With planning, high speed rail could reduce flight demand

One out, one in: better high speed rail services could dampen flight demand. Gareth Fuller/PA

The expansion of UK airports could mean breaching climate targets, Climate Change Committee head David Kennedy has said. Ahead of a full report next summer that would examine the airport expansion plans, the committee chief explained the climate target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 already accounted for a 60% growth in demand for flights. But if a second additional runway was added beyond that already in discussion for Heathrow or Gatwick, and if demand is not capped by suggested price increases of up to £200, that target would be missed.

A glance at the top ten busiest air routes in the world reveals that all but one are domestic flights. Over the last 20 years short haul air travel has become the norm. But this has undoubtedly come at a price: airport capacity is stretched, rising fuel prices strain airlines that are fighting to remain competitive, and the environmental impact of so many more planes in the sky is growing ever more severe, with few technological solutions available to reduce them.

At the same time, high speed rail – the only mode of transport able to compete with air travel times – is growing in popularity. There are now over 21,000km of high speed lines across the world, with a further 30,000km either under construction or in planning. So it seems there is a simple solution to reducing the negative impacts of aviation: shift passengers from short flights to trains. This may seem unlikely but it could be this simple with the use of air-rail partnerships.

Rail roll out

A handful of airlines such as Lufthansa have used air-rail partnerships for years, but they could be used so much more. The idea is not complicated. Certain carriages on high-speed trains are reserved for passengers travelling with an airline. Passengers still buy their tickets in the same way and can check-in at their starting station. This allows airlines to reduce fuel costs and environmental damage, capacity is freed-up at airports, and rail operators benefit from extra demand for their services.

An example of this potential can be seen in the UK. Currently plans for a new high speed line connecting London with the north of England are in the final consultation stages. While there’s been significant opposition to the scheme, the government has defended the decision by emphasising the railway’s economic benefits. But the potential for air-rail partnerships to reduce flight demand has not been included in the debate.

Air-rail partnerships are likely to be successful in the UK as a large number of passengers use domestic flights to transfer to long haul flights, particularly at London Heathrow. A prime example is the very short flight that exists between London Heathrow and Leeds Bradford. Even though it would be quicker to use the high speed line, passengers using this flight to connect to others at Heathrow are unlikely to shift to high speed trains. Their ticket price is only fractionally increased by flying, and airlines use this as a way to capture long haul passengers. By using air-rail partnerships, the airline still retains this link and ensures passengers move to high speed rail, but under their control and buying their tickets.

Airports also benefit from these partnerships, freeing runway capacity but with passengers still using the airport and its services to connect to other flights. In the case of Heathrow, for example, 19% of the estimated 23% of total airport traffic that would be carried by a new runway could instead be handled by high speed rail, according to a Transport 2000 report.

Global potential

Worldwide, similar benefits could be seen on many flights between city pairs. Some of the busiest air routes show considerable potential for air-rail partnerships. A prime example is the Sao Paulo–Rio de Janeiro route in Brazil. Here journey times on high speed rail would be faster than air travel, with a potential for huge carbon savings of between 75% and 97% depending on future aircraft efficiencies and travel demand.

But it is not a mechanism that can work on all routes. For example, a high speed rail route between Mumbai and New Delhi would not achieve competitive travel times, and a shift in passengers from flights could actually result in a 320% increase in carbon emissions. The reason for this is that high speed trains are powered by the electricity grid – unlike Brazil’s largely hydroelectric-powered grid, India’s electricity demands are overwhelmingly met by coal-fired power stations. While India may improve the carbon intensity of its electricity generating networks in the future, it would have to be very significant.

So co-operative air-rail partnerships and greater deployment of high speed rail networks show great potential in reducing the environmental impacts of aviation, lowering airlines' fuel costs, and releasing airport capacity in many cases. But to work most effectively the schemes need to be integrated into the planning process of new high speed rail routes from the outset. This requires airlines, rail operators and governments to realise the potential, and for the relationship to become one of collaboration rather than just competition.