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Planes vs trains

‘Cheap pollution’ means taking the train to Europe is four times the cost of flying
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Traveller with rucksack walking along platform at train station

Taking the train on your European holiday will cost on average four times the price of a flight, according to a new report from Greenpeace.

The study compared ticket prices on more than 100 routes between major European cities and found that trains were on average twice as expensive as flying, but four times as much for routes to and from the UK.
 
The findings come as many schools break up for the summer holidays (21 July), ahead of one of the busiest periods of the year for UK airports.

The huge difference in cost is despite the fact that many rail journeys in Europe are more direct to city centres and at least five times less polluting than flying.

Train up to 30 times more expensive

Researchers at Greenpeace compared the cost of train and plane tickets for 112 routes between large cities in 27 European countries.

They recorded the prices on nine different dates, ranging from four months to just a couple of days before departure, to take account of price changes and last-minute deals.
 
The researchers found that flights were generally cheaper on seven in 10 (79 out of 112) of the routes.

On average, taking a train was twice the cost of flying, but the price difference was much more dramatic on some routes.

For example, travelling from Barcelona to London by train was 10 times more expensive on average, and up to 30 times at short notice – the biggest price difference in this analysis.
 
Flying was consistently cheaper on all 12 of the UK routes in the study, including domestic routes between London and Scotland.

Routes by plane or train

Here are a few low-lights of the report, from the UK’s ‘dirty-dozen’:

Barcelona-London
With three low-cost airlines offering tickets for as little as €12.99 (£11.10), train companies can’t compete. Shifting the 3.36 million annual flights to rail would save approximately 461,000 tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases – equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars in Glasgow.

Edinburgh–London
Europe’s second-most popular short-haul flight route offers 3.4 million passengers a far more polluting way to travel each year, despite dozens of train connections every day.

Bratislava-London
Taking the train to this popular party destination is almost eight times more costly on average, and up to 15 times at short notice. With airlines offering prices as low as €15 (£12.99), and beer prices at less than €3 in Bratislava and around €8 in London, the cost of a flight could be recouped after the third pint (but not the carbon).

‘Negligible tax’ and low wages

The report blames these price differences on an uneven regulatory playing field that benefits low-cost airlines at the expense of the climate and workers’ rights.

These airlines operate on four in every five (79%) of the routes included in the study.

A recent analysis by Transport and Environment said the UK Treasury was missing out on £4.7billion because it ‘under-taxes’ the aviation sector.

‘As millions of Brits head off on their European breaks – many to areas that are being scorched by this historic heatwave – the twisted economics of the transport industry means they are being encouraged to keep throwing fuel on the climate inferno.

‘Flying only looks like a bargain because the cost of pollution is so cheap. Low-cost airlines are paying negligible tax while imposing low wages and poor conditions on staff.’

DR DOUG PARR
Greenpeace UK’s director of policy

Artificially low prices

Many low-cost airlines offer transfer flights that are considerably cheaper than more direct rail connections, emitting up to 10 times as much greenhouse gas.

This climate-wrecking practice incentivises passengers to travel from London to Brussels via Denmark, for example, and from Manchester to Cologne via Dublin.
 
Airlines keep their prices artificially low because they pay no kerosene tax or VAT, and have even received a recent reduction in Air Passenger Duty in the UK.

In contrast, train operators have to pay energy taxes, VAT and high rail tolls in most European countries – though no VAT in the UK.

Some airlines also save on staffing costs by employing the legal minimum of employees on low pay and poor conditions.

The impact of flying

The overall climate impact of flying can be over 80 times worse than taking a train if we include the non-CO2 impacts of air travel (such as NOx and water vapours).

Planes emit on average 4.84 times more greenhouse gas emissions than trains according to data from the European Environment Agency, which is a conservatively low estimate.

In order to make rail more affordable than air transport, Greenpeace is calling for all short-haul flights to be banned where there is a reasonable rail alternative, and for an end to subsidies for airlines and airports, starting with a phase out of tax exemptions for kerosene and a frequent flier levy.

It also calls for European governments to introduce climate tickets – simple long-term tickets that are valid on all means of public transport in a country or region.

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