Flight Shaming – Should The Train Take The Strain?

Estimated time to read this article: 6 minutes

In recent months, discouraging flying, or ‘flight shaming’, has become a hot topic. From Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic in a sailing boat, to Extinction Rebellion climbing on top of a plane at London City Airport, environmental activists are trying to get the message across to us that we should cut down on taking to the skies.

A United Airlines flight departing Zurich Airport

My view is that we shouldn’t be trying to explore the world less – we should be getting out to explore and share knowledge with the world we live, and air travel is a necessary part of doing so when going further afield.

As far as long-haul travel across continents is concerned, planes are a necessary evil, and as noted above, I don’t think we should be cutting down the amount of long distance flights just because of environmental concerns. However, particularly in the UK and Western Europe, there are lots of routes where air and rail link the same city/country pairs. Should we ditch the plane for the train in these scenarios?

Take London -> Central Belt of Scotland (Edinburgh/Glasgow airports) as one example. The city-centre to city-centre rail route for both cities takes about 4.5 hours – even taking into account getting to the airport an hour before the flight (so leaving the city centre by bus or tram around 1hr 45mins beforehand), you could fly from – for example – Edinburgh Airport to London City Airport (more useful than Luton or Heathrow for the majority of business travellers going between the two cities, unless connecting onwards to another destination) in around 3 hours. For a return flight, that’s a net 3 hour saving – which, where costs are broadly similar, is a significant factor to consider. The stats show that a significant proportion of travellers do decide to fly rather than take the train – according to latest figures around 2/3 of passengers travelling between London and Glasgow/Edinburgh chose to fly. (this tallies, as I’ve both flown and taken the train on this route over the past year, dependent on whether time is key – in fact, I wrote a blog article about my most recent Edinburgh to London flight with Flybe!)

By contrast, Eurostar has around an 80% market share for the key London to Paris/Brussels routes – with air primarily serving connecting traffic rather than people travelling point-to-point between the two cities. This is because the timings stack up far better than in the Edinburgh to London example above – the fastest trains to Brussels are under 2 hours, and Paris is 2 hours 20 minutes. With just 45 minutes beforehand as the recommended arrival time (and in reality you can nearly always check in until 30 minutes before departure, or even 10 minutes before if travelling in Business Premier), that’s city centre to city centre in under 3 hours – competitive with the total time for a flight when you take into account connections, and with far less environmental impact too.

A Eurostar service ready to depart London St Pancras

Airlines themselves are starting to take note of the environmental concerns (and, likely, the increased competition from rail as more travellers choose to be environment-conscious) – particularly carriers where connecting cities within Europe is the core of their operation. Several airlines have offered carbon offsetting options for a while now, but last week, EasyJet went a step further by announcing that they would be the first major airline to make their flights carbon-neutral, offsetting the CO2 emissions produced by aeroplane engines with projects elsewhere to reduce CO2 by an equivalent amount. Ryanair has also recently been pushing what they do to stay as green as possible through advertising, though their approach has been widely criticised in the media.

An Easyjet flight at Knuffigen Airport! (Part of Minatur Wonderland in Hamburg)

Other airlines are taking a different approach and embracing the rail connectivity. KLM, for example, is cutting one flight a day on its popular Brussels to Amsterdam route (usually around 40 minutes flight time), instead selling tickets for the direct Thalys/NS rail services (for which the quickest service is just under 2 hours). With my sceptic hat on, I wonder if it’s more to do with freeing up slots at their Amsterdam hub which are in somewhat short supply, but it’s better than nothing and, like with Eurostar journey times are likely to be similar city centre to city centre (in fact, in this case, particularly if you have checked luggage when flying, the train is likely to win on speed).

A KLM flight arriving at it’s gate at Knuffigen Airport! (Incidentally, a full report on Minatur Wonderland is lined up for a future blog post!)

Based on those examples alongside others I’ve looked into, for daytime trains I’d argue that – in the UK and western Europe – around 3 hours is probably the rough cut-off time for a rail journey to offer a comparative journey time to the equivalent flight, all things considered. But what about longer distances, is there a way that train travel can still be just as convenient as flying, such as travelling overnight?

After almost being eradicated entirely in the 2000s and early 2010s due to the rise of low cost flights, the other area making a comeback in Europe over the last couple of years is overnight trains, particularly those run by OBB, the Austrian state railway company. Business Traveller magazine has recently published an excellent article on these services’ growth, and the writer is absolutely correct – on my Interrail tour around Europe earlier this month, I used a night train to get from Hamburg to Vienna, and I would totally do it again (in fact, I’m hoping to try out, and review, the Brussels – Vienna direct service when it launches in the New Year!). The experience was better than I’d anticipated (helped, in part, by the larger loading gauge on the Continent allowing for more height in the cabin) and, as you’re usually asleep for 80% of the journey, is just as time-efficient as a flight. It’s cost-effective too, very much comparable to flight + hotel if not a bit cheaper (unlike the Caledonian Sleeper in the UK, who I think have pitched their pricing too high, which is being reflected in current off-season loadings).

Entrance to Vienna’s main station, the hub of their NightJet network

So – to conclude, would I ever consider travelling less due to environmental concerns? Absolutely not, and nor would it preclude me flying where rail isn’t a feasible option for whatever reason. But, as far as European travel goes, I would certainly consider taking rail over air when journey times are similar, if time is important to me on that particular journey. That being said, with the efforts the aviation industry are going to in terms of offsetting their carbon emissions, and reducing them where possible (though I think we’re still a fair way off commercial aviation in electric planes!), I’d have no particular guilt if I did choose to fly.

I’m conscious here that I’ve touched neither on pricing differences (though rail and air tend to be similar for Intercity travel in Europe, generally speaking, with perhaps rail edging air out slightly off-peak) nor the convenience factor – some people put more weight on these than others – for example, a number of travellers will choose rail over flying from London to Scotland regardless of speed or cost, as they can work for 4.5 hours on the train, or simply might be travellers who just want to travel city centre to city centre on one service without the hassle of airports. It’s also worth noting that, whilst I’ve tried to avoid it, there may be an element of natural bias in this article as (for journeys where time isn’t the most important factor) I’d generally prefer to take the train over the plane where prices allow in any case.

As always, I’d be interested to hear readers’ views on this – have you considered switching from air to rail due to environmental concerns? Let me know in the comments.

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