Last week saw the introduction of a twice daily HST service from Amsterdam to London St. Pancras. Eurostar now offers tickets from Amsterdam to “The City” without the need to change in Brussels. While it sounds like a big detour, media in the Netherland have covered this story extensively. Will high-speed train travel ever take over the role of short-haul flying?
It goes without saying that some HST services have successfully replaced very busy air corridors. Traffic on the Paris-London and Barcelona-Madrid shuttles have dropped after the introduction of HST services. The same has happened to plenty of domestic French and German air routes after the introduction of respectively the TGV and ICE services. Yet, we still see multiple daily frequencies offered on those routes. Why are the airlines competing against a seemingly successful concept?
At first, it’s important to realise that most of the airlines I am talking about are focussing on offering connections through their hubs; and considering that Lufthansa successfully connects Dresden via Frankfurt to Chicago makes sense. The same may count for Air France.
However, Air France flies their domestic “La Navette“, the shuttle between Paris and Nice, Toulouse, Marseille, Bordeaux and Montpellier, up to 25 round trips per day (per destination). That would have made sense if there were connections involved but no, these flights go to Orly. The secondary Paris airport with limited long-haul connections.
Impact of flying vs. trains
It goes without saying that a train has a way lower impact on the environment than a plane; especially on shorter trips, the environmental impact of planes is insanely high. One of the big pro’s with trains is that they usually depart and drop you off in the centres of cities which saves time. However, the frequent flyer among us never shows up at the airport more than an hour prior to the flight. If distances get longer than 2 hours flying time; the train loses out hugely compared to the plane.
Codesharing on trains
KLM already offers “flights” from Brussels and Antwerp to intercontinental destinations using feeders that are actually operated by Thalys trains. A similar thing is offered by Air France from Paris and Lufthansa does a great job connecting airports with cities through their “rail & fly”.
This allows passengers to book “flights” from their hometown station to their final destination in which part of the trip is covered by train. The airline treats the train segments as if it were flights, including sharing the responsibility to care about passengers if there are any delays.
The call for more trains
The train is often said to be the reliever for the overcrowded airspace and I feel it makes sense. But will it ever fully replace air travel and is it really much better for our CO2 footprint? If we compare the pure basics there is an absolute winner: trains. But only if it uses electrycity that has been generated sustainable; coal powered trains are something of the past!
However, one should not forget that building the required infrastructure for trains has a serious impact on CO2. And if there is not enough demand to justify 20 trains per day, should we then spend a lot of efforts in building train tracks or would 2 small airports and an air route be sufficient? (imagine Papua domestic routes).
Luckily there are plenty of innovators in both the aviation and train industries; hyperloop’s, maglevs, electrical planes and other futuristic sounding developments will in the near future be integrated into our transportation systems.
I foresee a near future where, on big point to point routes on the short and medium haul, planes will see more and more competition from smartly run train services. The collaboration between train operators and airlines has to become much tighter and maybe its time to start taxing kerosine; it will generate 14 billion euro’s in Europe alone; a nice amount to invest in deploying green initiatives.
Looking further into the future; I see a combination of high-speed trains and electrical planes to perform the short hops. Trains on busy and important routes while the planes can take care of secondary connections offering a broad network to feed long-haul flights. Flights that will be less in frequency but high in seat count to maximise the potential and limit pollution.