The air to rail substitution – now the French are considering domestic air to rail shift

It has become somewhat de rigueur in Europe to propose that rail travel should be an enforced substitute for air travel domestically and even on short-haul international routes, even if it means legislating for it.


  • A French politician has demanded that domestic air travel should be substituted by rail, following a growing trend across Europe;
  • While the French rail network is comprehensive there are still gaps which demand an air travel option;
  • There is similar thinking in Germany but important primary airports there are not even on the national high-speed network.

Last year The Blue Swan Daily published an article in which one Norwegian politician was quoted as proposing that an actual cap should be placed on air travellers, which seems to be taking things to a different level again.

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That article ended with the observation, “The cat is out of the bag now. Environmentalists all over the world…will read this and…in no time what might appear to be a rather strange proposition is absorbed into the public consciousness and quickly grows.”

Perhaps France’s National Assembly Member, François Ruffin, read it because he has announced plans to submit a legislative proposal aiming to limit domestic air traffic that is able to be substituted by rail. The proposition is supported by a notable number of other MPs.

“It is high time to land. Our targets for reducing carbon emissions are incompatible with the growth of air transport, or even with its being maintained. It’s up to us to join the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and other European nations that take this issue seriously”, Mr Ruffin stated. You could argue that France already takes the matter seriously.

The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or ‘high-speed train’), France’s state-owned intercity high-speed rail service, was first planned in 1966, evolving from an initial concept of a gas turbine-powered turbo train into an electric one as a result of the 1973 oil crisis. The inaugural service between Paris and Lyon was in 1981 on the LGV Sud-Est (LGV for Ligne à Grande Vitesse; ‘high-speed line’).

The network, centred on Paris, has expanded to connect major cities across France (Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Rennes, Montpellier etc) and in neighbouring countries on a combination of high-speed and conventional lines. But it is mainly in a loose star shape to and from Paris rather than cross country east-west.

The TGV network in France carries about 110 million passengers a year. In 2018 there were 154 million air passengers in total in France, domestic and international. It is extensive and includes stations at both Paris Charles de Gaulle and Lyon St Exupéry airports (which means that point-to-point air travel between the two cities is almost redundant); at Disneyland Paris; and at major tourist cities such as Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.

However, the network is not yet completely comprehensive. In a recent The Blue Swan Daily article on Bordeaux Airport it was pointed out that journeys such as Bordeaux – Marseille (between the ninth and second largest French cities) are still not well served by rail and air travel remains at a high level. So it has some way to develop yet before you can realistically propose that domestic air travel should be forcibly curtailed in its favour.

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At the same time, France’s minister for transport Elisabeth Borne confirmed the commissioning of the CDG Express high-speed rail project between the airport and central Paris will be postponed until late 2025. The delay aims to “limit the impact of works” on Parisian residents and prevents its launch prior to the Paris Olympic Games in 2024, as previously planned.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, Nuremberg Airport CEO Michael Hupe commented on public pressure there to replace air routes with rail on short-haul city pairs. “Just like other hub connections, Lufthansa’s Munich connection is a pure feeder route for transfer passengers”, he said, pointing out that the alternative for these passengers is not rail to Munich “as the airport has no fast train connection”.

Frankfurt Airport does have good rail services but Munich is one of numerous other German airports where despite the long existence of the ICE rail services they are still not well connected to that network. Others include Hamburg (where the alternative main rail station to the Hauptbahnhof – Altona – is further away from the airport), and Berlin, where neither of the two airports is on the ICE network although the new airport will be. Düsseldorf Airport however is well connected to the ICE trains.

So while there is a lot of European political hot air being expended over the need to replace domestic air with rail there is still much to be done to ensure the infrastructure is in place to justify it.