Have you not heard of Easyjet? This is a question I am frequently asked when I meet people in the mountains of Europe and the conversation naturally turns to how I got there, or indeed how I’m getting back home again. The reaction to the statement, ‘all the way by train’ is often one of relative surprise. Around ten years ago, I decided to create myself a European ‘no-fly zone’ within which I would always take the train over the plane. The zone is centred on Paris, with a radius of around 1500 km in each direction. Within this area fall many well known destinations such as Warsaw, Vienna, Milan, Barcelona and… Thurso. As most of my trips are mountainous in nature, the zone encorperates the major European ranges of the Carpathians, Alps and Pyrénées. Plenty to keep me occupied.
Firstly, it’s important to set some context; I am not by any means anti-aviation. As a transport and travel enthusiast, I am excited at the prospect of any journey through, over or between different landscapes, whether by rail, road, air or sea. Indeed, to take-off in a modern passenger jet-aircraft is one of the most exhilarating things out there, after perhaps the thrill of travelling at 300 km/h on a high speed train of course. But in having a keen interest in the environment and sustainability agenda, air travel also brings and element of controversy to the forefront of my mind, given its relatively heavy impact by comparison to surface based modes of transport. Is it possible to be an ‘environmentally conscious traveller’? That’s a question for another time. But also as a Geographer, flying at 800 km/h at 10 000 m altitude is generally the least interesting way to observe the subtitles of the landscape evolving as move from one part of the globe to another (except perhaps for when you pass over large-scale, otherwise inaccessible geographical features such as the Greenland Ice Sheet). So turning again to the question overall, my short answer is simply that it comes down to a matter of efficiency. This can be taken as efficiency in terms of an amalgamation of time, enjoyment, cost/value analysis, geographical and scenic interest, energy consumption and environmental impact. Generally speaking, I firmly believe rail travel beats flying hands down on efficiency when the above factors are investigated for a given journey within my ‘no-fly zone’. Conversely, when a 6000 km + inter-continental journey traversing the arctic circle is examined, the opposite is likely true, air probably beats land (or sea) in terms of efficiency in many (but perhaps not all) of the factors listed.
In order to consolidate this concept, I’ll take a working example of a journey I am very familiar with; Lancaster to the Haute-Savoie Département of France. Firstly, I’ll describe what I believe an air-dominated journey would look like (although I’ve only done it once so I am open for suggestions of improvement) and secondly, what a rail-dominated journey entails.
Living in the NorthWest of England, taking a flight would almost certainly involve Manchester Airport. Given a reasonable allowance for check-in (2 hours) plus the getting to the airport bit (probably a train journey of approx. 1.5 hours) and the flight itself (approx. 1.5 hours), a reasonable half-day of travel would need to be put aside in order to deposit me at Geneva Airport. I would then no-doubt use public transport (which I am most familiar with) or some form of direct transfer in order to get me to my end destination of one of the many lovely Alpine villages on offer, let’s use Samoëns for this example (3 hour onward travel allowance). So all inclusive, I would be looking at around 3/4 of a day on lots of little bits and pieces of short-journeys stuck together with very little time in one seat to sit back, look out of the window, enjoy the scenery, read, write etc.
Now for the train. Setting out from Lancaster on West Coast mainline express trains, a comfortable 2.5 hours will usually deposit me at London Euston. After a short stroll through the backstreets between Euston and St. Pancras, I find myself at the Eurostar check-in gates. There is usually plenty of time for a cup of tea or pint at one of the good station pubs before boarding Eurostar to Paris. Check-in is always very slick at St. Pancras and usually takes around 10 minutes to clear (unless your bag gets searched). 2.5 hours on board Eurostar, with it’s walk-in buffet car and large comfortable seats will land you in the Gare du Nord. Time for another stretch of the legs (although it’s a 4 km walk), metro, RER or bus journey over to the Gare de Lyon. Next up its the TGV for a 3-hour sprint down to the Geneva basin (a number of stations offer connections to the Haute-Savoie). The TGV is one of the best long-distance trains out there; spacious, often double-deck, seating guaranteed and a lovely ‘Voiture-Bar’ (walk in buffet car) with perch seats and good views. So all-up, after about 3/4 of a day of travel, I am almost there. The rest of the day is spent on the 3 hour (ish) public transport transfer up to Samoëns. So a full day of travel will get you there comfortably. On the outward journey, I often choose to break the journey overnight at either London or Paris to ensure I optimise the journey around other activities (work etc.) or just for a bit of added interest.
