Fiona Harvey Sesame Street, magicians and railways – the Climate Express

On a brief stop at Cologne station, the Climate Express was greeted by hordes of climate campaigners and some colourful Sesame Street characters – Ernie and Bert. They were there to make the point that the world leaders attending the Copenhagen climate change summit will be muppets if they don’t agree a global framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The chances of success at the Copenhagen summit have been boosted considerably by President Obama’s decision to attend the final days, when a deal on emissions could be forged among world leaders.

Before Cologne, there was a much longer – and unscheduled – stop at Aachen. It seems changes had to be made to the train to cope with the different voltage in use in Germany.

As we waited for nearly an hour at the station, the delay gave plenty of time to reflect on how the union of European states does not mean a union of the railways.

For historic reasons, countries often preferred to keep their railway systems distinct. In Spain, for example, I was told by Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar, the railways were designed to be of a different gauge to that of the French railways. That was done deliberately by the Spanish, whose memories of the horrors they suffered in the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh at the time when the first railways were being constructed,  to ensure that the French could not invade by rail.

In some other countries, it was simply a matter that different systems -such as different voltages – became the norm in neighbouring countries and were never changed.

Apparently, there will be another change of voltage when we get to the German/Danish border.

Our stop at Aachen proves that even a train choc full of railway dignitaries – Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director general of the UIC, the international union of railways; Yoshio Ishida, president of UIC; Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar; Francisco Cardoso dos Reis, chairman of Portuguese Railways; Ruediger Grube, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn – can be held up by such incompatibilities.

Finding a way to change countries’ entire railway systems is hard, so the best that rail companies can hope for is to expedite the changes in rolling stock that need to be made at borders.

And it generates much less carbon than a flight of the equivalent distance would.