You may have read the story: “France bans short domestic flights where passengers can take the train.”
The article by my colleague Helen Coffey describes how the French government proceeded with a recapitalization of 4 billion euros (3.5 billion pounds sterling) of the Air France contingent by reducing flights on routes where a journey in train of less than two and a half hours was achievable.
Now, a group that promotes rail transport, and in particular âopen accessâ rail operators, is calling for the concept to be extended.
Allrail, the Alliance of New Rail Entrants, says flights on European routes where trains can cover the same terrain in four hours or less should be blocked.
Anything that broadens the climate debate is to be welcomed, and it is certainly a radical policy that will find favor with environmentalists – as well as people who live near busy airports and see dozens of flights. very short haul arriving and departing each day.
But I see no prospect of lawmakers adopting such a policy – due to its unintended consequences.
Take a few train trips where at least one trip per day is equal to or less than the four-hour threshold: from Frankfurt to Berlin and from Edinburgh to London.
Mandating the cancellation of these links would be annoying for the traveler – and ultimately counterproductive. Suppose you plan to travel from Edinburgh via Heathrow to Johannesburg, or from Miami via Frankfurt to Berlin. You want to take advantage of the hub and spoke possibilities offered by network carriers such as British Airways and Lufthansa.
As you may have noticed, LNER offers a superb, fast and frequent connection between central Edinburgh and King’s Cross on the edge of central London. At this point, the traveler to South Africa must, according to Allrail, haul their suitcases to the Piccadilly Line and sit on an underground train for an hour to reach Heathrow.
Conversely, the Berliner returning home from Florida lands in Frankfurt at 8 a.m. aboard flight LH463, frankly, feels bad. They just want to go through passport control and head out the door for a coffee before they leave at 9.45am, arriving shortly before 11am at the shiny new airport in the German capital.
In either case, if the passenger cannot establish a domestic connection through their country’s hub, it is likely that they will choose a sub-optimal air route.
Edinburgh-Johannesburg via Doha adds 1,400 miles to the total trip, while Miami-Berlin via Istanbul (Skyscanner’s first option) increases the distance traveled by almost 2,000 miles.
But it is possible to reduce the amount of short jumps. On the two domestic journeys described here, there will be a mix of connecting and point-to-point passengers. A good way to move some of these latter groups from the plane to the train is to reduce the price of the train and tax the plane ticket.
Mark Smith, the international rail guru who created Seat61.com, agrees: âPersonally, I would never take a flight for a trip I could make in four hours from center to center by train, and a number more and more people are feeling the same, both for reasons of climate change and because it’s a more enjoyable experience and frankly as quick as a hike to the airport, an extended check-in, a flight and a hike in the city.
Its prescription: force airlines to pay tax on their fuel and eliminate VAT on train tickets where it is charged.
But Mr. Smith also borrows from the great development of aviation: lowering barriers to entry to encourage competition, leading to cheaper tickets and better services.
Ironically, the French Railways – which should be the main beneficiary of the Air France ruling – are doing everything in their power to discourage competition.
Sometimes the aviation does it right.