In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting drastic fall in pollution, it has become clear that our transportation habits are damaging to the natural environment. The IPCC has estimated that the aviation industry alone is responsible for about 3.5% of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change, and people who rely on regular flights are a big part of the problem. Indeed, 70% of all flights in Britain were taken by only 15% of the commuters. These people couldn’t possibly be eco-minded beings, could they? Well, there are several things to consider.
In 2016 I did an internship in Bordeaux, France, and was due move back home to Denmark in October when my contract finished. The itinerary can be broken down as following: 10-minute tram to Bordeaux airport, 6-hour flight journey to Copenhagen with a layover in Brussels, and a 1.5-hour train from Copenhagen to Odense.
- €1.5 tram
- €40 flight
- €33.5 train
Take a look at those numbers again. How can it be that the 6-hour, cross-Europe, two-flighted journey can cost me about the same as the domestic train ride… and be four time longer? I will not go into the details about how the aviation industry in recent years have offered mindbogglingly low fares, but the issue is clear as day. Very few people are incentivized to do anything about their travel habits when these prices are available.
This is where COVID-19 presents an opportunity. The aviation industry has suffered a massive blow and unfortunately this has cost many people their livelihoods, as has the general economic impact of this health crisis. However, there might jobs to find in the post-COVID era. The European rail industry organization UNIFE predicts that the sector will see a 10% annual growth in the foreseeable future via the expansion of an inter-European high-speed rail. It will create jobs, provide more ecofriendly travel options, and perhaps reduce travel time given the relative simplicity of commuting by train as opposed to by plane. The Swiss bank UBS doubles the UNIFE estimation, and predicts that Spain, Germany, France and Italy will see an increase of 800 high-speed rail units over the next decade, which will generate between $43bn and $65bn in revenue. Oh, the possibilities.
Historically, the railway industry has suffered for some time given the competition aviation has created, and government subsidies for the airlines have not helped this cause either. Especially now, the priorities of European and world governments are prevalent, with the United States issuing a $25bn bailout and EU a $24bn one, with $7.5bn more perhaps on the way. Even more disturbing is the lack of motive to change the industry the slightest. In fact, 20 of the 24 bailouts to the EU airlines have NO binding climate conditions, while the four others have weak conditions.
As such, there are mechanisms sat in motion to bring about more eco-friendly travel options from the railway industry. Yet government incentives are not on their side, and perhaps on the wrong side of history. I know for certain that if in 2016 I had the opportunity to take a few trains from Bordeaux to Odense at a competitive price, I would have done so.
What do you think? Will the aviation industry change its model if pressure is applied from the railway industry? Is it at all possible to change people’s transportation habits? Will the incentives of government change? Engage with us below for a fruitful debate.
International Railway Journal, April 16th
The Conversation, May 20th