British Airways’ 14-hour flight from Santiago de Chile to London, currently the airline’s longest flight, was enjoyable enough. A few bumps. Get some sleep. No significant delay. Although of course there is a queue at Heathrow; After all, it was dawn on a Saturday morning.
The last thing I wanted was to get on another plane. But after leaving the UK on a strike day three weeks ago – in anticipation of more trouble – I booked an add-on north to Manchester. That’s exactly what it was. There has been a more or less general shutdown affecting all UK rail services.
In the end, the 40-minute flight and the two-hour wait for it were painless. But my carbon footprint was rising. My guilt was too high. And I miss the train journey—that slow, thoughtful arrival that lets you adjust to a new season, another time zone, being home again.
The French government’s decision to ban short-haul flights where there is a rail alternative is a punch to the stomach, especially for British train-loving travelers like me right now.
The ban, which was given the green light by the European Commission, will end flights between Paris Orly Airport and the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon. The French government has successfully demonstrated that a 2.5-hour train journey is better for passengers and the environment than a domestic flight.
As rail services develop, more routes may be added, including routes between Paris Charles de Gaulle and Lyon and Rennes, and journeys between Lyon and Marseille.
Environmentally conscious NGOs support the French decision with warnings.
“The ban on some short-haul flights in France is good news, but it’s also a fundamentally symbolic step,” says Charlène Fleury, coordinator of Stay Grounded France. “However, limiting it to alternate flights of less than 2.5 hours is woefully inadequate: it only eliminates three out of 100 air connections.”
But he adds: “This example could lead other countries to take similar measures and question short-haul routes in Europe.”
Willie Walsh, boss of IATA, the global airline industry trade association, said the plan was “total and utter nonsense,” as you might guess. However, KLM CEO Marjan Rintel argued that rail should not be seen as a competitor to air travel.
In a small country, a train can be a wonderful thing. City-to-city practicality suits metropolitan residents. Forward links are seamless and frequent in a functioning national network – for example, France, Switzerland or Germany. Trains stop at provincial stations, where airports are only for gliders and warplanes.
Train tickets used to be competitively priced. In the UK, before the pandemic, I would always choose the train after a flight, although it took longer and required a bus trip to Reading or a trip to London to get to Euston.
I knew airlines were offering opportunities for additional domestic flights, but I wanted to leave the departure lounges and luggage belts behind to stretch my legs and feel solid ground under my feet on landing. I wanted to wait around less, move more.
So could the UK adopt a similar plan to replace domestic flights with rail alternatives? And for whom will they be?
challenge for the UK
If trains are to become a true substitute for air travel, they must meet the needs of both long-distance leisure and business travelers and those who need to get home from Heathrow, the country’s only serious international air hub.
The problem is, Belfast is the UK’s busiest airport for domestic flights, and from there the train and ferry ride to London takes all day. UK domestic lines serve many islands with no trains and where ferries are slow and weather dependent.
In fact, only 6.4 percent of people on domestic flights travel within the UK mainland. The only city-to-city route that can be changed on the French 2.5-hour plan is London-Manchester. London-Newcastle is a busy airbridge, but the train takes a minimum of 2 hours 50 and usually 3 hours 20.
Our airports are mainly intended to serve London. Gatwick is closer to Normandy than to Scotland. There are no long-distance train services in Heathrow. Stansted is only useful for people from East Anglia.
Maybe we need a Dallas type airport in Milton Keynes or Nottingham to serve the nation?
High prices and cancellations
In any case, all of the above is based on the reliability and affordability of rail services.
In the year through October 15, 2022, Department of Rail and Road figures show 187,000 trains were canceled altogether and 127,000 were partially canceled, equivalent to 860 per day.
Tap the ticket search and it’s a bingo game where you can find a train on the day you need to travel. It’s worthy of a Kafka story even when the prices are flying, and its travel times and changes are perfect for an Agatha Christie novel that needs red herrings and surprises.
Traveling from my local station Clitheroe to Heathrow on Sunday and returning on December 21 will cost me £147.90 during off-peak times or £196.80 for two singles (recommended, of course, in case my default flight is delayed). Five changes in each direction and I would have to spend 10 hours and 20 minutes in a standard classroom seat.
Also, despite fewer passengers, three out of 10 trains are delayed and cancellations are on the rise. The percentage of trains arriving at stations on time, according to the ORR, was 70.2 percent in September 2022, compared to 72.6 percent in April 2022. My main local operators, Avanti West Coast, Northern and TransPennine Express trains are well above the national average.
The railroad debacle has all kinds of knock-on effects. Next week’s return BA flight from Manchester to Heathrow via Skyscanner is at £566. This is more than the “start” price for return to Barbados or St Lucia.
When I do a specific December search for Manchester-Barbados and London-Barbados via London on BA’s own site, I get £1,052 and £1,023 respectively. So travelers to the Caribbean pay less than £30 for domestic flights.
France’s plan may be visionary. It sets a new bar. But not true for England. This is not a defense of the status quo, but a reflection of the dangerous state of the network. It is extraordinary that Heathrow Airport, with only two runways and no ground connection to the rest of the UK, has been allowed to become one of the busiest airports in the world. It’s odd that there isn’t any suggested connection to HS2 from the country’s busiest airport.
Norman Baker of Campaign for Better Transport wants the Government to: “impose a tax on aviation fuel and use the proceeds to pay for the rail fare freeze” and also add: “Mandatory labeling of airline tickets with a comparison of the carbon emissions of other modes of transport so that people can make informed choices about how they want to travel.” Affordable tickets, reliable services and comfortable and modern trains will be a start.
The only boom industry right now is road travel. No wonder Uber fixed contracts with National Express and Megabus. Meanwhile, the planet and the ordinary passenger are falling apart.