In the 1920s and 1930s, long-distance train journeys were the norm across Europe, according to Mark Smith, also known as Man in Seat 61. The luxurious Orient Express, gliding along a scenic route from London to Istanbul, is just one example of how train travel was “both fun and convenient,” he says.
But with the emergence of low cost short-haul flights, that all started to change. Since 1950, global air traffic has increased 300 times, and until the pandemic, aviation was one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions in the world.
“At one point, it became quite normal to fly to another country just for the weekend,” says Smith, whose website has grown since 2001 to become the primary resource for train trips around the world. “But that is starting to change and people are realizing that it is not that normal.”
As the reality of climate change becomes more and more striking and the sheer comfort and ease of train travel becomes more attractive, it is increasingly evident that European citizens, businesses and governments are embracing the train as a better way to travel.
In April, the French government voted to ban short-haul domestic flights where alternatives to the train exist. A study by the French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir found that planes emit 77 times more CO2 per passenger than trains on journeys of less than four hours.
Experts say the combination of climate change and the pandemic has also caused a significant shift in consumer demand. A Cardiff University study found that 47% of UK travelers, now more sensitive to nature and a slower pace of life, plan to fly less after the pandemic.
“It’s not just climate change,” Smith said, citing increased airport restrictions after 9/11. “Travelers also want to change the experience. They are tired of the experience of airports and airlines and they want to reduce carbon emissions. Many are finding that you don’t have to suffer to save the planet – it’s nice to take the train.
Companies with green credentials hope to capitalize quickly as train travel picks up and is no longer seen as the preserve of enthusiasts, or those with health concerns or phobias of flying. Among them is Lumo, a low-cost, low-carbon rail company that is launching an all-electric alternative to flying on the UK’s busiest domestic route, from London to Edinburgh.
“It’s about cleaner, greener and cheaper travel,” says Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo, whose service will start operating on October 25 and should be about as fast as flying. “I think the market is ready in a lot of ways. “
Internal Lumo research found 56% of UK flights before the pandemic were between London and Edinburgh, but on average it was six times more polluting to fly than to take an electric train. The company hopes its trains will provide “a model for low carbon and affordable long distance travel in the UK”.
A key factor in Lumo’s business plan is affordability – around 60% of fares will be £ 30 ($ 40) or less, which the company says will be achieved by cutting costs through ticketing systems. highly digitized. “We shouldn’t be charged a premium for doing the right thing,” Wylde adds.
Lumo’s plan is a similar, albeit new, approach to low-cost train options in Europe such as Ouigo in France and RegioJet through Prague and Vienna, according to Smith, and he believes it could prove transformational in the same. way that Eurostar “completely changed” travel between the UK, France and Belgium in 1994. “People often cite cost as the reason for not taking the train,” he says. “Lumo could be a game-changer. . “
But Lumo is far from the only low-carbon rail company looking to derail Europe’s addiction to low-cost airlines. Nightjet, the Austrian railway company, and Snälltåget, a Swedish operator, are relaunching sleeper services on the mainland. Midnight Trains, a French startup, is launching night connections between a dozen European cities, including Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and Copenhagen. And next year, Dutch startup European Sleeper will also operate a sleeper service between Brussels and Prague, after successfully raising € 500,000 ($ 585,000) in funding in May.
However, Smith says there are issues that could hinder continental rail growth. First, the shift to remote work could mean less demand from business travelers, who generate higher incomes than those who travel for pleasure. Second, European national networks are often fragmented with respect to each other and have reservation systems that are difficult to navigate for international journeys. Third, government policies are “often biased in favor of the airline industry”, which, for example, does not pay fuel taxes in the UK
Yet despite these hurdles, Peter White, professor emeritus of public transport systems at the University of Westminster, London, says that in Britain and Western Europe rail transport can already outperform the airplane. “In these regions, where there are a lot of cities nearby, rail is very competitive,” he says. “I think the image is positive.”
Likewise, Professor White sees the potential for rail networks to thrive in densely populated areas of the United States, such as the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, DC, where Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service, operates its most profitable routes. . “But outside of these areas, the gaps between cities are huge, so it’s a challenge,” he says.
Even so, in some parts of the world, long-distance train travel is growing at full speed. China continues to build the world’s largest high-speed network; Japan is expanding its fleet of famous shinkansen high speed trains; high-speed lines are planned in Thailand; and in countries like India, with its network of over 40,000 miles, railways are the transport of the masses. Meanwhile, under President Biden billions have been allocated to high-speed trains in California and a route between Houston and Dallas is in the works.
“We could be on the cusp of a new golden age of trains,” says Smith.
This story was originally published in Reasons to Be Cheerful and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange of the Journalism Solutions Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues.
Peter Yeung is a contributing editor for Reasons to be Cheerful. A Paris-based journalist, he also writes for publications such as the Guardian, LA Times and the BBC. He has deposited stories across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.