söndag 20 oktober 2019

The Train Conference Day (symposium)

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Image: The long and winding road from starting a Facebook group to becoming an influence

I attended the Train Conference Day [Tågkonferensdagen] this past week. My new research project FLIGHT ("Decreased CO2-emissions in flight-intensive organisations") is the concrete justification for attending. Here's the background to why there was a Train Conference Day in the first place:

More than 100 000 Swedes have by now joined the [Swedish-language] Train Holiday Facebook group to get inspiration for holiday train journeys and more than 1000 persons attended the Train Holiday Meeting back in March. More companies and organisations now want to take the train to their meetings.
- But which destinations and conference facilities are suitable?
- How can the trip itself be made part of the conference?
- What have other companies already done?
- And how does it matter to the climate if we take the train?

These and many other questions will be answered during the Train Conference Day 2019 at Clarion Hotel Stockholm.

The founder of the Train Holiday Facebook group, Susanna Elfors, is an old acquaintance of mine and she gave a short talk about her own personal journal from being a researcher (she has a ph.d. from KTH Royal Institute of Technology) and a social entrepreneur to an influences. Her train event partner and fellow co-organiser, Andreas Sidkvist, gave a short talk about obstacles and possibilities for chartering trains (which can be compared to how some companies are in the habit of chartering a plane).

The day for the most part consisted of a long line of inspiring 10 or 15 minutes long talks and my FLIGHT research colleague Markus Robért gave one of these talks. I will present some of these talks and I start with the four talks that interested me personally the most first (but all the talks were interesting!).

- Susannas Elfors presented the background to it all and she is right now surfing on an incredible groundswell movement with a half a decade long pre-history; she participated in a charter train trip to lake Garda in northern Italy together with her family five years ago. The trip wasn't very smooth and it tried the patience even of someone who was very motivated to take the train so she started a Facebook group afterwards (2014) to exchange advice and discuss train vacations. At the end of 2017, the group had a few thousand members. Then it exploded and the group now has more than 100 000 members and it consists of 70% women who join primarily due to climate-related reasons and 30% men who join because they love trains! (More than a third of the group members are women between 35 and 54.) There have since been numerous interviews and media coverage. Susanna and Andreas have started an event company and they now try to find ways to secure a stable income from all of this (Susanna complained that many others make money of the massive interest in train vacations but they don't yet). Susanna also mentioned that in Sweden we have now gone from "flygskam" (flight shamemore, more and even more) and "smygflyg" (sneak flying, e.g. flying but keeping quite about it) to "tågskryt" (train bragging). Susanna has also edited a coffee-table book, Tågsemester ("Train vacation") that I bought - it's the perfect Christmas gift!

A to me really interesting talk was that of Jim Werngren who works at Folkhälsomyndigheten [The Swedish Public Health Agency] and who talked about "Train bonus - a tool for sustainable business travel". The agency has two offices, one in Stockholm and one in Östersund (550 kilometers north) and Jim had, as a union representative, done a wonderful job to promote travelling by train between their offices instead of flying (which has traditionally been the norm). It turns out that not only is train the better choice for the environment but it's also the less expensive choice and through his personal industrious and indefatigable work, they now have new rules at this governmental agency. Flying is taxed internally and anyone who takes the train at distances above 500 kilometers (e.g. between their two offices) gets a salary bonus of 550 SEK per trip AND can also account for the extra time if the working day becomes longer than 8 hours ["endagsförrättningstillägg"]. Due to his work, The Swedish Public Health Agency got Swedish Rail's diploma for sustainable travel this year!

Another talk that was both interesting and instrumentally useful was Maria Klint's talk about using the train trip itself for conducting a company workshop. Maria works at the service and UX design agency Antrop  and her talk was very super inspiring since we are discussing to pay for a train trip to the upcoming (June 2020) ICT for Sustainability conference in Bristol for our whole research group. Maria's talk was very practical as she shared her experiences and she also offered to share the "conversation cards" they produced and used on their trip.

