Train-plane discussion lacks nuances | The magazine about public transport

Trains are currently more sustainable than aircraft in all respects, says sustainable logistics teacher Paul Peeters from Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUAS). Despite this, there was a lot of trouble around this last year. Why? “The debate is now being conducted in an unclean way.”

This article was previously published in OV-Magazine 1/2022. Would you like to receive OV-Magazine on paper or digitally from now on? Then sign up for a subscription.

An academic disgrace seemed to be born last year when Carlo van de Weijer from Eindhoven University of Technology through the University of the Netherlands argued that flying is more sustainable than international rail transport. Wijnand Veeneman, associate professor at TU Delft, immediately replied that this was not correct, and the railway sector agreed with him.

Now that peace has returned, Veeneman says: “I understand that he is kicking against holy railway houses, and I also think that we should not build high-speed lines (hsl) everywhere. Why, for example, have we drilled a railway tunnel in Groene Hart? It is unnecessary to drive 300 km / h there. In the Ruhr area, the train often has to stop. We need to get rid of the idea that HSL must be everywhere. ”

When the train to London is in operation, it will use 10 percent of its CO2 emissions per year. passenger kilometers compared to the same flight. © Wijnand Veeneman

Van de Weijer reported that the construction of new HSL infrastructure is much more polluting than new aircraft infrastructure. That’s right, says Veeneman. “Rail infrastructure alone is often already there. When the train to London is in operation, it will use 10 per cent of CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer compared to the same flight. If the HSL trains are full of passengers and continue to run for years, the infrastructure pays for itself. “

‘We need to get rid of the idea that we need HSL everywhere’

Van de Weijer also stated that a thousand railway lines are needed to connect 50 European cities. Nonsense, says Paul Peeters: “It’s as if two cities needed their own highway.” Despite the fact that nuances are often lacking, the discussion has a changing social mood. “In recent years, I have mentored a handful of graduates on this topic. Zero in the fifteen years before that. “Environmental effects have become more important since the Paris climate agreement.”

Do not compare apples to oranges

But how polluting is the construction of new HSL infrastructure? Some researchers believe that building new train routes requires up to a hundred times more steel and concrete than an airstrip. Wrong, says Peeters. “People often refer to a paper by Chester and Horvath (2009) that compares emissions from new subway systems in Los Angeles with train and plane systems. To compare a subway system to an airplane or HSL system is to compare apples to oranges. Min research shows that the construction of railway infrastructure requires two to three times more concrete and steel than the construction of aircraft infrastructure, such as runways. ”

Paul Peeters, BUAS: ‘The plane emits eight times more emissions to Milan than the train, to Mumbai fifty times more’

Although the ‘infra-factor’ is lower for flight than for rail, CO2 emissions per passenger kilometers much higher. The instructor uses a clear formula for operational emissions: CO₂ emission factor X distance traveled X number of trips. “As soon as a passenger gets on a plane or train, CO2 emissions increase by a few grams. An airplane weighs less than a train, and therefore the weight of an extra passenger can be felt: the wing has to work harder and it costs extra air resistance. So even if you leave your seat empty, it saves many kilos of emissions per. aircraft noise. The problem is that planes invite you to travel (unnecessarily) far. The plane emits eight times more to Milan, fifty times more to Mumbai. ”

Short-haul flights

It is clear: the train is more sustainable. But what if aviation becomes more sustainable? It is not without reason that the government’s aviation policy document has sustainable ambitions: by 2050, 100,000 short-haul flights will be diverted to train traffic. “It will just take a while before pure petroleum, synthetic fuel and hydrogen are operational,” Veeneman continues. “At the same time, we work with CO2-neutral concrete and steel. Nobody knows yet how the balance will be. ”

Paul Peeters uses the ‘Technology Readiness Level’ for the applicability of innovations. “At level 1 it is about an idea, at level 9 it is about proven technology. Railway innovations are often at level 9, sustainable aviation innovations at levels 3 to 7. Jet engines in a Boeing or Airbus cannot be converted to hydrogen engines. The aviation sector has 25,000 passenger planes, and so far they only fly on petroleum. ”

But electric flying can offer a solution within a few years, says CEO Meiltje de Groot and Development Manager Jonas van Dorp from Groningen Airport Eelde (GAE). “Train transport remains more sustainable on thick stretches where the infrastructure is located,” says De Groot. “But there are white spots at distances of up to 900 kilometers, such as Groningen – Hamburg. With an electric plane, you can be there in an hour. ”

De Groot expects the first manned nine-seater propeller aircraft to be able to fly on battery packs by 2026. According to her, EasyJet has already ordered the first electric aircraft, and more and more market participants are developing new concepts. Airbus already wants to fly with synthetic fuel on intercontinental flights in 2035, and hydrogen aircraft are also expected in 2050, Van Dorp adds.