So looking at the above timings, we can deduce that the perceived relative speed of air travel does not really present much of a gain (perhaps a quarter of a day?) overall relative to the train. From the perspective of time-efficiency, I’d argue that the rail-based journey provides much more ‘valuable’ journey time in terms of the efficiency factors outlined earlier (enjoyment, scenic value, on board amenities, opportunities to stretch the legs etc.)
An analysis of the relative energy consumption and environmental impacts of land (only) based transport including high speed rail versus air and land based transport for the journey being discussed here might be best tackled by means of a postgraduate thesis. Such drastic action becomes of most prevalent need if the unfathomably complex world of carbon footprinting is brought into the mix. So suffice to say, we’ll save an in-depth analysis for a rainy day :-). In brief however, it is generally accepted that rail journeys (and in particular high-speed ones) produce around 10% of the climate-damaging emissions compared to air travel over a comparable distance. So for today, we’ll simply state that from an energy consumption and environmental impact perspective, the railway win hands down on efficiency relative to air. It is always worth us keeping in mind however that there is no form of climate impact-free mobility in the modern world and if we are going to move about, we have to accept some form of impact – even walking burns calories that in turn have a carbon footprint ;-). That is why for me, efficiency of mobility is such a topic of interest and without wanting to ramble on for too long here, I’ll move on. More on that in future maybe.
So that is all well and good, but what about price? Surely the cost of the Lancaster to London leg alone will be more than a return flight to Geneva? This section requires the myth of the expense of rail travel to be interrogated. You will often hear such phrases as the opener to this paragraph pushed around by the media and the like, jumping on the cost of headline ‘walk-on’ Anytime fares. However what the railways are not very good at is presenting the deals that are available if you plan ahead and build your journey as much as possible around the cheapest quota-controlled fares available (such fares came about in response to the arrival of budget airlines in the 90’s). This is where rail can become very competitive with air, but you have to add-up the separate parts of the ‘whole journey’ in order to see the full picture. Let’s take a closer look based on the example again…
A quick web-search on the Easyjet website for a few months in the future presented me with ‘headline’ Manchester to Geneva airfares of around £25 each way – a bargain indeed. However, that price doesn’t include luggage and Alps trips always require more luggage than you can carry-onto an aircraft. Easyjet quoted £16.50 each way for a bag in the hold; still looking pretty reasonable. But what about spiky things like ice axes, crampons, snowshoes etc. There is a possibility that these may require additional charges under ‘specialist sports equipment’ but we’ll leave that out for now. So whilst £41.50 sounds pretty good, I then arrive at the costs that are often forgotten; train to Manchester Airport (or Airport parking), let’s allow £15 for either of those, and the costs of the public transport or transfer to Samoëns from Geneva. The former would be the same in the air or rail dominated journey so we’ll disregard (although it would rarely be more than about £30 all up). The latter option however would tip the balance astronomically in favour of rail though. I have never taken a private transfer to an Alpine village but to the best of my knowledge they are rarely less than €200!
Based on the above working, we’re going to take £56.50 for Lancaster to Geneva (one-way). Now for the costs of rail. I will refer here to the exact costs of my tickets on my most recent journey. Lancaster to London: £21.50, London to Paris: £29.00 and Paris to Bellegarde (near Geneva and with a direct local connecting train into the Haute-Savoie): £24. Grand total, £74.50. So in this very non-scientific, back of an envelope comparison (but hopefully reasonably representative of the situation) the plane wins by £18. Now there are many things that one might spend £18 on, but for me the efficiency of rail travel over air is something that something that is worth an extra £18 every now and then.