The European Union (EU) Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc recently confirmed her aspirations to expand EU high speed rail networks at a quicker pace. Ms Bulc said rail traffic would relieve congestion for aviation and roads. The European Commission’s (EC) position on rail has been formulated over the last 25 years in which it has been very active in proposing restructuring the European rail transport market and in order to strengthen the position of railways vis-à-vis other transport modes.
- The EU wishes to quicken the delivery of high-speed rail (HSR) lines;
- Where it exists already HSR has been successful in taking passengers from air services but only over relatively short distances;
- But that distance is extending not so much because the trains are getting faster as because air travel is getting slower;
- A new service from London to Amsterdam is something of a test-bed for the utility value of these HSR services because the journey is longer than the average and frequencies are initially very low.
The Commission’s efforts have concentrated on three major areas which are all crucial for developing a strong and competitive rail transport industry:
- opening the rail transport market to competition;
- improving the interoperability and safety of national networks;
- developing rail transport infrastructure.
As for the optimum method of travel, the EU and EC has tended to encourage public transport journeys of less than 600 km (375 miles) to be by train rather than air.
While co-operation between air and rail has been enhanced across the world that is generally in the case of rail transport from central business districts and suburbs to airports and vice versa rather than between cities. Rare is the case that an airline will voluntarily stand aside to allow rail operator competitors to dominate markets but often the instigation of a high-speed rail service can and does lead to the closure of an air route anyway.
For example, the VLM Airlines service between Liverpool and London City airport in the UK, which at its peak operated seven times a day, was cancelled not long after the lengthy refurbishment of the West Coast Rail line, Europe’s busiest, concluded in 2008, while the Manchester-London City service later went the same way.
Despite high frequencies the air service could not compete with rail frequencies of three departures per hour throughout the bulk of the day and city centre to centre (about 200 miles/320 km) times of just over two hours which were highly attractive to business people, the main users of the air service. And that rail line is not particularly “high-speed” (up to 125mph/200 kph).
The instigation of a new London-Amsterdam Eurostar high-speed rail route at the beginning of Apr-2018, challenging airlines on Europe’s second busiest air route, has prompted a reappraisal of how long a train journey can be to compete with air travel. The distance between London and Amsterdam (allowing for a sea crossing) is 342 miles/547 km, just less than the EU ‘cut-off’ point.
Previously, the journey necessitated a change at Brussels on to the Thalys service, which takes between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours 30 minutes to complete that part of the journey. (That Thalys service incidentally, operating every half hour, has easily taken the lion’s share of the transport business between Brussels and Amsterdam away from the airlines).
Hence the overall journey time, London city centre to Amsterdam city centre, was just over five hours. The non-stop Amsterdam service, travelling at up to 186 mph, takes a little over an hour off that, let’s say three hours forty-five minutes. Compare that to a one hour flight time from the London airports together with at least two hours travelling to the airport and checking in, and then another hour at the Amsterdam end and the rail journey is at least in the same ballpark, to the extent that other considerations like cost can be taken into account. (The lowest price in early sales promotions was less than EUR40 one-way).
Indeed SNCF, the French state rail operator, has discovered that its popular Paris – Perpignan (southern France, close the Spanish border) service is, at five hours, only as long as a domestic flight, allowing for the journey to the airport and check-in procedures.
On the other hand where the London-Amsterdam rail service fails to come up to scratch at least yet is that there are only two scheduled departures each day, or 14 a week. (It should also be noted there is no such service yet out of Amsterdam, so no ‘return’ leg of a journey that starts in London either, because Britain is not part of the Schengen Area, so documents must be checked before arrival in the UK. That will be the case until 2020, post-Brexit, by which time the Dutch will have constructed border facilities at Amsterdam and Rotterdam rail stations).
Compare that frequency level with the air schedule below, of frequencies from Jan-2012 to Jul-2018.
CHART – Currently, British Airways alone has 108 weekly frequencies at this time, KLM 177 and easyJet 117 (total 342), with 15 passenger airlines having traffic rights on the London-Amsterdam route (third, fourth, or fifth freedom)Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG
And that does not take into account the many other Amsterdam air services which operate to and from a myriad of UK airports, from where customers could take flights rather than make their way slowly to London to board the international train there.
The final part of the equation though is a less tangible one, namely the impact of the now inherent struggle of air travel. It is not that rail travel journeys have sped up significantly, rather that getting to and through an airport, especially during rush-hour periods, is getting longer and more unpleasant.
While it is not reasonable to claim there are no delays of this nature in the rail travel process the impression is that they are far fewer both in number and intensity. So, high-speed rail will continue to make inroads into European air travel, once it can establish an enhanced frequency pattern that can compete economically with those of the airlines in order to attract the business travellers who will pay the highest fares. But it will do so not so much because of its own service improvements so much as because of the service level inertia in the air transport business.