INTERVIEW – In Europe, the train costs on average twice as much as the plane. And this, despite the many incentives to choose rail.
This is a question we all ask ourselves when planning our summer vacation. Between the plane and the train, which mode of transport to choose? Often, the equation leans very quickly in favor of the first. Budget issue. Although more ecological, the train remains much more expensive than the plane, especially on international routes. And the latest report unveiled this Thursday by Greenpeace once again confirms this fact. “Travelling by train is on average twice as expensive as by plane in Europe, despite the fact that the global climate impact of the plane can be more than 80 times greater than that of the train”can we read there.
In this document, the NGO carries out a comparative analysis of the price of plane and train tickets in Europe and denounces advantageous taxation for the airline sector. To make this observation, they compared air and rail fares over 9 days for 112 different European routes, including 20 from France. The United Kingdom, Spain and France occupy the top three countries where the difference between the price of train and plane tickets is the largest in Europe, despite repeated encouragement to take the train. A situation that we deciphered with Alexis Chailloux, in charge of sustainable travel at Greenpeace France.
LE FIGARO. – What is the purpose of this report?
Alexis CHAILLOUX. – There is a systemic and fiscal subject. We hear a lot about low-carbon travel: we encourage people to travel by train rather than by plane for climatic reasons. This is paradoxical because the regulatory and tax system largely favors the air sector, to the detriment of rail transport. How can we ask citizens to travel by train when it costs twice as much as the plane in Europe? France is among the worst students at European level, in 3rd place behind the United Kingdom and Spain. We arrive at an average of 2.6 times more on the 20 connections that we studied in the country. And even within these connections, there are notable differences. For a connection between Marseille and London, for example, the train costs on average seven times more than the plane. With the publication of this report, national governments, notably France, and European institutions are called upon to act.
Isn’t the fact that the train is expensive also linked to a problem of meshing the rail network?
From Marseille, the link with Rome is, for example, non-existent. You have to go through Lyon and Turin. We could however consider a day or night train between Marseille and Rome, because it is not so far. Investments are needed, both in rail infrastructure and also in the opening or reopening of international lines. To achieve this, Greenpeace offers the solution of night trains. It’s quite efficient: it doesn’t require building new lines and it can be deployed quickly. Above all, these connections allow you to cover long distances in a fairly short time, since you leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. Also, we find it shocking that some lines closed during the Covid crisis have not reopened, such as Hendaye-Lisbon and Paris-Venice. And that some major nearby European cities are not connected by train: this is the case for Toulouse and Barcelona for example, where there is no direct connection.
How much should we invest in rail?
In the report, we have taken the problem upside down. We looked at how much the tax breaks made to the airline sector cost us. A Transport & Environment report has calculated the shortfall in these benefits. In France, it represents 4.7 billion euros in 2022, a year that is still abnormally low for air traffic. But, as soon as traffic resumes completely, this figure will rise to 6.1 billion euros. On a European scale, the shortfall is 34 billion euros. All that is so much money that could be invested in rail. The injustice in favor of air transport has several faces. Already, there is the tax exemption on kerosene (the fuel to fly the planes, Editor’s note), then VAT at 0% on international tickets and reduced on national flights, where a 10% VAT applies for rail. Not to mention the flaws in the carbon market on the European market.
Apart from this work on tax exemptions in the airline industry, are there other solutions to promote the rail sector?
The idea of a climate ticket is very interesting. The principle: you have a train pass at an affordable price, which allows you to use all or part of a country’s rail network. In Germany, for 49 euros per month, you can travel on all lines, except high speed. We must stop subsidizing polluting transport and, at the same time, we must give everyone the opportunity to take the train at an affordable price. Favoring night trains is also a solution, because you save one night in a hotel and there is a single operator for the journey. It is also necessary to set up a harmonized system between the rail operators of the different countries: the prices of train tickets must be the same everywhere. Today, there are sometimes cheaper fares on the Deutsche Bahn website than on the SNCF for a Paris-Berlin. Finally, it is necessary to put an end to the commercials praising the plane tickets at cut prices of the low-cost ones. Because these low prices are also the result of problematic social and tax practices.
What are still the brakes on the development of rail in Europe?
This report puts on the table the need for affordable, reliable and frequent rail connections between European capitals. It also allowed us to see the main holes in the racket. In particular, several landlocked areas have been identified, such as Portugal. Which is quite incomprehensible, because Paris-Lisbon is one of the busiest routes by plane. The Baltic countries and Romania are also landlocked. The Balkans, for other reasons, are also difficult to access, depending on the area. There are quite a few existing lines at the international level.
If we call into question these tax advantages on air transport, and if at the same time, investments in rail transport are not effective quickly, does this not risk creating situations of imbalance? Where people could no longer travel at all because of air and train prices?
On the one hand, plane tickets are abnormally cheap. When you have a 25 euro ticket, it’s a commercial practice that we think is legitimate to stop. Because it barely covers the operating costs and it is a polluting practice. On the other hand, we can imagine very short-term solutions, such as tickets offered to all people of the same age group, as the French and German governments did with the France-Germany pass, even if there were very few tickets made available. It would represent a cost disproportionate to the loss of earnings on the advantages of air transport. Finally, we can imagine social pricing on long-distance trains, with reduced fares for people with the lowest incomes.
Are there already virtuous models in Europe concerning rail?
There are some emblematic examples, such as the climate ticket in Germany and Austria. In France, we have good initiatives, such as the Occitanie region which offers tickets at 1 euro every first weekend of the month, or the recent Intercités offer at 19 euros. This makes it possible to reach audiences who travel little, whether by plane or train, or people who are heavily dependent on the car. In Italy, the Trenitalia Pass allows you to make three or more journeys with a single ticket. It is very interesting for the occasional visit of a country.
What do you think of major rail plan at 100 billion euros recently unveiled by the government?
We are satisfied that there is a stated ambition. The French rail network has gradually deteriorated due to lack of investment in network maintenance. This is rather good news, even if we remain cautious, as long as there are no concrete measures announced. For us, it is absolutely necessary, for example, to develop the night train lines, in particular on the transverse lines.