Another inspiring talk was that of Joakim Crona who is a doctor and a researcher at Uppsala University Hospital who wanted to travel by train to the huge research conference about cancer research in Barcelona that "everybody" in his field travels to (we're talking about 20 000 attendees!). He gave a very practical talk with lots of pictures of him designing a sign (Greta Thunberg style), taking photos and recoding a YouTube video that "went viral" (within a limited community of researchers). He then took the train from Uppsala to Barcelona and got more and more company when researchers joined up as they travelled through Europe. Joakim mentioned that he did nothing but talk about taking the train to the conference at the week-long conference and that they are now planning a second trip through Europe (now with increased administrative support - two other persons from Academic Conferences (a full-service Professional Congress Organizer for Karolinska Institutet, SLU and Uppsala university) had joined him at the Train Conference Day to learn more).

Other really interesting (but to me less instrumentally useful) talks were:

Thomas Eneroth, Swedish minister for Infrastructure who discussed investments in trains and tracks and routes - he said he wanted to give us more and better night trains to the continent - Hamburg, Berlin and Brussels! He also wants it to be easier to book trips and discussed how work is being done to make that happen. Thomas is apparently is a fan of the Train Holiday Facebook group. He gave the opening talk and then had to hurry away and while he said many nice things about trains, others snidely mentioned that he says nice things about cars and planes when he talks to other audiences. Still, it was hard not to be affected and infected by his enthusiasm for trains.

Jens Forsmark from Naturskyddsföreningen [the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation] is their expert on sustainable transportation and he talked about the train as the obvious choice in organisations' sustainability work. His fact-filled 15-minute talk was a fountain of knowledge! He claimed and also seemed to be a calm and peaceful person but mentioned that his work makes him end up in conflicts all the time since he has opinions about issues (taxes, city planning etc.) where there are many strong stakeholders who have interest in disagreeing with his conclusions. His thoughts about the structural characteristics of car and road-based versus train and track-based cities were very interesting! I had a chat with him at the break and we "clicked" - I'm quite sure I will be in touch with him again and that something concrete will come out of it in terms of some sort of cooperation at some point.

Another inspiring speaker was Maja Rosén who started the movement "Vi håller oss på jorden" ("We Stay on the Ground") and the campaign "Flygfritt 2020" ("Flight Free 2020") which aims at getting 100 000 Swedes to pledge not to fly during 2020. What is needed for you to make that decision is oftentimes that other people you know make the same decision. Maja also talked about the psychological dimensions of questioning each plane trip versus the relief of making a decision once and for all. A researcher she knows had qualms every time she had to decide whether to fly to attend a conference in Europe. Then she decided never to fly within Europe and her life suddenly became easier. She also mentioned that a Swedish politician in the EU parliament said to her that "to me there are no airplanes between Stockholm and Strasbourg".

Camilla Lystrand who is travel manager at White architects talked about how they have worked for more than a decade to fly only when absolutely necessary. This is a challenge as architects travek a lot but the effort and the thought that has gone into their internal work is both inspiring and commendable! One example is that internal meetings are planned so that they fit the schedule for arriving trains. Another example is that they always travel first class by train to improve the possibilities to work. The biggest cost for them is of course salaries and they are much more concerned with getting the most out of their employees rather than skimping on the (price of the) train tricket.

There were also a few other speakers who taked at the conference (again including my colleague Markus Robért). The event was attended by 50 persons including representatives from Swedish Rail as well as two different start-up companies who both work towards the goal of making it easier to book train tickets. While it works well within Sweden, it can indeed be very hard to book tickets for a longer trip that passes several national boundaries.

All in all it was very inspiring and worthwhile to attend this event. While I was surprised by how few people attended, that in the end made it easier to connect to those who were there and these really were the right people to connect to in all matters pertaining to train travel.
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