The EuroNight network of sleeper trains in Europe is expanding thanks to French startup Midnight Trains, hopefully ending a decade of decline ushered in by the aggressive consolidation of low-cost airlines and the liberalization of long-distance bus routes.
Concerns about the climate emergency in a post-pandemic world seem to be putting the focus back on slower forms of traveling and a different approach to commuting.
The rising popularity of rail travel is good news for the planet: a flight between Paris and Rome generates 206.1 kg of carbon dioxide per passenger, while the figure for the same rail journey is 8.8 kg. Rail represents a new way of understanding travel, based on enjoying the journey, resting or working during the journey, as well as leaving and arriving in the city center. In Spain, the opening of the high speed rail infrastructure to new actors has seen the emergence of operators such as RENFE’s low-cost line, Avlo, and French company Ouigo, significantly increasing supply and expanding the price range.
Recent years have seen a decline in the popularity of night trains, which have become either a luxury product or a cheap option that means sharing a carriage with with five strangers. But the market’s progressive awareness of sustainability looks set to revive their fortunes.
In some countries, social pressure about flight shame is a major trend: in Sweden, the country that in 2018 coined the term flygskam, also has another neologism, tågskryt, which translates as “train pride”. In 2019, before the arrival of the pandemic, the number of people taking domestic flights in Sweden and Germany dropped by 11% and 12% respectively, matched by an increase in train use. France has now banned flights to destinations that can be reached in less than two and a half hours by train. After a pandemic that has changed transportation and logistics, it remains to be seen in whose favor the competitive balance between different modes of transport will tip.
Reducing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint is difficult to solve solely through technology, which should lead to the market offering a solution by forcing airlines to pay more to compensate for their emissions, in turn making tickets more expensive and thus reducing demand, which would likely pose problems for low-cost, high volume models, particularly in the tourism sector. Between 1967 and 2007, the aviation industry improved fuel efficiency by 70%, but that progress was completely annulled by the huge increase in the volume of air travel, which led to a 70% increase in global emissions between 2005 and 2020, a figure that will grow to 300% by 2050 unless something is done to reduce it. And two-thirds of that percentage is due to 12% of frequent travelers.
Faced with such a scenario, moving to a slow living model that would include rail travel makes a lot of sense, and would fit in with the likely reduction in business travel now that we’re all experts at videoconferencing. Some companies are already rewarding employees who choose to travel by more sustainable means with more time off. Obviously, this will not apply to all travel, but while we wait for technology to reduce the airline industry’s carbon footprint (2.5% of global emissions), we could start thinking about abandoning a means of travel that has grown far beyond the sustainable. All aboard!