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Cost of rail travel is driving European travellers back to low-cost airlines

A new study shows the stark difference in fares is forcing travellers to opt for low-cost airlines over environmentally superior trains.

A new study says the price of rail fares is the biggest barrier in front of wider train use.

Catching the train between the UK and Europe can be up to four times the price of a plane ticket between the same two cities, a new report has found.

Despite little doubt on the environmental advantages of catching Europe’s high-speed trains compared to flying, environmental activists Greenpeace analysed 112 routes of between major European cities to weigh up the economic differences between travelling by land or air.

The analysis, which only surveyed routes of 1,500 kilometres or less, looked at the prices on nine different dates ranging from a few days before departure all the way up to four months ahead to factor in demand-based price changes and last-minute deals.

The organisation found flights were cheaper on nearly 80 percent of the routes assessed, with an average showing trains were at least twice the price of an airfare on the same route.

Some routes showed more stark differences than others, with Barcelona to London by train up to 30 times more expensive than flying when booking at short notice. Some low-cost airlines were selling tickets on this route from as little as AUD$21.30 each, whereas the train for the same journey was priced at a massive AUD$632

The report looked at 112 routes across the UK and Europe of 1,500 kilometres or less.

Another key route was London to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, with trains priced eight times higher than airfares and up to 15 times on short notice tickets. At the same time, tickets on airlines flying between the two cities start from AUD$24.90 each.

Twelve routes purely inside the UK were included in the study, including between London and Scotland, with flying coming in consistently cheaper on each occasion.

The report lays blame on the proliferation of low-cost carriers operating ultra-short to short routes throughout Europe, finding a budget carrier flies on 79 percent of the routes studied.

France is currently the only European country taking action on airlines flying ultra-short routes within the country, recently banning all flights where a train alternative in 2.5 hours or less was available.

Greenpeace Director of Policy, Dr Doug Parr, pointed to a recent report by the UK Transport and Environment Department which found the national treasury was missing out on billions of pounds each year because it under-taxes the aviation sector.

“Flying only looks like a bargain because the cost of pollution is so cheap,” Parr said.

“Low-cost airlines are paying negligible tax while imposing low wages and poor conditions on staff.”

Greenpeace says European airlines are heavily under-taxed.

Dr Parr said airlines can keep their prices low as they pay no kerosene tax or VAT and have benefited further from a recent reduction in the UK’s air passenger duty. Conversely, train operators must pay high energy taxes and tolls on using government rail corridors.

Making things worse, Greenpeace said, was the number of low-cost airlines incentivising travellers to save money by flying indirectly was only making the problem worse. For example, many travellers can save money by flying from London to Brussels via Denmark or Manchester to Cologne via Dublin.

Trains are renowned for their environmental credentials – often up to five times less polluting than even a short hop by air – with efficiency another key advantage by taking travellers between city centres and eliminating the need to arrive at least an hour early and in most cases travel far outside city limits to a remote airfield.

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Written by: Matt Lennon
Published: 9 October 2023

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