High-speed rail to move flights amid airport chaos? | Travel
I recently spent almost two days trying to fly about an hour from Amsterdam to Berlin. After several canceled flights and many hours of waiting, I returned home with my family via Paris, burning double the CO2 along the way. Our luggage arrived 10 days later. The moral of the story: We should have just taken the train. In the six hours we initially spent queuing at the helpdesk after the first cancellation, we could have traveled to the German capital by train.
We would have been dropped off at a train station a few stops from our house, and we might have been able to rest in a car that was much more comfortable than a thrombosis-inducing economy plane cabin.
Even better, we would have saved a lot of carbon emissions, by doing our small part to curb runaway emissions in the transport sector.
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A typical train journey between European cities emits up to 90% less CO2 than an equivalent flight. Meanwhile, the aviation industry has the fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, increasing by 29% between 2009 and 2019, according to Greenpeace.
Despite the Airline company the company’s post-pandemic crisis, flights are expected to consume more than a quarter of the carbon budget allocated to keep global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) by 2050. With the industry planning to return at pre-COVID capacity by 2024, air traffic is expected to double worldwide by 2037.
It’s time for trains, which emit just 0.4% of EU transport emissions (planes produce more than 10 times more CO2), to offer a better alternative.
At present, however, rail still has a long way to go, with Greenpeace noting that less than 7% of passenger transport in the European Union is by train.
Ban short-haul flights
As part of the European Green Deal, efforts are being made to make high-speed trains the dominant means of transport between certain European cities.
After rail passenger numbers plummeted following the pandemic, the EU used 2021, the European Year of Rail, to announce plans to double high-speed rail links across the continent by 2030 and to create a unique and homogeneous correspondence network.
At the same time, the French government bailed out Air France on the condition that it ban domestic flights on routes where the train journey takes less than 2.5 hours. It already makes sense to travel from Paris to Lyon, for example, by TGV — from the city center the train is 40 minutes faster than a plane and often cheaper.
70% of Germans want to ban short-haul flights and use trains instead, according to a 2021 survey. Germany’s Green Party has also called for a ban on shorter flights ahead of last year’s federal election and promised to make rail cheaper than a budget flight.
The European Union is also revitalizing cross-border night trains, which have been curtailed due to competition from low-cost airlines.
But the challenge remains to create a more robust and integrated cross-border rail network that currently has a strong national focus.
Smooth out cross-border bottlenecks
The 150 busiest flight routes in the European Union could be mainly served by rail, according to a 2021 report by Italian think tank OBC Trans-Europa commissioned by Greenpeace.
Looking at flights of less than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles), the study found that journeys on 34% of high-traffic routes can be completed by train in less than six hours. This means that 81 million annual air passengers in Europe could instead travel by train in time comparable to even the shortest flight – when the journey to the airport and waiting time are included.
Lorenzo Ferrari, researcher at OBC Trans-Europa and co-author of the report, said “many bottlenecks” in terms of cross-border travel limited rail’s ability to supplant flying. This includes the fact that few airports have a direct train to other cities.
Nevertheless, Ferrari believes “simple improvements” can be made in terms of coordinating timetables across borders, or adding additional services to limit waiting times between connections. Downstream, national railway gauges must be harmonized with neighboring tracks.
Yet national rail companies often protect their own market and coordinate little with their cross-border cousins, said Jo Dardenne, aviation director of Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). “The EU rail market is very nationalistic,” she said.
A 2020 T&E report found train and plane journeys were comparable over time when comparing 72 routes between EU cities up to 700 kilometers away, and almost a quarter were faster on the high-speed train. But there is currently little potential to extend high-speed rail across multiple borders – or beyond 1,050 kilometres.
A train between Vienna, Austria, and Bucharest, Romania, travels at a very slow average speed of 55 kilometers per hour, for a journey of around 20 hours, Ferrari said. Aging infrastructure and poor scheduling are part of the problem. A morning train journey from Milan to Vienna, for example, requires four changes.
Meanwhile, cities like Porto have very few direct long-distance connections to other major metropolises, unlike central European cities like Vienna and Berlin, which offer multiple intercity connections.
Progress has been made on the issue of inter-EU train reservations, which is often not possible with national ticketing services such as Deutsche Bahn in Germany.
Although Interrail tickets can be booked across borders, they are generally not suitable for individual travel. In response, the European Parliament created legislation in 2021 to introduce an EU-wide rail reservation system since “through-tickets enable seamless travel for passengers”.
Taxing kerosene and planning for the long term
Costs also limit the expansion of rail capacity on air routes. Ferrari is calling for the expansion of budget rail carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet.
Although low-cost services such as Flix have entered the rail market, further expansion will require a level playing field. Low-cost airlines have grown thanks to government subsidies such as sales tax and kerosene tax exemptions, and government bailouts.
Change is coming, however. Under the EU’s Fit for 55 carbon-cutting plan, jet fuel will no longer be exempt from taxes, although critics point out that flights leaving EU airspace will not be affected.
The Greens and Social Democrats, partners in Germany’s ruling coalition, also want to scrap cheap flights.
With around two-thirds of European aviation emissions linked to long-haul flights, another vital decarbonisation option is to replace jet fuel with cleaner e-fuel alternatives, said T&E’s Jo Dardenne.
“Tackling pollution from short-haul flights is a no-brainer, but it only addresses a small part of aviation emissions,” she said.
But, while trains currently cannot compete with long-haul flights, expanding train travel has benefits beyond reducing CO2 pollution.
Although activists continue to call for a ban on short-haul flights where trains can make the journey in six hours for climatic reasons, Ferarri said, “trains also have an important social function”.
Unlike aviation, rail connects isolated towns and regions and helps “to keep Europe together”, he said.