International 30/10/2021

Train to Glasgow calls for fewer planes in Europe

A convoy to COP26 claims the environmental benefit of rail over air travel

4 min
A group of passengers board a train at a Berlin station.

LondonIn 2019, and in the framework of the climate summit that was to take place in Chile and was finally held in Madrid, the initiative was named Sail to the COP . This 2021, and after a blank year due to the pandemic, the equivalent project for the meeting that starts in Glasgow this Sunday is called Rail to the COP . The two operations have been promoted by Youth for Sustainable Travel (YFST ), based in the Netherlands, and aim to encourage travel that is as environmentally friendly as possible.

To reach the Scottish city leading by example, several activists, scientists and other personalities will board the train early this Saturday from different European capitals (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris and London) to get off around six in the evening, already touching the banks of the River Clyde, in the host city of COP26. A kind of climate train to discuss sustainable alternatives to current transport systems. In Europe, the train/plane dilemma is one of the clearest examples, especially for journeys of less than 1,500 kilometres.

Travelling the 673 kilometres that separate the centre of London from Glasgow by plane means, per passenger, 150.95 kilos of CO2 emissions. Doing it by train, only 23.7 . In time, the flight is seventy minutes long; the train takes between 4.30 and 5.30 hours. However, if one counts the journeys to and from the airports, plus waiting times for boarding, etc., there is very little difference. The price? At this point, and although it seems inexplicable - but it has explanations: such as fuel subsidies and tax exemptions that the EU applies, and will continue to apply until 2030 - it is cheaper to fly. To go to Glasgow, and exceed 150 pounds (165 euros).

France, an example to follow

2021 is the European Year of the Railways. In this context, and in view of the imminence of COP26, it is not surprising that more and more voices are calling for a reduction or elimination of flights that the European Union (EU) considers medium or short distance, i.e. those already mentioned below 1,500 kilometers. In France, for example, from March 2022, there will be no flights between cities with rail connections of less than 2.5 hours. Austria Airlines has abolished the Vienna-Salzburg route.

There are other decisions that fall within the economic logic, such as the Dutch KLM not offering domestic flights. It is not without irony that Vázquez Montalbán said that in the "Netherlands all trains are local trains". But borders break this ideal rationality. KLM itself offers four daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels, cities only 210 kilometres apart. And the shorter the flight, the greater the proportional number of CO2 emissions, because take-off and landing are the most fuel-consuming moments.

Commissioned by Greenpeace, the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa think-tank published a report on Wednesday which argues that "for 34% of the 150 busiest air routes in the European Union there is a rail alternative that takes less than six hours".

Some of the lines highlighted by the analysis are Barcelona-Madrid, Frankfurt-Berlin or the aforementioned Brussels-Amsterdam, which can be covered by train in between two and four hours. In fact, "Europe can replace almost all of the 250 busiest short-haul flights and save 23.4 million tons of CO2 per year, as much as Croatia's annual emissions", says Greenpeace. Bringing back night trains would be key for journeys of between 1,000 and 1,500 kilometres, for example to travel from Barcelona to Paris.

High-speed trains everywhere?

So do we need to start building even more railway lines, and much more high speed? There are all kinds of arguments, for and against. For example, Eurocontrol, a lobby group with 41 states behind it, believes in a recent report that "high speed has the greatest potential to replace air travel of less than 500 kilometres". This number of flights accounts for 24.1% of all flights on the continent, but only 3.8% of aviation emissions. The gain, in terms of pollution savings, does not seem excessive.

For flights between 500 and 1,000 kilometres, high speed would be less able to successfully replace the air option. One of Eurocontrol's assumptions, perhaps very optimistic, is that in the time it "takes for a high-speed infrastructure to come into service (18-26 years on average), aviation will be well on track to reach the zero emissions target by 2050".

However, this approach is not credible for the Stay Grounded organisation, a global network of organisations that aims to reduce the number of flights as a key factor in cutting the continuing rise in emissions - almost 40 million flights in 2019, about 100,000 a day, which accounted for a billion tonnes of CO2. "Relying on technology that has not yet been developed to reduce climate pollution is extremely risky", they stressed in an analysis published earlier this week. Stay Grounded argues that "the technologies envisioned for aviation and green substitutes for fossil fuels will come decades too late", especially when humanity will have already moved far away from the targets set for 2030, and which imply, at the current rate, that by 2100 the average global temperature will have risen by 2.7°C, well above the 1.5 to 2°C called for in the Paris Agreement.

Moreover, biofuels and hydrogen are not carbon neutral and also have adverse consequences for the planet. Producing them in the quantities needed to reach pre-covid levels of air traffic is unfeasible. At least for the time being. "The problem", Stay Grounded concludes, "is the growth in air traffic. Globally, the aviation sector is set to triple in volume by 2050: if this happens, fuel consumption, and therefore greenhouse gas emissions, will double in this sector alone".