several times a season for newspapers and magazines.

Each new journey to be researched took time. These travel articles provided inspiration to skiers, but once someone wanted to find out exactly how to book and make a journey, they were in for a frustrating time. There was no one-place to get the information. You had to ring different train companies, bus operators, taxi firms…

‘Someone should start a website about this...’

I read a study by environmental charity Mountain Riders that found that 73% of a ski resort’s carbon emissions result solely from transport of holiday makers to the resort – dwarfing the emissions generated by hotels, ski lifts and snowmaking, etc. Train travel produces a fraction (around 10-15%) of the equivalent journey by plane or car. Skiers were generating huge amounts of carbon in reaching the slopes, yet little was being done to help them travel more sustainably. With more than a million journeys taken each year from the UK to European ski resorts, I knew that changing the way we got there could make a big difference. 

One of the things that was missing was information for skiers and snowboarders about how to make these journeys. I decided to make a website. 

Resorts begin to come on board...

I travelled from meeting to meeting with resort representatives in France, Italy and Austria. It quickly became apparent that many resorts were just not considering, at that time, the idea that people would want to travel from the UK by train. But then I showed them the evidence: skiers’ testimonies

It took months, but we finally launched in October 2009 with fantastic encouragement from the ski industry and travel media. 

Since then, we’ve continued to generate awareness and publicity about this way of travelling. We’ve campaigned on various issues, from sleeper trains to the Ski Train, to help improve options for skiers. And we work with lots of holiday providers in the ski industry to find skiers the best options for their holidays. 

We’ve been helped by some fantastic people on the way, interns, freelancers, advisers including Sharmin Ahammad, Melissa Brown, Louise Foster, Tom Higgins, Jamie Sergeant, Max Balmford, Katie Bamber and others. Find out more about the Snowcarbon team here

We are constantly looking to make the site as useful as it can be, to improve and update the content and user-journey. We do the lengthy research to save many more people the time and frustration of doing it. And, hopefully, we’ll open up a train journey that many mightn’t have considered.

The next chapter...

For years, it felt like the ski industry was ‘business as usual’ without seeing ways to take significant environmental steps. It feels like this is changing now, but there is a long way to go. Train companies like Eurostar and SNCF are the ones that need persuading to start making a significant shift in the way they operate, to help more travellers to use their trains and to engage the ski industry so that more holidays include rail travel. 

We are glad to be making a difference by asking the question, ‘What if?’. The rest of the story remains to be written, with your help. Snowcarbon began as a pipedream - a glimpse of a railway track after a nightmare journey. but now it is a shared vision by skiers and snowboarders who know that how they travel to the mountains does make a difference.