Many people in Europe have been looking to the continent’s extensive rail network to replace short-haul air travel ever since the “flight shame” movement started encouraging travelers to look for greener alternatives to jet planes.
There has been progress, with airlines like KLM in the Netherlands forming rail partnerships on specific routes and Austria and, more recently, France attempting to restrict internal routes where trains are available.
That’s in the midst of a real rail revolution on mainland Europe, with new high-speed routes and operators, a reversal in the decline of overnight sleeper services, shorter travel times thanks to new tunnel links, and more reliable and efficient locomotives. Cheap tickets have also contributed in Germany, Austria, and Spain.
It would appear that the train-ification of Europe’s air transport network is well underway due to the large amount of investment in the railway. It is certain that it will not be long before the continent relies almost entirely on its iron roads for transportation, and the skies will become clearer and greener.
In reality, that is still a far-off goal. Why then?
There is good news and bad news, as with many efforts to innovate away from environmentally harmful practices. There are fixes being made, but none are quick. Additionally, there is no indication that Europe’s airports will soon become more peaceful.
This year got off to a great start with the promise of new legislation in France that would prohibit short-haul flights on a number of domestic routes to assist the country in reducing levels of climate-warming pollution. However, despite being approved by officials from the EU, the measures appear to have limited effect.
The EU insisted that the in question air route must have a high-speed rail alternative that enables travel between the two cities in less than two and a half hours in order for the ban to take effect. Additionally, there must be enough early and late-running trains for travelers to reach their destination in at least eight hours.
As a result, only three routes will be eliminated at this time: those that connect the airports of Paris-Orly and Bordeaux, Nantes, and Lyon.
In point of fact, the decision made by the European Commission of the EU diluted the initial French plans, which would have led to the completion of five additional routes: from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Lyon, Marseilles, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Rennes.
The outcome, according to critics, is something that talks about climate issues but does nothing about them.
Jo Dardenne, director of aviation for the Cleaner Transportation Campaign Group Transport & Environment (T&E), states, “The French flight ban is a symbolic move, but will have very little impact on reducing emissions.”
T&E has estimated that the three routes affected by the ban only account for 0.3% of the emissions from flights departing from mainland France and 3% of the country’s emissions from domestic flights (counting only domestic flights from mainland France).
The figures would be 0.5% and 5%, respectively, if the five additional routes that the French authorities wanted included were added.
That does not appear to be much. However, despite the fact that airplanes emit other gases, water vapor, and contrails, their overall contribution to climate change is estimated to be higher than that of aviation as a whole, which currently accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions.
In addition, despite the Covid-imposed pause, it is a rapidly expanding industry that is on track to become one of the most significant contributors to emissions in the future. According to the EU, aviation emissions in Europe increased by an average of 5% annually between 2013 and 2019.
In contrast to other modes of transportation, airlines in the EU pay no tax or duty on their fuel. Additionally, plane tickets are exempt from VAT.
More restrictions to come
Positively, the French ruling sets a precedent that, despite its limited impact, will be difficult for the aviation industry to ignore at a time when it is under increasing public and political scrutiny.
According to Patrick Edmond, managing director of Altair Advisory, an aviation consulting firm based in Ireland, “the French measure is so marginal in its current scope that it is sustainability theater rather than having any material impact on emissions.”
“However, we can look at it in a different way—as the harbinger of more restrictions on aviation, which are likely if the industry doesn’t get more serious about decarbonizing itself,” the author states.
It is not the first nation in Europe to impose stringent restrictions on extremely short-haul flights.
In 2020, the Austrian government provided financial assistance to the country’s national airline, Austrian Airlines, in exchange for the airline ceasing all flights to destinations where traveling by rail would take less than three hours.
In fact, only the flight route between Vienna and Salzburg was eliminated, and train services on the line were increased in response. In 2017, a similarly brief rail route connecting Vienna and Linz had been relocated.
All flights departing from Austrian airports under 350 kilometers (220 miles) were subject to a 32-euro tax the same year.
According to a 2020 survey, 62% of European citizens would support a ban on short-haul commercial flights. Other European nations are said to be considering curbs on short-haul commercial flights, which could be a positive development. By 2050, Spain intends to reduce the number of flights and train trips that take less than 2.5 hours.
It should come as no surprise that these actions have raised concerns within the aviation sector.
The European Regional Airlines Association (ERA) and a number of other organizations representing the aerospace industry commissioned a report for 2022. It states that if all airline traffic on routes shorter than 310 miles (500 kilometers) switched to another form of public transportation, the potential carbon savings would amount to up to 5% of emissions within the EU.
According to Montserrat Barriga, the ERA’s director general, “Banning short-haul flights and showing support for the rail industry is an easy win to gain favor with the public, especially in Europe.”
On the other hand, Barriga and others on both sides of the debate point to the double standard of limiting short-haul flights and gradually eliminating carbon allowances for European flights while taking no significant steps to restrict connections outside the bloc.
Globally, long-distance flights produce the most emissions. According to a recent academic paper published in the Journal of Transport Geography, flights under 500 kilometers (310 miles) only account for 5.9% of fuel consumed in the EU, despite representing 27.9% of departures. On the other hand, flights that are longer than 4,000 kilometers account for 47% of the fuel consumed but only 6.2% of departures from the EU.
Dardenne of T&E states, “Governments continue ignoring the biggest source of aviation emissions, long-haul flights, which remain unpriced and unregulated.” Governments shouldn’t use flight bans to distract from the real problem.
Obstacles to switching
According to Jon Worth, founder of the public advocacy group Trains for Europe, rail operators could do more, despite the fact that railways are currently blazing new trails through Europe and contributing to the recent demise of Italy’s national airline Alitalia.
He says that on trunk routes like Paris to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, high prices and low frequencies continue to be a barrier to getting more people to stop flying.
“On a significant number passageways, rail could get a portion of multimodal transportation way over the ongoing one. Rather than focusing on market share, rail operators have prioritized profit. He states, “The latter can only be accomplished by operating railways as a public service or by increasing competition.”
Better network between intercity rail and air terminals would likewise lessen the requirement for short-pull flights. Worth adds that it is essential to offer combined tickets so that, for instance, passengers can be accommodated on the following train if a train is delayed and they miss their connection, as is the case with connecting flights at the moment.
This works pretty well in countries like Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, and Spain where airlines and operators work together. In February 2023, Italian aircraft ITA Aviation routes – Alitalia’s replacement – endorsed on to work with Italy’s public rail administrator to make joins, as well.
However, there is still a lot to be done in this area; for starters, the above schemes only apply to national carriers. In order to make this kind of intermodal travel more accessible to a wider audience, the European Commission plans to approve a piece of legislation titled Multimodal Digital Mobility Services in 2023.
When the ban is up for review in France, shorter train travel times and increased train frequency may mean the end of more domestic air routes. The measure is only in effect for three years. However, the future of regional aviation may also be altered by advancements in clean flight technology.
Since the majority of current research projects in the fields of electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen-powered aviation specifically focus on small airplanes designed to cover very short distances, short-haul flights are likely to be the first segments of the aviation industry to decarbonize.
The environmental, social, economic, political, and technological parameters that shape this discussion continue to change, and the climate crisis continues. As a result, it appears that the debate will continue to play out over the next few years.