A few Thursdays ago, on the 18:56 Eurostar from Brussels-Midi to London St. Pancras, an elderly, dyed-in-the-wool trade union activist broadcast his crackpot opinions loudly to his fellow passengers. With a thin strip of table as the only barrier between them, a middle-aged Finnish couple smiled politely as he held forth.
He only paused once, asking them about their itinerary. The wife explained that they had been taking the train with their two children, sitting a few steps away. A commuter train ferried them from their village in Finland to Helsinki. An overnight service took them to Minsk. Another overnight train across the breadth of Poland landed them in Berlin. Then they took a train to Cologne and at lunchtime on the third day, of travel, they changed to the afternoon service to Brussels, where they boarded this very 18:56.
I drew the zig-zagged line of their journey in my mind: struggling with their bags and children, on and off platforms, squeezing through narrow aisles and into seats and sleepers. Three days of effort and travel when a passenger jet could get you from Helsinki to Stansted in just over three hours.
They reminded me of someone I’ve been reading about: the ultimate girl on the train. Another Scandinavian. Greta Thunberg.
Greta, a 16-year-old, pigtailed girl from Stockholm, already has an effect named after her. The Greta Thunberg effect refers to the groundswell of young people around the world who are rising up and making their voices heard in the protest for climate action.
Greta became aware of climate change at eight and became so depressed that for a year she refused to eat or speak. To lift herself out of stasis, she decided she had to do something. So at 15, she started cutting school and striking outside the Swedish parliament. On the first day, it was just her. On the second day, a few other kids joined in. Soon her climate strike had spilt over to other Swedish cities and eventually the rest of Europe. In May 2019, millions of students from about 120 countries united behind their pigtailed leader by staying out of school and converging on their local legislatures ‒ demanding that the adults inside take their futures seriously.
Greta, who lives with Asperger Syndrome, has found her voice ‒ and a very direct one at that. She is in high demand, travelling all over Europe to speak in measured, blunt tones to some of the world’s most influential people. And here’s the kicker ‒ like the Finnish couple with me in car 11 on the 18:56, Greta travels everywhere by train. Everywhere.
She goes from platform to platform to stage and stage to platform ‒ from the European Parliament in Brussels, to Davos in Switzerland. To London, addressing Her Majesty’s parliament and back home to Stockholm. And in between, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
In Davos this year, as the world’s richest and most influential policy-makers and business leaders’ jets caused the annual traffic jam on the local airport’s tarmac, Greta showed up with her backpack at the railway station. Then she stepped onto the stage and berated them all for their lack of action. But before she spoke a word, she’d said it all. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.
I was once fortunate enough to hear Al Gore speak on the same issues. I had never seen anything like it. Every calculated syllable fell perfectly. Every move of his arm, every shift in his torso was perfectly choreographed. His presentation, his words and his intonation built the emotion like a Hollywood blockbuster. Powerful videos and images of melting ice caps, deforestation and flooding islands, interspersed with smart solutions that he ‒ disclaimer ‒ invests in.
Of course, this opens him up to criticism. Maybe Al’s for real, but maybe Al’s also scooping a bit of cream off the calamity.
But Greta. Greta Thunberg is impenetrable. She is monk-like: giving up words and the comfort of air travel to step up to the world’s most powerful and say: Enough. Our house is burning and we have to put the fire out. She doesn’t invest in electric scooters in India or water sanitisers in Africa. She is just getting out there, train after train, speaking her truth.
Just after 8 pm the 18:56 pulled into London’s St. Pancras station. Its passengers piled onto the platforms and rushed for the exits get into the Underground, Ubers, and cabs that would suck them into the city.
I got off slowly and walked along the edge of the platform. The huge train was resting on its wheels, the undercarriage cooling, puffs of air escaping from the hydraulic brakes.
I looked at this beautiful machine in a new light. In two hours we had shot across the fields of Flanders, France and into the English Channel to be delivered unto London, each of us — hundreds of us — saving hundreds of kilograms of CO² by not flying across the Channel.
I walked a little more upright. This is not a good time for dreamers, but somehow, the girl on the train had just given me a whole lot of hope.