Should we be “ashamed to fly”?

October 05, 2023

Last summer, France enacted a law prohibiting flights between cities if the journey can be completed by train in less than two and a half hours. The goal of this initiative is to reduce CO2 and other emissions. Several other European countries are also taking decisive steps in this direction by promoting train travel over air transport.

The primary objective of the short-haul flight ban is to minimize travel’s impact on the environment. However, this isn’t the sole ambition of the initiative. And although it has its advantages, there are significant challenges to address as well. How does this situation look in the Baltic context, and could Latvia follow suit?

We invited Kristīne Malnača, Head of Strategy and Economics at the Rail Baltica global project, RB Rail AS, to discuss the latest developments in Europe’s rail infrastructure and the aviation industry within the context of the highly anticipated Rail Baltica project.

Why has train travel become more popular?

Opting for train travel instead of flying has become a notable trend. The railway industry is continually evolving, along with the rail infrastructure. The newest routes are becoming increasingly modern and comfortable, ensuring a customer-friendly experience. In recent years, Europe has witnessed the launch of several new rail routes, such as Milan-Paris, with a journey time of approximately seven hours and starting fares as low as €29. There are other examples, such as Brussels-Berlin, Prague-Zurich, Berlin-Stockholm, Amsterdam-Zurich.

While rail remains one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transportation, commercial aviation is responsible for two to three percent of carbon emissions, along with nitrogen oxides. Despite substantial investments in sustainable approaches and solutions within the aviation industry, there’s a clear need to address the climate impact of transportation decisions.

What is the benefit of banning short-haul flights?

First, the main objective of the ban is to reduce CO2 and other emissions. Traveling on an electrified high-speed train for short flights (or long-distance car journeys) is a much “cleaner” and environmentally friendly choice, especially if the energy is generated from renewable sources.

A ban on short-haul flights would also ease the burden on currently overcrowded airports. It could have a positive impact on operating costs, which, in turn, would be reflected in airline ticket prices. Furthermore, such a ban would increase the demand for railway services, which are a more sustainable mode of transportation. Increased demand for railways would also provide additional financial resources for improving and modernizing the railway system, offering passengers increasingly better services with higher levels of accessibility. In the long term, this would lead to greater economic benefits and opportunities to develop multifunctional passenger stations in urban areas.

The necessary infrastructure elements would ensure better railway services and create broader mobility options in the region. For example, the baggage tracking infrastructure used for passengers could also be used to develop both freight transportation by rail and the placement of parcel lockers at railway stations.

I believe that in developing infrastructure, It’s crucial to keep in mind these various benefits because the railway offers more than just efficient transportation – it also enables optimizing connections with airport services and various other services. Furthermore, when implementing railway systems, uniform data standards should be used to ensure integrated services and open access to data (market).

What measures are other countries taking to promote and expand rail travel?

A good example is Italy, where competition on the high-speed rail line between Milan and Rome effectively eliminated the market for flights on this route. In this case, the entry of another train company into the market played an important role. It expanded passenger options and also motivated both rail operators to improve their services. This example shows that direct rail links between city centers can be competitive, especially when the total travel time is comparable to the time spent traveling to the airport, undergoing security checks, waiting for boarding, completing the flight, and collecting luggage.

Austria has adopted an interesting approach by implementing a special tax on flights shorter than 350 km and a ban on airline connections within a three-hour journey of a railway. Notably, Austria has also successfully integrated rail and air transport for certain services, such as an express train from central Vienna to the airport, offering the convenience of checking in luggage at the start of the journey rather than at the airport. The expansion of the RailJet brand (a high-speed rail service in Europe operated by the Austrian Federal Railways and the Czech Railways) has increased the number of direct connections and now offers services within Austria, as well as to Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Italy.

There are also certain institutions and companies in different countries that have introduced flight restrictions for their employees. This is often the case with government bodies, such as the Greater London Authority, several Dutch universities, and various companies. In Sweden, there is the well-known “flygskam” movement (translated as “shame to fly”), calling on people to refrain from flying to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to tackling climate change.

Similar campaigns are also underway in several other countries. These kinds of self-imposed “bans” are another way to bring about change without the need for legislative action.

What should Latvia do?

I think we can consider a similar approach in Latvia, but the question is: should we be as radical as the French legislators in amending and regulating legislation, or would successful cooperation between airlines and rail operators suffice?

Something to note is that while French rules prohibit short-haul flights when an alternative of two and a half hours by train is available, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) defines short-haul as a flight of six hours or less. With this definition, the Baltic capitals could be accessible to each other by train instead of short-haul flights. So, are we, in terms of territory, large enough to implement such changes, even when considering all three countries together?

A potentially good solution could involve a combination of individual organizational decisions and tax adjustments. It’s also a question of whether this should be a coordinated regional approach or a joint effort of all three Baltic States. For example, if only one of the Baltic States imposes a ban, there are two possible scenarios: it could have the desired result or, conversely, create some unnecessary problems. 

Of course, whether this is an appropriate model for the region as a whole is ultimately a political question. However, I believe that solutions that could be implemented without legislative changes (in combination with others) could be a significant means to facilitate the integration of transportation and promote connectivity between the Baltic States.

Exploring potential development scenarios

It’s challenging to determine how long it could take to implement this type of initiative in Latvia. There are several prerequisites – first of all,  the development of railway infrastructure, and service providers must also take into account economic considerations influenced by factors such as tax policies.

There are two main strategies for reducing short journeys: establishing rail connections between major cities and integrating rail into long-distance travel. The former presents a relatively straightforward planning and service provision process, with infrastructure already incorporated into the Rail Baltica project. As for closer integration of rail and air transport for longer trips, the Rail Baltica program includes stations at or near airports and aims to introduce services like integrated baggage handling. 

Picture a future where passengers board a train in Kaunas for a flight from Riga Airport or check in their luggage in Pärnu for a flight from Tallinn. Achieving this vision requires the same level of luggage-tracking infrastructure services available in aviation.

The success of implementing various scenarios depends on the ability of all parties involved to collaborate in creating an effective mobility system, emphasizing the concept of “intermodality” – combining different transport modes within a single journey.

It’s important to recognize that good infrastructure connectivity, together with a high level of service, is the key facilitator of successful air and rail cooperation. Cooperation among air and rail companies in the Baltics, including integrated baggage handling services, coordinated information, timetables, and ticketing systems, would bring significant benefits to everyone involved in transportation – and, most of all, the passengers.

This article was originally published in Latvian by Delfi and has been edited for clarity.

Meet Rail Baltica at 5G Techitory

We wouldn’t be able to imagine 5G Techritory without speakers discussing railway innovations. And who better to share their expertise than 5G Techritory’s Mobility Partner Rail Baltica (RB Rail AS), right? 

Hear Innovation and Digital Architecture Senior Expert at RB Rail AS, Andy Billington, on:

  • Panel Digital Railways for the 2020s, 2030s, and Beyond, giving a keynote speech and participating in a fireside chat, October 18, 17:00 (EEST), Innovation & Technology stage and
  • Autonomous Trains panel discussion, October 19, 11:00 (EEST), XG stage and

Register for free