A report produced by Greenpeace has found that rail journeys in Europe are on average twice as expensive as flights, despite the overall climate impact of flying being up to 80 times worse than taking a train.
The report analysed 112 routes in Europe, including 94 cross-border and 17 domestic routes with a focus on the EU27 along with Switzerland, Norway and Britain, but excluding Malta, Cyprus and Ireland. All routes analysed were less than 1500km apart, and all destinations have an international airport and a railway station. The study compared air and rail fares on nine different days for each route.
The routes connected capitals and cities with more than 1 million inhabitants such as Barcelona, Milan or Hamburg. For capitals with reasonable rail connections to no more than four of these cities, all routes were analysed. For capitals well connected with more than four of these cities, a selection of at least four routes was made to achieve a balanced geographic mix.
Of the 112 routes analysed, only 23 were regularly cheaper by train than by plane, with only half of these regarded as “decent” rail journeys with acceptable journey times. A total of 16 of these 23 routes are not served by low-cost airlines, and six do not have any direct flights at all.
Greenpeace says that Barcelona - London showed the highest price difference, with a train fare costing up to 30 times the price of the flight for a trip on the same day: €384 by rail compared with €12.99 to fly. Some of the routes between major European cities, such as London - Bratislava (15.5 times), Budapest - Brussels (12.5 times), Madrid - Brussels (15 times), Valencia - Paris (12 times) or Rome - Vienna (10.2 times) show high price differences as well.
Countries with the most expensive train fares compared with the cost of a flight are Britain, Spain, Belgium, France and Italy, with trains often cheaper in relation to flights in central and eastern Europe compared with western Europe. However, service frequency, speed and onboard services are usually worse than in western countries.
Routes with effective rail connections such as Amsterdam - London, London - Edinburgh and Toulouse - Paris are still among the top 43 most popular short-haul flights in Europe, and flights on these routes remain much cheaper than rail.
Low-cost airlines operate 79% of all routes analysed, and transfer flights involving a change en route operated by these companies are the cheapest flight option for another 12% of the routes. Greenpeace says these transfer flights are also by far the most polluting options, causing up to 10 times more greenhouse gas emissions than direct flights.
Greenpeace says EasyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air, Volotea and other low-cost airlines offer the lowest prices, and are in almost all cases were cheaper than rail. The cheapest airline ticket cost €9.99.
Rail trips are more expensive, with the cost increasing the more different operators are involved, and the more separate tickets have to be bought for different sections of journey. The price may also vary from one operator to another.
Some rail operators also do not sell tickets for more than two or three months in advance of the travel date, which creates another advantage for airlines that always sell tickets for the period analysed.
“Aviation is one of the world's most climate-damaging and inequitable industries,” the report says. “While only 1% of the world's population is responsible for more than half of global climate emissions from aviation, the consequences affect everyone around the world, from extreme weather events to pollution-related illnesses and disruption from noise.”
“Flying only looks like a bargain because the cost of pollution is so cheap,” says Greenpeace UK’s director of policy, Dr Doug Parr. “Low-cost airlines are paying negligible tax while imposing low wages and poor conditions on staff. Airlines keep their prices artificially low because they pay no kerosene tax or VAT, and have even received a recent reduction in Air Passenger Duty in Britain. By contrast, train operators have to pay energy taxes, VAT and high track access charges in most European countries.
“In order to make rail more affordable than air transport, Greenpeace is calling for all short-haul flights to be banned where there is a reasonable rail alternative, and for an end to subsidies for airlines and airports, starting with a phase-out of tax exemptions for kerosene and a frequent flier levy. It also calls for European governments to introduce climate tickets - simple long-term tickets that are valid on all means of public transport in a country or region.”