Why I went to NeurIPS by train and why I will do it again

Last year, I went to NeurIPS 2022 in New Orleans by train from New York, and to New York by bus from Montreal. To me, it wasn’t really a big deal, but after I posted about it on Twitter, many people talked to me at the conference and seemed very surprised or even bewildered. So I thought I would write a little blog post talking about why I did this and why it is not a heroic thing to do. At the time, I was reassured that I was not doing something completely nuts because my friend and colleague Mélisande Teng joined me on the way back to Montreal. What’s more, I will be repeating this trip by train to NeurIPS again this year—the conference is once again in New Orleans. This time with a whole bunch of friends from Mila! If this plan suits you, you are very welcome to join us!

I actually have many reasons to travel by train instead of flying, whenever it is possible. First, trains are way more ecological than planes. Second, when I am sitting on a plane and I hear “sit back and enjoy your flight”, I raise my eyebrows because I find planes utterly uncomfortable and unenjoyable, not to mention the hassle of going through multiple arbitrary security checks and staying in line after line. Third, I actually enjoy the experience of slow travelling by train, if I am privileged enough to have the chance. Time in a train feels like time well used, while time in a plane is mostly wasted and energy-draining for me.

My friend Mélisande and I in the train to New York from New Orleans, back from NeurIPS 2022.
My friend Mélisande and I in the train to New York from New Orleans, back from NeurIPS 2022.

The first reason is definitely the climate crisis. I hope I will not have to convince many people that flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities that many of us in the privileged side of the world do quite frequently. At some point, years ago, flying became so cheap and commonplace in some countries that many people started doing it mindlessly, including myself. However, as I became more aware of the climate crisis, I learnt that the cost to the environment isn’t cheap at all. For example, the carbon emissions per passenger of a return trip London to Rome (about 230 kg) are higher than the average annual emissions per person in 17 countries. If we considered the transatlantic flight London to New York, then that would exceed the average annual emissions per capita of 57 countries, according to a 2019 analysis by The Guardian. I do not believe that air travel should be abolished, but I do think that Global North societies should be more mindful about activities that have a high environmental toll, as we are facing an unprecedented climate emergency.

My decision of flying less is also not about my supposed individual carbon footprint. It is rather about embracing a way of living—a set of decisions—more consistent with my principles and what I have learnt is more sustainable. As an academic, I am expected to attend conferences and, at the same time, I believe I hold a responsibility to make more sustainable decisions, since I have access to a lot of information and resources, and I am in a relatively privileged position. As of now, I haven’t given up air travel completely, but I do try to minimise it and, whenever I have a land-travel alternative, I try to take it. Is this a heroic act, a huge sacrifice or some sort of climate martyrdom? No, it is not, and that is what I would like to talk about next.

I wrote that travelling by train from New York to New Orleans was not a big deal simply because I have lived most of my life in Europe and I got used to travelling by train. For example, during my PhD time in Berlin, I often travelled by train to Madrid to visit my family and, if it had not been for the usual strikes in France and the frequent delays of the Deutsche Bahn, whenever things went smoothly it was actually an enjoyable experience. Fair enough, the train ride NYC-NOLA was definitely longer (32 hours) than any other single train ride I had ever done, but it was a direct connection, so I didn’t have to worry about changes. I just spent a day and a third in a train, doing pretty nice things: reading, writing, coding, eating, sleeping, talking to random folks, seeing the landscape change through the window… The seats in these trains are pretty spacious, you have plenty of cars to go for a little walk, you can go to the restroom any time, get off for some fresh air every now and then, go to the cafeteria… Nothing compared to cramming in a plane seat!

Many people at NeurIPS last year and on Twitter were surprised, even shocked, that I had travelled by train. And I found surprising that people were so surprised! I got the impression that most people, especially in some parts of the world where train travel isn’t very common, simply haven’t tried it. For some reason, it feels completely normal to most people to travel to New Orleans from Montreal by taking first a 1.5 hours flight to Toronto, continue with another flight to, say, Atlanta, wait a few hours there, then take the final plane to New Orleans. So one of the main reasons for me to write this piece is to encourage you to try the train, even a long ride, if you haven’t yet done so.

Here is the official invitation: if 1) you are privileged enough to be able to travel to the USA, 2) you are going to NeurIPS 2023 but 3) have not made your travel plans yet and 4) you happen to live or pass by some point in the East side of North America, do consider joining us! We are a group of fun folks from Mila (Montreal) who will travel to NeurIPS by train. We will set off from Montreal on Thursday morning, December 7th, and arrive in New York in the evening. We will continue with the New York-New Orleans train that departs on Friday, December 8th at 2 pm. We will arrive in New Orleans on Saturday evening at around 9 pm.

Feel free to get in touch by email (alex.hernandez-garcia at mila.quebec) or Twitter (@alexhdezgcia)!