By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


British Science Week 2024 is coming up on 8-17 March, and this one will be extra-special – we’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the very first British Science Week way back in 1994!

This milestone, and theme of the Week in 2024 – time - got us thinking, what else began in 1994 and how has the world changed over the past three decades?

British Science Week shares its 30th anniversary with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Inspired by this international innovation, we’ve explored how train travel has evolved in the past 30 years and what might come next. This could be a great topic to include in your events and activities!

What do your pupils and students know about how travelling has changed over time, and its relationship with the environment? What do they imagine eco-friendly transport could look like in the future? These questions could also provide a great jumping-off point for a poster to enter our annual poster competition.

Read on and find some fascinating facts and talking points to share with your students. Would they ride a train powered by cows? How fast do Japan’s bullet trains go?

Travel is tripling

All around the globe, international and domestic travel has boomed; in 2019 (before the figures were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic), 4.6 billion people took flights – more than a three-fold rise from 1.3 billion in 1994!

While being able to visit other countries and far-flung parts of your own country is generally regarded as positive – travel broadens the mind as they say – air travel contributes significantly to global carbon emissions.

Luckily, flying isn’t the only form of transport that’s been taking off in the last 30 years. The Channel Tunnel, a 31.5 mile-long underwater rail tunnel between England and France, opened in May 1994!

The Channel Tunnel carries high-speed Eurostar trains to Paris and other cities in western European, a much more environmentally friendly way to travel. A flight from London to Paris produces 66 kg of carbon emissions per journey person. Taking the train results in just 2.4 kg of emissions.

Get on the green track

These figures don’t just apply to the Eurostar; in general, travelling by train results in lower emissions than plane or car journeys. Luckily, the opening of the Tunnel is not the only eco-advancement in travel since 1994.

In 2005, the world’s first solely biogas-powered passenger train set off on its maiden voyage between the Swedish cities of Linkoping and Vastervik. Biogas is produced when waste meat products from cows are decomposed in an oxygen-free environment. Methane is emitted during this process, which is collected and used as fuel. It may not be pretty, but biogas is a greener alternative to diesel fuel.

Along with biogas, scientific innovators are exploring other ways to make train travel more eco-friendly. Enter the Coradia iLint, launched in 2018 to the public in Germany – the world's first passenger train powered by hydrogen fuel cells[AA1] .

Tanks of hydrogen are combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity to power the train. It sounds complicated, but the key detail is that this process produces zero direct carbon emissions!

While the use of biogas may not have become widespread (although the European Biogas Association believe it could play an important role in reducing the carbon emissions of rail travel in the future), hydrogen fuel trains are making tracks.

Austria, Poland, Sweden, France and Canada have all introduced Coradia iLint trains to their networks since 2018. The future is hydrogen!

The need for speed

In 2013, a high-speed railway between France and Spain, running on renewable electric energy, officially opened.

By 2020, over five million passengers had hopped on board to the train – whose full journey covers just over 109 miles – taking 22,000 trips. By 2020, over five million passengers had hopped on board to the train – whose full journey covers just over 109 miles – taking 22,000 trips. The Global Railway Review found that one million tons of carbon had been saved!

Denmark followed suit in 2019, with the inauguration of their first high-speed railway, but Europe doesn’t have the monopoly on this super fast alternative to travelling by plane or car. Africa’s first high-speed railway opened in Morocco in 2018, and Japan’s bullet train, or Shinkansen, has been running since 1964, and now reaches a top speed of 199 miles per hour.

Swapping carbon footprints for eco-choices

Travel is an inescapable, and often joyous part of our lives, whether it’s commuting to work, exploring our home country, or going on international adventures. But for the world to be explored responsibly, we need to reduce the carbon emissions of travel.

Taking trains where possible, instead of car or plane journeys, can make a big difference to our personal carbon footprints. These are decisions young people will be making as they enter adulthood. A survey of 1,000 16-24-year-olds found that they are very aware of the impact travel has on the environment, and are keen to go green. A big majority, 70%, want to see more people using trains in the future, as for 90% of respondents climate change is an important issue to them.

British Science Week is a great opportunity to discuss with your students how their choices connect to the environment, and the future.

More blogs you might be interested in:

Green Careers Week

Celebrating nature with CREST at British Science Week

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