• Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

In the last three weeks, I’ve been on the road a lot, out of a total of eleven changes of location I’ve done a whole nine by plane. This is a good reason for me to take a closer look at the current price war and its influence on traveling above the clouds. Within the framework of a small mini-series, I will deal above all with the phenomenon of “cheap flying” in German and European travel as well as its future. One thing is already certain: It’s not sustainable!
Part II: The railway traffic as a competitor and ecological alternative

Can the railways be a serious competitor for the airlines?

The price war among the low-cost airlines is fierce and is gradually reaching its peak. The first bankruptcies have already occurred and others are likely to follow. In order to reach the twelve airlines operating on the market that Carsten Spohr has brought into the discussion, the market does not only have to consolidate within the industry. The offer, especially on short-haul routes, must also be absorbed by other transport providers. This is where train traffic immediately comes to mind, and of course it is quite right.

In terms of pure travel time, the railways are already a serious competitor to airlines, even on international routes. If you get on the train in London, you are much faster in Paris than by plane. The same applies to some other journeys within Europe.
On well-developed routes, rail traffic is even fiercer competition, a view shared for the most part by Lufthansa. Many domestic flights are feeder flights for the major hubs in Frankfurt or Munich, and from there it’s the long haul. Lufthansa, for example, does not operate flights between Cologne and Frankfurt, on this route the train is clearly better. In general, most flights under 400 kilometres are unnecessary.
The train can also score points on slightly longer routes: from Frankfurt to Munich, for example, it takes three hours and 13 minutes to travel. This is just as easy by air if you take into account the journey to the airport, baggage handling, check-in and security checks. The situation is different on the route between Hamburg and Munich. Here the train needs with five and a half hours still clearly longer.
The most flown inner-German route is Berlin – Frankfurt. With the fast ICE trains, the destination is reached after four hours and 40 minutes, with the extra fast ICE Sprinter trains you even stay under four hours. Since the BER airport is being built far outside Berlin, the Sprinter will be a step ahead on this route in the future.
But if rail traffic is to score more than just ecological points against airlines, more Sprinters must be brought onto the routes. These routes must be expanded accordingly so that train traffic becomes more reliable and punctual. And, last but not least, the rail transport service must become much cheaper, because the price difference cannot be closed by the more expensive flight tickets alone.

Flygskam to reduce CO² emissions

The airplane is the most environmentally unfriendly means of transportation, it comes off worst compared to other means of travel: One kilometre in the air releases 201 grams of greenhouse gases per passenger, according to calculations by the German Federal Environment Agency, and 139 grams when driving a car. The railways are the most environmentally friendly with only 36 grams for long-distance traffic.
In Sweden, one of the European pioneers in sustainability and environmental protection, a new trend emerged, the so-called Flygskam. This means that some people are embarrassed and have a guilty conscience about flying. This is the feeling they have with regard to the CO² emissions of airplanes combined with the desire to do more for the climate. Because flying a lot and protecting the climate is a contradiction in terms.
Flygskam became famous in Sweden after the Swedish sportsman Björn Ferry agreed to be a moderator for the Swedish broadcaster SVT under the condition that he would travel to sporting events not by plane but exclusively by train. The well-known 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg also took the train from Stockholm to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Is that already enough?

Over the last year, Sweden recorded the lowest passenger growth in a good ten years , and at the same time the number of rail passengers is increasing . More and more Swedes are foregoing air travel. However, it is not easy to prove that there are any links between this and the climate debate. On the one hand, the Swedes are a flight-inspired nation and traditionally board a plane more often than in almost any other European country. On the other hand, Sweden has recently introduced a flight tax that could have induced travellers to switch to rail.
Nevertheless, the debate exists and shows the increasing ecological awareness of potential passengers. In Germany, the phenomenon is now also known under the term Flugscham and is taken up by the media. But it is difficult to determine what actual influence it has, because shame ultimately takes place solely in the conscience of the customers.