A new report from Greenpeace reveals that taking the train costs four times more than flying from the UK to Europe, meaning there is no financial incentive for consumers to make more sustainable travel decisions. Could ‘climate tickets’ be the solution? Jenny Southan reports

With journeys by train taking much longer than flying, combined with the fact that they are typically between two and four times more expensive than flights in Europe, consumers will continue to choose air travel over rail travel in spite of global warming.

Researchers at independent environmental campaigning organisation 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.

They found that flights were generally cheaper on seven-in-ten (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 ten times more expensive on average, and up to 30 times at short notice. Flying was consistently cheaper on all 12 of the UK routes in the study, including domestic routes between London and Scotland.

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

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. Airlines offer prices as low as €15.

The 12 routes that included cities in the UK were:

  • Amsterdam-London
  • Glasgow-London
  • Paris-London
  • Manchester-Cologne
  • Edinburgh-London
  • Barcelona-London
  • London-Brussels
  • London-Bratislava
  • London-Vienna
  • London-Inverness
  • Berlin-London
  • Marseille-London

The overall climate impact of flying can be over 80 times worse than taking a train if the non-CO2 impacts of air travel (such as NOx and water vapours) are also factored in. 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”, says Greenpeace.

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. By contrast, train operators have to pay energy taxes, VAT and high rail tolls in most European countries – although 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.

Greenpeace says that many low-cost airlines offer transfer flights that are considerably cheaper than more direct rail connections but emit up to ten 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,” says Greenpeace.

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 (as France has done), 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.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s director of policy, says: “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.”

Download the Greepeace report Ticket Prices of Planes Vs Trains: A Europe-wide Analysis. How low-cost carriers destroy the climate while their unfair and aggressive pricing strategies go unchecked.