Ghent University professors on why they prefer the train (and you should too)

(28-09-2021) Sustainability is important, but so is comfort. Why do so many staff members choose to take the train rather than getting to their destination quicker by airplane? A couple of professors tell us why they prefer the train when travelling for work.

There’s an important conference in Vienna, everyone in your field is going to attend and you are one of the speakers. Due to your busy schedule, you only have one day to get there. What will you choose: airplane or train? You can’t make your mind up because, like most staff members at Ghent University, you value sustainability greatly. But on the other hand, you want the least amount of discomfort in getting there because of course you don’t want to sound tired and burnt out during your keynote speech. You want to make a good impression. So, what now?


Many people associate flying with speed. But they forget that you also have to get to and from the airport, you have to check in, get past security with all your stuff intact and then you still have to walk all the way to your gate. When you count all this time together, you’ve often spent the entire day travelling, just like you would have on the train.

For this reason, Professor Hans Verbeeck of the Department of Environment at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering switched from flying to using the train for most of his travels ten years ago. “I attend each annual European Geophysical Union Conference. Using the overnight train service from Cologne I can get to Vienna really easily. Recently they’ve also created a night train that goes there directly from Brussels. In the evening, you board your train in Brussels and the next morning you get off in the centre of Vienna. Easy as pie, right?

It all boils down to a question of habit, really. If you compare a flight with a train ride, you ought to take the entire journey into consideration. Not just the flight itself, but the travel duration from door to door. And that’s without even mentioning the superior comfort and the view!” Hans Verbeeck does not have to check in anywhere or put his luggage through an x-ray machine. All he has to do is get to the station on time and show the train conductor his ticket. After that, he can put his feet up and enjoy the ride.

Prof. Hans Verbeeck’s travelling tip: going East? Book your tickets to Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic through Deutsche Bahn. They’re often cheaper and give you more options than the NMBS.


For a number of Ghent University staff members, the airport and airplane are too much of a distraction to be able to focus. They find it a definite plus to be able to work on the train because they’re perfect work environments. “You’re able to escape your regular workplace. In combination with the landscape zooming by, it often serves to inspire me,” professor Wim Bert of the Department of Biology at the Faculty of Sciences claims. “It also results in a definite increase in productivity. I’d even go so far as to say that I kind of miss trains with all these online meetings these days.”

Prof. Wim Bert’s travelling tips: planning long train jouneys? Be sure to check HAFAS International Journey Planner for international connections, even to Russia and Turkey.

Professor Peter Vandenabeele of the Department of Biomedical Molecular Biology at the Faculty of Sciences agrees with prof. Bert: “for me, time plays less of a role in the decision-making process – after all, what’s the difference between 7 or 9 or 10 hours in a train. The ability to work is far more important. On a train, I am able to prepare a presentation or read. I can’t do that while waiting in line at the airport or sitting in a crowded plane.”

More pleasant

Trains offer travellers more possibilities during the journey. You can go out and stretch your legs, look outside a bit or maybe go for a walk. “For this reason, I sometimes try to combine several conferences. It has given me some truly breath-taking train rides,” Peter Vandenabeele continues.

“As you travel from conference to conference, the landscape passes by, you have time to think and you can get into interesting conversations with your fellow passengers. I also always make a point of visiting the dining car. There’s nothing better than watching the Lorelei pass by along the River Rhine while having a good meal and a drink.”

Prof. Peter Vandenabeele’s travelling tip: a good travel agent can do miracles for your scheduling. Also, if you plan ahead sufficiently, there’s often very little price difference between 1st and 2nd class.


Perhaps one of the most often-used counterarguments to travel by train, is the cost. Compared to airlines, travelling by train is often more expensive, especially if you take low-cost airlines into account. But, as we’ll find out, for the savvy traveller, cutting costs is not as hard as it may sound.

According to Professor Mieke Van Houtte of the Department of Sociology at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, it’s all a question of timing: “I’ve taken the train all the way to Portsmouth and Lancaster in the UK. If you book your tickets on time and through the right websites, it’s not difficult to get a bargain. Take special note of the timing of your train voyages. There’s often an enormous price difference between peak and off-peak hours, resulting in ridiculously cheap off-peak prices.”

Prof. Mieke Van Houtte’s travel tip: going to the UK? Book your tickets through Trainline. There, you’ll find the best peak and off-peak prices. But be aware, however, that the choice of train company you book your ride with often also determines the station at which you will be departing and arriving.  

But even if you don’t find a cheap connection, it doesn’t automatically mean that you should travel by plane. Sustainability is an important consideration. Because, at what price are we really travelling from Brussels to every corner of Europe? And who is going to foot that bill in the end? Mieke Van Houtte has spent many conversations discussing it with her colleagues.

“Every two years, half of our department travels to a city somewhere in Europe to attend the European sociologist's conference. A few years ago it was scheduled in Turin and we had three ‘travel groups’: one group chose for a cheap flight with Ryanair. A second group refused low-cost airlines on principal and took the Thalys to Paris, where they boarded a direct flight to Turin. The third group did the entire journey by train. It made for some interesting dinner-time discussions on the pros and cons! And – we can only hope – perhaps some change in the long term?”

Ghent University has a progressive sustainability policy. Central to that policy is stimulating our colleagues to use more sustainable modes of travel. Do you want to go by train when travelling for work? Our procurement contract with Uniglobe Smart Travel makes that quick, easy and painless. And above all, no reimbursement claims are necessary. Are you interested in the Ghent University sustainability policy? Find out more on our website.