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The Eco-friendly Race: Europe's Quest to Replace Planes with Trains

The Eco-friendly Race: Europe's Quest to Replace Planes with Trains
photo: RAILTARGET Archive, Siemens/The Eco-friendly Race: Europe's Quest to Replace Planes with Trains
31 / 07 / 2023

As Europe pushes forward on its ambitious climate agenda, a pivotal aspect has surfaced: shifting travellers from planes to trains. Amid the backdrop of an expansive rail network and rising demand for eco-friendly transport, the rail sector aims to navigate several challenges to enable this significant shift.

For the past decade, up until the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel growth outpaced that of rail. Despite a 5.5% average annual increase in air transport passenger kilometres (pkm), rail transport saw a more modest 1.8% increase. This surge in air travel, notably between 2014 and 2019, was largely attributable to budget airlines and the burgeoning popularity of leisure trips within the EU.

ING Research,

The European Union, determined to minimize carbon emissions, has a target to reduce its greenhouse gases (GHG) by 55% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels, and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The potential for rail transport to play a significant role in achieving these targets is clear. Rail transport is estimated to be 12 times more energy-efficient than air travel, emitting, on average, 160 gCO2 per pkm compared to air transport's 33 gCO2 per pkm, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). Furthermore, given the high proportion of electrified tracks and the growing use of renewable energy, the environmental footprint of rail is expected to reduce further in the next decade.

However, for rail travel to truly flourish, it needs to cater to the increasing demand for greener transport solutions while also considering the nature of European flights. In 2019, roughly 25% of European flights covered distances below 500 kilometres, and around 70% were under 1,500 kilometres. With the majority of flights being short to medium distance, rail travel's potential remains largely untapped. Studies suggest that rail transport can be a competitive alternative to flights on routes that take less than six hours, particularly direct connections.

Nevertheless, to fully compete with aviation, the rail sector must address challenges related to price, time, and reliability. While rail has an environmental advantage, it lags in terms of pricing as air travel currently enjoys fuel tax and VAT exemptions and 85% free carbon allowances under the EU Emission Trading Scheme. Time is another factor; despite the extra time spent on security and check-in procedures for flights, air travel is often quicker. However, with plans to improve European rail services, including the creation of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) and the implementation of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), rail's competitiveness is expected to enhance over the next decades. In fact, one-third of the EU's busiest air routes already have a train alternative under six hours, indicating the potential for rail to rival air travel on a larger scale.