The limited charging infrastructure and range present challenges, says Van Dorp. “Battery technology is evolving rapidly. Flight schools are early adapters because they fly short distances and keep returning to their base.” In addition to battery electric, GAE also focuses on hydrogen. “Northern Holland wants to become the hydrogen region, and we agree. We also produce solar energy ourselves. With locally produced green electricity, CO2 emissions today are 0 kg per. passenger kilometers. Electric flying is really becoming a new modality, so it’s hard to compare it to current air traffic. ”

Speaker Paul Peeters states: “Why do we invent air taxis in the most densely populated country in the world? At flight schools, they use non-certified aircraft. The only certified battery aircraft currently flying, Pipistrel, can travel 40 miles with two people on board. So for passenger transport, it seems to me impossible to fly from Groningen to London with batteries in 2026. “

Took the ferry from Villa San Giovanni in the Italian countryside to Messina in Sicily. © Paul Peeters

Will air travelers actually travel by train?

Adjusting flight behavior starts with people who are susceptible to it, says BUAS instructor Peeters. These are not the frequent flyers. ‘Of all Dutch people who fly, 10 per cent are responsible for 80 per cent of the emissions. While 50 percent of Dutch people never fly. You do not get the first group on the train quickly, the second believes that sustainability is important. ”

Arjan Kers, travel organization TUI: ‘Many of our destinations are not accessible by train at all’

This is also noted by Arjan Kers, CEO of the travel organization TUI Netherlands. He sees the enthusiasm for train travel growing in the booking numbers for distances of up to 700 km, but the numbers are still small. “Our customers are not experienced train passengers, so the threshold is high. Travelers expect a similar travel offer in terms of price, availability and travel time. At present, international train connections do not yet meet these criteria. In addition, many popular destinations, such as Curaçao or the Greek islands, are not accessible by train. ”

Despite this, the travel organization has not offered flights to Paris for a number of years because Thalys offers an excellent alternative. TUI also examined before corona to stop flying to other destinations. “But Eurostar to London has a lot of competition from airline connections from Dutch airports. And Berlin has the disadvantage that the infrastructure is not HSL-safe. So the city tripper or business traveler prefers the plane.”

The organization has also recently entered into a partnership with GreenCityTrip, where the night train journey is part of the package tour. A collaboration with Flixbus turned out not to be what TUI customers were looking for.

price war

For holidaymakers, not only CO2 emissions per passenger kilometers important, but of course also the fare and travel distance. About ten years ago, airline tickets at stunt prices of 1 euro were common. But that is a thing of the past, says Paul Peeters from Breda University of Applied Sciences: “A student spent a month checking all flight and train prices from Schiphol to Paris, London, Copenhagen and Munich. Only flying to London turned out to be cheaper due to the high competition in the air. “

Jonas van Dorp, Groningen Airport Eelde: ‘The seat price of the electric 19-seater will be comparable to a current 100-seater in 2030’

Meiltje de Groot also knows that it has to do with rising excise duties and taxes. “A low-cost airline flies at cost, but cost prices are rising enormously.” And what about the price of the electric propeller plane? “At the moment it is not profitable and there is still a need for subsidies. But the current cabinet is investing too little in green aviation. ” Jonas van Dorp: “In 2030, the seat price of the 19-seater will be comparable to a current 100-seater. Maintenance and fuel prices are cheaper, while conventional aircraft are more likely to be subject to tax measures. This makes the final price per. competitive with current air fares. ”

Paul Peeters believes it is ‘a political story’. “What do the governments want? There is no longer a separate airline between Schiphol and Paris, so there is a market for more HSL routes there. But one airline tax per country does not work: My models show that if all airline tickets become 200 percent more expensive , the growth in the number of flight miles will slow down, but still increase. ”

Integrated design

That is why Wijnand Veeneman is more in favor of a European aviation tax. He lacks an important part of the discussion: “We must design an integrated system where all modalities are designed in context. A trip Sydney – Apeldoorn can not be done without a plane. Then it is important that the transfer to the train from Frankfurt Airport is good. Thanks to the good transfer, Schiphol has a better competitive position than many other airports. ”

Paul Peeters believes that we need to be careful about connecting the HSL network to airports, because train passengers generally have nothing to do at the airports, and air travelers are therefore not encouraged to stop flying.

Veeneman argues that with this connection we can reduce total CO2 emissions the most and argues for a special European railway authority. “Such an authority can upgrade railway lines (such as IC Berlin) to HSL, intelligently cross-link networks, establish rules and frameworks and give international lines priority over national lines. It must become part of the fifth railway package so that we can work towards a uniform railway system in Europe. That would be my message to the Dutch University. “

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