You may have read the story: “France bans short domestic flights where passengers can take a train.”
The article by my colleague Helen Covey describes how the French government undertook a € 4 billion (£ 3.5 billion) recapitalization of Air France on the condition that flights were cut off on routes in which a rail trip of less than two and a half hours was possible.
Now a group promoting rail travel, especially “open access” train operators, is calling for an expansion of the concept.
Allrail, the Alliance of Rail Newcomers, says that flights on European roads where trains can cover the same ground in four hours or less should stop.
Anything that broadens the climate debate should be welcomed, and this is certainly a drastic policy that will garner some plaudits from environmentalists – as well as people who live near busy airports and see dozens of very short flights arriving and departing every day.
But I see no possibility of lawmakers adopting such a policy – due to its unintended consequences.
Take two rail journeys with at least one journey per day at or below the four-hour threshold: from Frankfurt to Berlin and from Edinburgh to London.
Forcing these links to be canceled would be inconveniencing for the traveler – and ultimately counterproductive. Suppose you plan to fly from Edinburgh via Heathrow Airport to Johannesburg, or from Miami via Frankfurt to Berlin. You want to take advantage of the hub-and-talk capabilities offered by airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa.
As you may have noticed, LNER offers a great, fast and frequent link between central Edinburgh and Kings Cross on the edge of central London. At this point, a South African-bound traveler, Allrail said, must pull bags onto the Piccadilly Line and sit on the subway train for an hour to get to Heathrow Airport.
On the contrary, Berliner flying home from Florida lands in Frankfurt at 8 a.m. on Flight LH463 is feeling, frankly, garbage. They simply want to go through passport control and head to the gate for a coffee before their hopping at 9.45am, arriving just before 11am at the German capital’s shiny new airport.
Either way, if the passenger cannot make local connection through his state axis, he or she will likely choose suboptimal air direction.
Edinburgh-Johannesburg via Doha adds 1,400 miles to the total flight, while Miami-Berlin via Istanbul (Skyscanner’s first option) adds a flight distance of about 2,000 miles.
But there is room to reduce the amount of short hops. On both domestic flights described here, there will be a mix of connected passengers and point-to-point riders. A good way to transport some of the last set from one plane to another is to cut the train fare and tax the plane ticket.
Mark Smith, the international railroad expert who created the website Seat61.com, agrees: “Personally, I would never take a flight that I could take in four hours from center to center by train, and an increasing number of people feel the same, for reasons. Climate change and because it is a better experience and frankly fast, such as a flight to the airport, a long check-in, a flight, a trip to the city. “
Its recipe: Make airlines pay tax on their fuel and remove VAT on train tickets where it is charged.
But Smith also borrows from a major development in aviation: lowering barriers to entry to encourage competition, which results in cheaper tickets and better services.
Ironically, the French Railways – which will be the main beneficiary of the Air France ruling – is doing everything it can to discourage competition.
Sometimes flying is right.