Last Update: at 21:24

Switching to rail

Will trains replace flights more quickly?

In Europe, many short-haul flights are disappearing in favour of train connections. In some cases, the coronavirus crisis accelerates the trend.

Before the Coronavirus crisis, the environmental debate was one of the major issues in European aviation, especially with regard to short-haul flights. In November 2019 for example, KLM told aeroTELEGRAPH that it will no longer only connect Amsterdam and Brussels by train.

«We will develop a product to fly to London and take the train back», said Boet Kreiken, who is responsible for the customer experience at the Dutch airline. «I think in the long term, short distances will be covered by trains.»

Swiss opts for more feeder trains

In February, the airline organisation IATA and the international railway association UIC agreed to develop standards to make it easier to link flights and train journeys in the future. This should make more feeder train connections possible around the world, something Lufthansa, Swiss and Austrian already offer.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. And in mid-August, Swiss announced a feeder train from Geneva to Zurich airport: «Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of Swiss flights between the national airports of Zurich and Geneva was reduced.»

Air France drops many domestic flights

However, it is generally difficult to say whether the effects of the pandemic are accelerating the switch from flight to train on more and more routes, or whether the development of corresponding rail connections would have been equally rapid even without the virus outbreak. One must look at the individual cases.

For example, in return for Coronavirus-related state aid, Air France agreed not to offer any more domestic routes that can be covered in two and a half hours (or less) by high-speed train. The government also made it a condition for the airline to reduce CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre by 50 percent by 2030. Air France therefore plans to reduce its 2021 domestic services by around 40 percent.

Austrian railways lead the way at night

Austria decided in June – without connection to the pandemic – to increase the tax on short-haul flights of up to 350 kilometres. In an interview with aeroTELEGRAPH, Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler said that the aim was to switch to climate-friendly alternatives where possible. «We want to initiate this change with these measures, because especially on short distances the future is the train», said Gewessler.

Night trains are a special chapter. Germany’s railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) withdrew from operating night trains at the end of 2016 despite criticism. The Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) took over part of the services and sleeping and couchette trains. The company not only operates a route network from Vienna under the name Nightjet, but has also just announced an expansion together with the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB). The network is to extend from Hamburg in the north to Barcelona and Rome in the south by 2024, with Zurich being in the middle.

Graphic: ÖBB/SBB

Design company for jets now designs night trains

The Austrian railway company has commissioned the renowned design company Priestman Goode – which also counts major airlines such as Lufthansa, Swiss, United Airlines and Qatar Airways among its customers – to equip new night trains.

France is also debating the expansion of night train connections to several European destinations. In Germany, the Green Party appeal to the government to promote fast night trains in Europe, coordinated by a European railway agency.

High-speed rail is often missing

However, all these efforts to expand night trains cannot be seen in close connection with Covid-19. Anyone who has ever travelled in a sleeping car with several passengers knows that there is a lack of social distance. For example, the Swiss Federal Railway declared: «The night train on the Zurich – Budapest route will run without sleeping and couchette cars until further notice» and «The night train on the Zurich – Prague route will be suspended until further notice».

But even beyond the Coronavirus pandemic and sleeping cars, there are still hurdles in the way of replacing flights by trains on a large scale. KLM manager Boet Kreiken, for example, stressed that Europe still needs to invest heavily in infrastructure for high-speed trains.

Airlines see new regional opportunities

The challenges are not easy to master everywhere, as the manager made clear: «The Netherlands are essentially sand and mud», explained Kreiken. For fast trains with speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour (186 miles per hour), this is a challenge, especially in curves. This was already evident on the route between Amsterdam and Brussels: «You can only really step on the gas after Breda», a city in the south of the country.

However, some airlines see a chance even in short domestic flights – and are not deterred by Coronavirus. Green Airlines, for example, is currently preparing for take-off in Germany as a new airline, it will first launch flights between Karlsruhe and capital Berlin.

We’re on a break. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic we have decided to halt our English publication for a while and concentrate on our other ventures. But we’ll be back. Meanwhile you can find all our news, insights and more on our German site.