Rails over runways

Rails over runways: Is Europe ready to ban short-distance flights?

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, approximately 2.4% of global emissions come from air traffic. Surely this depends on the number of flights per day, but also on the type of airplane, and finally on the route travelled. However, nowadays it has become one of the most discussed topics thanks to the particular attention on policies concerning environmental protections that have been implemented all around the world. In particular, the attention is posed on short-range travels since a flight from Rome to Milan emits into the atmosphere 129kg of COper person, while one from London to New York goes for 986kg per person. Although air travel remains among the most environmentally damaging modes of transport in our globalized world, it’s unrealistic to completely prevent people from flying. However, it is entirely feasible to reduce the number of short-haul flights.

The idea of a ban of short-haul flights in Europe started back in 2020 when the European Investment Bank launched a survey that was widely supported by the public. After this, Greenpeace and other associations in support of the environment asked to introduce a ban on flights under six hours.

With this proposal, in June 2023, France was one of the first countries to pass a bill that bans flights under 2.5 hours. This purpose was firstly embraced by Air France in 2020, one of the most important national companies, which decided to avoid those routes in return for a governmental reward. Now, the rule has been widely diffused although it has some exceptions such as some particular flights that do not have substitute means of transportation to reach the destinations, but also it is not extended to flights outside the country, for example those for Italy. Critics argue that the ban falls short, noting that only three routes have been terminated thus far: those connecting Paris-Orly Airport with the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux, and Lyon.

Another country that is following the French model is Spain that has declared it will soon ban short term flights within the country, especially those related to Madrid and near cities. This new law will also concern private jets usage, and the use of some products such as kerosene. Following this purpose, the airport of Amsterdam is planning to ban private jets and night flights starting from 2026.

Let’s say that this is possible thanks to the (seemingly) high investment in railways, since the train will be one of the most preferred substitutes of planes. In fact, for France this is possible thanks to the high investments that have been made in high-speed rails, enabling them to reach far destinations in the least time possible. Italy, instead, can be one of the next countries to adopt some sort of regulations since FS is planning to invest €190 billion in ten years to renew the railway system, but also introducing new trains in order to align with more sustainable practices.

Three main obstacles to eliminating short-haul flights in Europe prevail. Consider first how, compared to the highly competitive aviation sector, railways are usually operated by state-owned companies and lack competition in national markets. The often near-monopoly positions these companies hold in their respective markets results in relatively low pressure on prices and reduces incentives to innovate. The EU has been trying to crack open this system by mandating competitive tendering mandatory in public service contracts, and establishing the general right for Member States’ railway operators to operate everywhere in the EU and across all types of passenger services in a push to liberalize the market. Nevertheless, compared to aviation, competitive forces remain weak.

What adds to this point is the fact that in most EU Member States more investment goes into roads than rail infrastructure. Despite recent surges in support for railway investment, the two decades in the 21stcentury have seen a massive tilt in spending balance in favour of road infrastructure over railway. According to the OECD, across Europe €843 billion was invested in railways, contrasted with €1,341 billion spent on road infrastructure. As a result, from 2008 – 2019, railways in most European countries stagnated or even lost kilometers to their networks. In light of this stalled investment during the 2010s and the national focus, railway capacity to accommodate all short-haul flight passengers is limited. Installing bans thus bears the potential of creating bottlenecks while the infrastructure is not ready yet. More recently, the focus has shifted to invest in and expand railways, both on national and on EU level – for example by reviving cross-country night train routes. Nevertheless, the missed investments of the past two decades still weigh heavily.

The second issue goes hand in hand with the first. States being in charge of the investments in railway networks mean that, despite efforts to coordinate Europe-wide railway networks, funding will still more often be put in local projects. Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green member of the European Parliament, summarised it as follows: “No matter what, all the national decisions always go to improving the domestic train system. […] If the Dutch need to decide: “Am I going to improve Amsterdam-Berlin or Amsterdam-Utrecht?” they [will] decide it’s going to be Amsterdam-Utrecht” (Quoted in the Financial Times, 2024). Such projects must be credited for the decrease in inland short-haul flights, such as the ones banned in France and Spain. In Germany, for instance, inland flights decreased to a mere 8% of the entire air travel market in 2022, a 20% reduction compared to pre-pandemic levels. However, the bulk of short-haul flights in Europe spans cross-country, and these routes lose when focus and funding is concentrated nationally.

Ultimately, and this stands as the foremost crucial point, the reduction in CO2 emissions resulting from the elimination of short-haul flights is relatively modest. Railway travel has a considerably lower carbon footprint compared to airplane travel. However, a recent study has found that the CO2 emission reduction of the elimination of short-haul flights under 500km amounts to an underwhelming 1-2% of the EU’s aviation emissions and less than 1% of overall transportation emissions, as the bulk of emission originates from intercontinental flights. Moreover, if short-haul flights are prohibited before addressing capacity issues in railway travel, individuals might resort to using cars, potentially exacerbating CO2 emissions.  Finally, the study points out that the expansion of the railway network necessary to deal with capacity issues will itself lead to environmental impacts and CO2 emissions. From a pure emissions point of view, it is thus important to consider the carbon payback time of these investments alongside the decarbonization timeline for short-haul flights.  

In conclusion, the debate over banning short-haul flights in Europe underscores the urgent need to address aviation’s environmental impact. While initiatives like France’s recent ban on select routes signal progress and create awareness for the issue, challenges persist in transitioning passengers to more sustainable modes of transportation. Overcoming obstacles such as historical underinvestment in rail infrastructure will require coordinated efforts at both national and EU levels. Most importantly, however, the broader context of transportation and aviation needs to be considered, as the emissions of long-haul flights need to be tackled to truly have an impact on rising COemissions.

Despite these challenges, the ongoing discourse reflects a growing recognition of the need for decisive action to mitigate the environmental footprint of short-haul flights and pave the way for a more sustainable future. As with many discussions on climate change, the question remains whether progress can be made fast enough.

By Anastasia Binando and Lucia Buser.












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