Over the last ten years and before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, air transport in Europe has grown spectacularly, much faster than rail transport. Air transport has risen from 377 billion pkm (passenger kilometres) in 2010 to 586 billion pkm in 2019, representing average annual growth of +5.5 %. Rail transport grew at a more modest rate, from 358 billion pkm to 421 billion pkm, representing average annual growth of +1.8 %.
This difference has increased between 2014 and 2019, due to the rise of low-cost airlines and the popularity of leisure travel, particularly in the intra-EU segment.
Why rail travel will become the norm
1. Travelling by train will be encouraged by our policies to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG).
The EU aims to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55 % by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, and to reach a net zero level by 2050. The transfer of more passenger transport from air to rail could potentially play an important role in achieving this objective in the short to medium term, as rail transport is much more environmentally friendly than air transport.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), rail transport is 12 times more energy efficient than air transport. On average, passenger air transport emits 160 gCO2 per pkm, while passenger rail transport emits only 33 gCO2 per pkm (excluding infrastructure-related emissions).
With a high proportion of electrified track (57 % of the EU's rail network in 2020) and a growing share of renewable energies in the electricity mix (38 % of the EU's production in 2020), rail's environmental footprint should decrease further over the next decade.
Given its potential to reduce CO2 emissions, EU policy should increasingly favour rail transport.
EU objectives for the transport sector
2. The majority of European flights are short and medium-haul
Given the growing demand from passengers for greener transport solutions and the nature of European flights (mostly short and medium-haul), there is still so much potential for rail transport. In 2019, almost 25 % of European flights were under 500 kilometres, and around 70 % were under 1,500 kilometres. The shorter the distance, the greater the likelihood that rail will be able to replace air travel because of its competitiveness in terms of journey time.
Research generally suggests that rail transport can offer a competitive alternative to flights on routes where the train journey takes less than six hours, especially if it is a direct connection and avoids passengers having to change trains to make the journey. This potentially covers a significant proportion of flights.
3. Rail rivals the advantages of aviation
Although passengers are increasingly considering the impact of their journey on CO2 emissions, the main factors taken into account by consumers when planning a trip are still price and time. As a result, most passengers will only turn to rail if they perceive it to be relatively more affordable, faster or more reliable than air travel.
The rail industry still faces many challenges:
💰 PricesThe level playing field in terms of taxation between air and rail is not yet equal (72% of Europeans are in favour of a carbon tax on flights).
🕛 Time: The rail system is developing more and more (new networks, TGV, etc.) but flights are still often faster.
👤 Booking and reliabilityThe train ticket booking system is still too complex. There's still a lot of UX work to be done on the booking systems. Perhaps via a European platform and coordination?
In short, the train is bound to become an increasingly important part of our way of travelling. That's why, as a travel agency, we've decided to give priority to this mode of transport. This week we had the chance to talk to Fabian Pirard, founder of railtrip - a specialist in rail travel.
DiscoveRent aims to include more and more services to help its participants opt for rail travel.
Eurostat (2022) Railway passenger transport statistics - quarterly and annual data, https://ec.europa.eu/. European commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Railway_passenger_transport_statistics_-_quarterly_and_annual_data (Accessed: January 17, 2023).Rico Luman, D.G. (2022) From plane to train: Europe is pushing climate-friendly travel, ING Think. ING Think. Available at: https://think.ing.com/articles/from-plane-to-train-europe-is-pushing-climate-friendly-travel#a4 (Accessed: January 17, 2023).