The 14-hour British Airways flight from Santiago de Chile to London – currently the airline’s longest – was pleasant enough. A few bumps. A bit of sleep. No major delays. Though of course there was a queue at Heathrow; after all it was the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning.
The last thing I wanted was to board another flight. But, having left the UK three weeks earlier on a strike day, I had – in anticipation of further trouble – booked an add-on north to Manchester. It was just as well. There was a more or less general shutdown affecting all rail services in England.
In the end, the 40-minute flight, and two-hour wait for it, were painless. But my carbon footprint was soaring. My guilt was sky-high. And I missed the train ride – that slow, contemplative arrival that allows you to adapt to a new season, another time zone, to being home again.
The decision by the French government to ban short-haul flights where a rail alternative is available is a punch in the gut to train-loving British travellers like me – especially right now.
The ban, which has been given the green light by the European Commission, will put an end to flights between Paris Orly Airport and the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon. The French government successfully made the case that a 2.5-hour train ride is better for passengers, and the environment, than a domestic flight.
As rail services improve, more routes could be added, including those between Paris Charles de Gaulle and Lyon and Rennes as well as journeys between Lyon and Marseille.
Eco-minded NGOs support the French decision, with caveats.
“The ban on some short-haul flights in France is good news but at the same time a mainly symbolic step,” says Charlène Fleury, coordinator of Stay Grounded France. “However, limiting it to flights with alternatives of less than 2.5 hours is highly insufficient: it only allows the elimination of a total of three air connections out of more than 100.”
But, she adds: “This example could lead to other countries taking similar measures and to a questioning of European short-haul routes.”
Willie Walsh, boss of IATA – the trade association for the global airline industry – has derided the scheme as “complete and utter nonsense” – as you’d expect. But KLM CEO Marjan Rintel has argued that rail should not be seen as a competitor to air travel.
The train, in a small country, can be a wonderful thing. The city to city practicalities suit metropolitan residents. The onward connections are, in a functioning national network – say, France, Switzerland or Germany – seamless and frequent. Trains stop at provincial stations, where the only airports are for gliders and fighter planes.
Rail tickets used to be competitively priced. In the UK, before the pandemic, I always opted for the train after a flight, even though it took longer, and might involve a bus ride to Reading or a trip into London to get to Euston.
I knew airlines offered deals on add-on domestic flights, but on landing I wanted to leave behind departure lounges and luggage carousels, to stretch my legs and feel firm ground beneath my feet. I wanted less waiting around, more moving on.
So, could the UK adopt a similar scheme to replace domestic flights with rail alternatives? And who would they be for?
The challenge for the UK
If trains are to be a genuine substitute for air travel, they need to meet the needs of both long-distance leisure and work travellers and those who need to get home from the country’s only serious international air hub, Heathrow.
The problem is, Belfast is the UK’s busiest airport for domestic flights and a train and ferry trip from there to London takes all day. UK domestic routes serve a lot of islands, which have no trains and where ferries are slow and weather-dependent.
In fact, only 6.4 per cent of people on domestic flights travel within mainland England. The only city to city route that could be replaced on the French 2.5-hour plan is London-Manchester. London-Newcastle is a busy air-bridge, but the train takes at least 2h 50 and usually 3h 20.
Our airports are mainly geared to serving London. Gatwick is closer to Normandy than Scotland. Heathrow has no long-distance train services. Stansted is only handy for people from East Anglia.
Perhaps we need a Dallas-type airport in Milton Keynes or Nottingham to serve the nation?
High prices and cancellations
All of the above, anyway, is predicated on rail services being reliable and affordable.
In the year to October 15, 2022, Office of Rail and Road figures indicate 187,000 trains were fully cancelled and 127,000 partly cancelled, the equivalent of 860 a day.
Tap in a ticket search and it’s a game of bingo whether you’ll find trains on the day you need to travel. Even when they are running, the prices are worthy of a Kafka story and the journey durations and changes ideal for an Agatha Christie novel in need of red herrings and twists.
A trip from my local station, Clitheroe, to Heathrow on Sunday and returning on December 21, would cost me £147.90 off-peak or £196.80 for two singles (recommended, surely, in case my putative inward flight is delayed). It would necessitate five changes each way and me spending 10 hours and 20 minutes in a standard class seat.
Also, three in 10 trains are late and cancellations are rising, despite fewer passengers. The percentage of trains arriving on time at stations was 70.2 per cent in September 2022, compared to 72.6 per cent in April 2022, according to the ORR. My main local operators, Avanti West Coast, Northern and TransPennine Express trains, are far worse than the national average.
The rail debacle is having all sorts of knock-on effects. A return BA flight from Manchester to Heathrow next week, via Skyscanner, is coming up at £566. That is more than the “from” price for a return to Barbados or St Lucia.
When I do a specific-date December search for Manchester-Barbados via London and London-Barbados on BA’s own site, I get £1,052 and £1,023, respectively. So the Caribbean-bound passenger pays less than £30 for the domestic legs.
France’s scheme could be visionary. It sets a new bar. But it isn’t right for the UK. This is not a defence of the status quo, but a reflection of the parlous state of the network. It is extraordinary that Heathrow Airport has been allowed to grow into one of the world’s busiest with just two runways and no overland connections to the rest of the UK. The lack of any proposed link from the country’s busiest airport to HS2 is bizarre.
Norman Baker from the Campaign for Better Transport wants the Government to “introduce a tax on aviation fuel and use the proceeds to pay for a rail fare freeze”, as well as add “mandatory labelling of airline tickets with comparisons of carbon emissions by other transport modes so people can make informed choices about how they want to travel.” Good-value tickets, reliable services and comfortable and modern trains would be a start.
The one boom industry right now is road travel. No wonder Uber is fixing contracts with National Express and Megabus. Meanwhile, the planet and the ordinary passenger are getting shafted.