Trains, Planes and Claims
How green is European train travel compared to planes?
The UK government has just given the go-ahead to the HS2 rail project, linking London to Birmingham and beyond. The price has come in at in excess of an eye-watering £100Bn ($130Bn). Meanwhile, there has been outcry over government support for the failing airline Flybe by a reduction in air passenger duty. With the focus on the carbon footprint of flying and flight shaming becoming more mainstream, Trippki thought we should give you a guide to understand how flying and taking the train stack up together in Europe.
In Europe especially, woke travellers are already taking the train rather than flying. In Sweden, it even has its own vocabulary: flygskam refers to the shame of flying, while tagskyrt – train bragging – is becoming a mot de jour in itself.
The romance of modern air travel
The generally accepted carbon cost of flying per passenger is certainly far higher than that of trains. The European Environment Agency, puts rail travel at a cost of 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile, a fraction of the the 285 grams generated by air travel, and the 158 grams per passenger miles from journeys in cars. According to Eurostar, taking the train from London to Paris instead of a plane cuts up to 90 per cent off CO2 emissions.
There are other factors to consider. The type of train makes a large difference to carbon emissions. In France, where a lot of energy comes from nuclear power and trains are mostly electric, travelling by train is greener than in the UK, which has delayed electrification plans indefinitely, HS2 aside. Even so a journey by diesel train still produces 84 percent less carbon than flying. The German train system has regularly been powered by electricity drawn from renewable sources so that’s a win win for the environment.
Digging deeper, though, the particulate matter emissions associated with train travel are slightly higher than plane travel. There is also the carbon cost of building the infrastructure associated with trains: building and powering stations, laying tracks. By contrast, air travel has far less infrastructure between destinations so it wins there. In the case of HS2, the entire infrastructure is being newly built. Given the usual delays in UK infrastructure projects, the rise of the electric, autonomous car may well also enter the equation
The emissions generated by train travel also depend on other factors, including how full each carriage is. Train carriages often run below capacity – particularly on the longer distance, middle of the day services that tourists are more likely to take – which does raise the average emissions per passenger.
The French have had fast trains for some time
So the emissions per passenger mile is not the whole story. As we all well know, budget airlines are pretty much always full to the gunnels and are always finding ways to lighten the load to reduce fuel usage. This may have nothing to do with environmental concerns but it does have a positive impact. Long haul, business and first class plane travel are obviously the worst for the environment but there is little practical alternative offered by trans continental train travel yet, Elon Musk’s Hyperloops notwithstanding.
The speed of train travel is also an issue, especially travelling larger distances in Europe for example. The Eurostar between London and Paris basically takes the same time as the plane, when travelling to and from airports, security and boarding times are taken into account. You’re also not changing environments several times which is much more conducive to working and so is a very viable alternative to the plane. From the UK however, Spain is a much more popular destination. A train from Manchester to Malaga could take over 30 hours and cost $600. By airline it would be 4 hours or so (including the faffing about) and cost about $170.
Travelling by train is therefore greener, but it needs to become more practical. Better pricing would help. Rail companies struggle to compete with low-budget airlines, who don’t have to pay tax on the fuel they use and there is the air passenger duty issue as well. In some countries, train tickets attract VAT, but plane tickets don’t. Travel agents are generally more geared towards booking flights and will tend to push customers that way.
Perhaps the current trend towards more trips by train is happening despite the rail companies, not because of them. Currently, Eurostar offers through tickets to destinations in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Travelling beyond that internationally by rail is a disjointed and fragmented process. As the European rail network becomes more integrated between countries then it becomes a more viable option. Once trains have both their booking and pricing sorted it could become as easy to book a train as booking a flight. New sleeper services being introduced will also make a better business case for trains, where there is less down time.
Better than Luton airport
However, the recent interest in trains is not just down to costs and environmental concerns, but also to people’s frustrations with the budget airline experience. Travelling by train is a far more pleasant experience generally than travelling by budget airline. Budget flights have changed our perception of how much travelling long distances should cost but also the notion that the journey should be part of the experience. Anyone who has woken on the Highland sleeper to views of Ben Nevis will tell you that it is far preferable to Luton airport at dawn. Planes may be quicker, but with travel as well as other activities, sometimes it’s better to take your time.
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