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OPINION: Is high speed rail a threat to short haul air travel?

OPINION: Is high speed rail a threat to short haul air travel?
Across Europe there is emerging demand for more and better HSR connectivity to compete with and mitigate environmental impacts of short haul air travel (Image credit: @potowizard/Adobe Stock)

A couple of weeks ago I went on a European holiday to France and Switzerland. Nothing exceptional in that, except for the first time ever all travel was by rail and I had an opportunity to reflect on the viability of High Speed Rail (HSR) as a sustainable alternative to short haul flying.

HSR is well embedded across several European countries, with France having led the way since the 1970s with its ever-improving TGV network and most recently with the emergence of low-cost HSR operating across France and Spain. In Europe, high speed trains travel at speeds of around 300kph (189mph) with variation between 250-350kph depending on the train and infrastructure capabilities. There is also ongoing investment in HSR infrastructure and rolling stock across a number of European countries.

Much of this is to facilitate modal shift in transport choice over shorter distances. Perhaps the most notable legislative example of forced change is in France, where domestic short haul point-to-point flights have been banned if rail can substitute for journey times of up to two and a half hours. There are some interesting exemptions, mostly where the frequency of train departures would not facilitate a viable working or visit day at the destination or enable a same day return journey.

While it sounds very significant – and it is – it only impacts around 3 per cent of French domestic air traffic and a very small volume of emissions. Notably, connecting traffic is exempt. However, the precedent has been set and there are already calls for wider implementation.

Technology companies such as Dohop have stepped into the space of providing intermodal ticketing for air-to-rail connectivity in various markets, with Germany being an interesting case. While the behaviour is encouraged and there is customer demand, recent reliability of the German rail network has made this an object of frustration and some ridicule. So called ‘AIRail’ in Germany has a long history going back over 20 years with DB (the German rail operator) and Lufthansa leading the way.

In recent years easyJet has extended its ‘Worldwide by easyJet’ product to include rail ticket integration in Germany and, in 2023, Star Alliance announced a seamless ticketing offer via Frankfurt, initially with Lufthansa only, but with United Airlines having now also come onboard.

Oana Savu, chief strategy officer at Dohop, speaking recently at Coventry University, argued that intermodal air-to-rail is the best way to mitigate the environmental negatives of short haul air travel, but observes that even greater investment in the HSR network is needed across Europe. The challenges of expanding HSR in the UK are well documented through the recent and long debate about further investment in HSR infrastructure, ultimately resulting in curtailing and killing expansion of HS2 beyond Birmingham. The government was politically unwilling to make the case for infrastructure investment when the scale of the project would mean that ultimate costs would be unknowable in the short to medium-term.

Across Europe there is emerging demand for more and better HSR connectivity to compete with and mitigate environmental impacts of short haul air travel. It is also clear that investment in infrastructure is both costly and difficult to sell politically in some markets, but change does appear to be on the horizon.

My own recent experience of HSR was positive with a much lower stress boarding experience and the trains being overall more comfortable than aircraft. I can certainly see the attraction for many potential journeys across the continent, although connectivity from the UK is entirely centred on London and transit via the Channel Tunnel. Beyond this there is the potential logistical challenge of changing stations, which I personally viewed to be similar to changing terminals at some large airports and really was much less problematic than having to navigate various security checkpoints and screening processes.

Perhaps the most notable negative was pricing, where the cost was more than would have been paid for flying even when booked in advance. For flights, I’ve become an expert at getting the best value from a variation of low-cost airlines and reward miles, but to use Avios in the UK invariably means travelling to Heathrow (or Gatwick) and that for me, involves extra time and cost, including sometimes an overnight hotel.

The pricing of low-cost flights is a long-standing area of contention that staggers issues of cost, profitability and democratisation pitched against the real cost of flying and its environmental impact. The emergence of low-cost HSR (OUIGO in France and Spain), and indeed services such as Lumo in the UK (although not high speed), may start to address that issue.

My recent experience means that I will now give serious consideration to rail for European travel, but I’m not convinced that the supremacy of short haul air travel is immediately under threat. There are too many markets that are underserved by appropriate rail infrastructure, but  we need to look to the 10-year horizon, when the world and technology will have evolved even further and, of course, things can change politically very quickly. At the very least airlines and airports need to seriously consider how they integrate into a more intermodal transport system.