Night train cuts will de-rail green travel

Posted by Jamie Andrews — 5 December 2014 at 7:22pm - Comments
by-nc-sa. Credit: Gerry Balding / Flickr
CO2 emissions from travelling by train are lower than air travel

This is a guest blog by Jamie Andrews of loco2.com.

This Thursday I will board what may be the last ever night train from Berlin to Paris. After a long history of direct trains between these two iconic capitals stretching back to 1896, the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn has announced the end of the service.

Citing high running costs and increased competition from low-cost airlines, the end of the Berlin to Paris service is indicative of wider cuts to European night trains. And this means that the options are shrinking for long distance travellers seeking a greener alternative to aviation.

Along with Paris to Berlin, other overnight trains are being cut – including Paris to Munich, Amsterdam to Prague, and Cologne to Copenhagen. Their disappearance will impact many journeys from the UK. It will, for example, become impossible to travel from London to Scandinavia or London to Hungary by train without breaking the journey with an overnight stop.

Whilst it's important not to overstate the environmental benefits of train travel (any long distance journey produces emissions), trains produce significantly less planet-warming carbon than flying. And with much of Europe’s rail network now powered by electricity from renewable sources, the emissions gap between trains and planes has steadily increased over recent years.

The cuts to night trains come amidst strong government support for the aviation industry that makes flying the cheaper and easier option, even for short distances. Research carried out last year showed that of the top 10 destinations from Heathrow, only one is outside Europe.

The other destinations (including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Edinburgh, Manchester, Munich, Madrid, Zurich) can all be easily reached by train. But instead of throwing their weight behind greener options, governments continue to prop up the aviation industry with a whopping €30 billion in subsidies. Financial support spans from tax exemption for aviation fuel, to paying failing hub airports to stay open.

The cuts to night trains are also taking place despite the clear mandate of the European Transport Commissioner (Siim Kallas) to ensure "'decarbonisation', overall sustainability, and a coherent economic, social and environmental approach to all modes of transport". The lack of action to prevent the demise of key pan-European services is clearly inconsistent with Europe’s own stated sustainability objectives.

Removing airport subsidies and fuel tax exemption, expanding airport passenger duty and fixing the EU ETS, would all help to keep alive the future of night train travel. There’s also a clear case for providing increased direct subsidies to ensure the continued (and indeed improved) operation of night train routes so that longer distance journeys by train remain viable.

My company, Loco2, is trying to make booking a train as easy as booking a flight, through bringing together rail ticketing systems across Europe. Whilst we've made great progress with high-speed rail, the lack of investment in night train booking systems has made this part of our task challenging, and we've been restricted in our ability to reliably sell tickets, despite strong demand.

After years of fragmented booking processes and frustrated customers, companies like ours are beginning to make real progress, and so now is the wrong time to be cutting services. Instead, we're calling for fresh investment, both in booking infrastructure and the trains themselves.

With the cooperation of rail operators, regulators, and the travelling public, we have the chance to build a new generation of low carbon travellers, for whom the romanticism of European rail travel can live on.

Due to the complexities of the timetable change that takes place each year, the earliest realistic date that services could be reinstated is December 2015. With the right show of public support, this is an achievable goal, but there is also a real risk that further services will be cut.

Please add your signature to this petition to bring back the cut night train services in 2015.

Jamie Andrews is cofounder of loco2.com.

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