06 November 2023

Is it possible to pursue an academic career while cutting down on air travel? Karolina Kristenson and Kristofer Hedman don’t see any problem with that. They took the train to Milan and had time for both work and socialising along the way.

Two women in the doorway of a train. Travel time becomes work time. Karolina Kristenson and Maria Lerm on their way home from Milan. Privat/Kristofer Hedman

At the beginning of September, the major respiratory medicine conference ERS was held in Milan. Karolina Kristenson and Kristofer Hedman, both doctors with research links to the Department of Health, Medicine and Caring Sciences (HMV) at Linköping University, had signed up and were planning their journey.
“We were struck by the conflict of needing to go to conferences to reach out with our research and hear about the research of others, while air travel has such a big impact on the climate,” says Karolina Kristenson. “We both have a commitment to climate issues, and flying doesn’t feel right.”

Lots of work initially

Fortunately, large international conferences are planned well in advance because it can take more time to plan train journeys than flights to Europe, especially the first time. The procured travel agencies are probably still somewhat unfamiliar with booking such long train journeys. In Kalmar, however, there is a travel agency that specialises in train travel. Kristofer called and emailed them. And he was not alone in doing so.
“I think I called a hundred times before I got through, and my email got a reply after two months. We sorted it out ourselves, but it took a lot of work, maybe because it was the first time. It will probably be easier next time.”

Travel time becomes work time

The trip took just over a day, and they were joined on the journey home by their colleague Maria Lerm, professor at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences (BKV) at Linköping University. The journey went through four countries, including Switzerland which, as it is not part of the EU, did not make planning any easier. A waste of two working days? No, quite the opposite.
“You might think that travel time is lost time, but you can do things during the journey,” says Karolina Kristenson. “I took a course on Zoom for six hours. We also had time to plan our research, get halfway into a manuscript and make an analysis plan. In everyday life it’s difficult to find times to meet up, it’s an hour here and an hour there. Work becomes more efficient when you can concentrate together for longer periods. It’s also nice socially, you get to know each other on a personal level.”

Every flight counts

Man sitter på ett tåg och tittar ut genom fönstret Photo credit Privat/Kristofer Hedman Both have become increasingly reluctant to travel by plane. They were at a conference in San Francisco as recently as the spring of 2022, and this is something they would not do today. For Kristofer, flying within Sweden is out of the question and he chooses to opt out of conferences outside Europe.
“People are good at finding arguments for why their particular flights are so important. But you can’t justify air travel by other things you do for the climate, like source sorting or cycling to work. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to air travel.”

Karolina does not think that choosing train instead of air travel has an impact on research work.
“It’s fun to travel and you can absolutely go to conferences, but you don’t have to fly. We shouldn’t reduce travel, we should change the way we travel. Every flight counts. So skip a conference that involves flying, or take the train in one direction.”
Guide to facilitate train booking
Could Linköping University and other higher education institutions do more to make it easier for those who want to take the train? A suggestion from Karolina and Kristofer is to develop a guide for booking train travel, with tips and advice on what to consider. It is also important to always ask the travel agency if there is an option to travel by train. If enough people ask, it will hopefully be an incentive for travel agencies to improve on offering train travel.

What advice do you have for travellers thinking about taking the train? What should they consider?
Start in time! Give it a try! The first time may be more of an adventure, but we can all need that sometimes. Travel with colleagues. There’s safety in numbers if there are several of you and it also provides opportunities for work and in-depth discussions.” And there is one last message from Kristofer Hedman:
“Remember to turn off data roaming on your phone when you travel through Switzerland. Otherwise, an expensive phone bill awaits.”

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