Planes vs Trains

Team Green OfficeGeen categorie

Written by: Ben Lever

November 26, 2019

Flying is one of the most emissions-intensive activities the average person does. A short domestic flight generates about 1.5 times as many emissions per passenger-kilometre than driving a car alone; it generates more than 6 times as many emissions as taking a domestic train. 

Because of this, there is a growing movement to shun air travel – particularly for short flights within countries, or within the EU, where the journey time of taking the train is competitive with flying. Trains tend to travel to and from the city centers, whereas you usually need to travel to the edge of the city to access the airport, and travel into the city again when you land – which adds to the total journey time (and the cost). However, there are still many trips where the majority of people find the train impractical and prefer to fly. 

The “flight shame” movement discourages individual passengers from flying, and it is important for us as travelers to really consider the choices we’re making – could we take the train instead of flying? Is the trip necessary at all? We do need to consider these things before getting on the plane. However, leaving it all up to individuals will not lead to dramatic enough cuts to aviation emissions in a quick enough time frame – not to mention that this puts all the burden on hardworking individuals who may not have the time or money to avoid the incredibly cheap flights that are currently on offer. 

Corporations also need to play their part in reducing flight emissions. KLM has recently announced it will replace one flight per day from Amsterdam to Brussels with spaces on a Thalys train – this is a very small step in the right direction, but the reality is that short-haul flights like this, where a viable train alternative exists, must be phased out entirely. On the other side of the equation, corporations who fly their businesspeople around to attend meetings need to consider whether these flights could be replaced by train journeys, or avoided entirely by teleconferencing. 

Ultimately though, governments need to take responsibility for addressing this issue. On the one hand, many are calling on governments to take direct action to reduce flights – whether through taxing jet fuel, introducing “frequent flyer” taxes, or simply limiting flights through legislation. These kinds of suggestions have a lot of merit, and something like them will probably need to happen soon. However, governments also have responsibility in another way. 

Whether through national governments or international bodies like the EU, their funding builds most rail infrastructure and runs many train services – so the question of whether a viable train service exists rests on their actions. They need to build more rail infrastructure, and run trains more frequently, to give travelers those options to avoid flying. In the Netherlands, this could include projects like HSL-Oost, a proposal to better connect Amsterdam, Utrecht and Arnhem to Germany – and to Denmark, Poland, Czechia and Austria beyond it. The original HSL-Oost was canceled in 2001, but has recently been revived and will get a feasibility study next year. There are many other projects like this throughout Europe which could make rail travel much more viable for many more trips. 

A complete network of high-speed rail throughout Europe, combined with mechanisms to discourage flying, could have a dramatic effect on our emissions. We should all try to take responsibility for our own emissions, and do whatever we can to reduce them – but we need our governments to provide the tools for everyone to do this.