Business Travel Show Europe is the place where
September 2022, Virtual
September 29 2022, Virtual
Tim Gresty makes the case for why air travel can be as green as high-speed rail for UK and near-Europe travel
The Prince of Wales travels a great deal on his family business. A leader in environmental matters, he preaches the need to care for our fragile planet.
Each year, he reports on his Household's finances and environmental impact. His 2008 report states: "When Their Royal Highnesses are travelling in the UK the aim is to reduce emissions through greater use of cars, trains and turbo-prop aircraft, and, where practical and possible, scheduled flights."
Clearly, Charles understands something few travellers, politicians or the media have grasped - different aircraft types produce different levels of carbon emissions. And modern turboprops are often cleaner than high-speed trains operating parallel routes in UK and Europe.
It is often overlooked that high-speed trains require high levels of electric power, creating far greater environmental impact than their claimed 'minimal carbon footprint'. Growth in frequency on high-speed rail routes ramps up their environmental impact, and low-fuel, high-efficiency turboprops regularly beat high-speed trains in the emissions league for UK and European journeys.
Furthermore, lobbyists do not understand that official statistics which underpin their arguments are outdated, based on the wrong aircraft, and fail to reflect recent developments in aircraft technology.
Environmental claims by high-speed rail operators are not always supported by official statistics.
Virgin Train's website states that "Pendolino trains emit at least 76 per cent less CO2 than cars and 78 per cent less than domestic flights". Eurostar's website states "Eurostar emits 10 times less CO2 than flying to our core destinations". However, facts published in the EMEP/ CORINAIR Emission Inventory Guidebook, last updated in December 2007 and used by DEFRA as a source for calculating environmental impact, suggest something different.
The standard measure for comparing transport emissions is grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre travelled, or gCO2/per passenger km for short. DEFRA states the 'national rail factor' is 60.2gCO2/passenger km. That is the average for all UK rail. It should be noted though that in the case of high-speed trains, additional speed comes at a massive energy cost.
Moving 471 tons of heavy metal capable of carrying 439 passengers takes a great deal of scarce electricity, which is created in UK power stations that pollute the environment through over-dependence on fossil fuels. Belgium's authoritative consumer affairs watchdog Test Aankoop states high-speed rail on mainland Europe emits 122gCO2/passenger km with an average passenger load. In comparison, a well-filled local commuter train emits just 35gCO2/passenger km.
The most environmentally-efficient aircraft are turboprops. As they use high-efficiency jet engines to turn propellers, they fly at lower heights than big jets, and do not emit cloud-like condensation trails that some claim magnify global warming. VLM Airlines operates high-efficiency Fokker F-50 turboprops. The EMEP/CORINAIR study confirms that, on a 250-mile flight, an F-50 emits 92.75gCO2/passenger km when 100 per cent full and 115.93gCO2/passenger km when 80 per cent full, still significantly lower than a high-speed train. Other turboprops deliver similarly-impressive figures, with a 100 per cent-full ATR 72-200 heading the league on 58.48gCO2/passenger km.
One problem with those EMEP/CORINAIR emissions statistics is, though, that they are plain out-of-date. For example, the 2007 Guidebook confirms emissions statistics for Jets including the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 were calculated before March 31, 1999, and the turboprop data prior to December 17, 2001. Also, for their 'average domestic aviation' calculations, they include the ancient Boeing 737-100, which went out of service in Europe a decade ago, and the Boeing 737-400 'Classic' which was replaced with more fuel-efficient 'Next-Generation' models.
Even if we stick with those outdated jets to calculate 'average domestic aviation' emissions, the numbers quoted by rail operators don't stack up. On a 250-mile journey, a 100 per cent-full Airbus 320 emits only 94.39gCO2/passenger km. At a profitable 80 per cent load, that rises to 117.99.
Comparable figures for the old-style Boeing 737-400 are practically identical, at 94.09 and 117.61. Swap for the more modern Boeing 737-600 or later-model Airbus, and those emissions levels fall even lower. This shoots a large hole in those arguments that we should pay environmental taxes for UK domestic and near-Europe flights to encourage us to move to rail. On many journeys, particularly when air takes you on a direct line to your destination but rail adds to the distance by transiting intermediate off-the-straight-line stations such as Lille on your way to Antwerp or Brussels, the environmental damage increases.
There are some other pertinent factors to consider. For example, manufacturing concrete, crushing and transporting trackbed stone and the forging of iron and steel are among the most polluting processes man has inflicted on this precious planet. Over £10 billion has been spent on upgrading the West Coast main line, with a similarly-massive investment in Eurostar's upgrade. Every mile of track and tunnel consumed huge amounts of concrete, stone and iron - every ton contributing to the pall of emissions that damages our environment.
Costs should also be taken into consideration when planning business travel, too. A Manchester to London Euston turn-up-and-go Standard return ticket at peak times is £230. If you're lucky, you might find an Advance Returns at £128, but then you abandon the freedom to vary your journey times. Upgrade to First Class (and the chance to work at a table instead of a cramped seat-back), and your turn-up-and-go ticket rises to £360 - or £290 if you're prepared in Advance to forfeit flexibility. Compared with similar journeys in Germany, France or Benelux, that's a great train robbery.
Today, it's competition from airlines that keeps those prices under control, with Manchester to London return with BA, bmi or VLM into London City as little as £310 for full flexibility, or as low as £120 with a cheap-to-change advance booking.
If you discourage people from travelling by air on the spurious grounds that it's worse for the planet, then you encourage a series of privatised revenue-driven monopolies owned by highly-geared rail operators. If that happens, you won't have benefited the environment - but you might have created a situation where intercity rail is the only fast, but expensive, option.
So, the choice is yours. If you want healthy competition as well as environmentally-sustainable travelling, keep travelling by air - and preferably by lower-emissions turboprop. You really can make that choice with a clearer, cleaner conscience. After all, that's what the Prince of Wales did.
HOW AIR AND RAIL MEASURE UP
Sources: EMEP/CORINAIR Emission Inventory Guidebook 2007, published by European Environment Agency, except for * Test Aankoop, Belgium Nr522 (July/August 2008). Estimated on 80 per cent Load Factor.
Tim Gresty is an economist, chartered marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He has worked on strategic planning and marketing issues for airlines, airports, and rail and coach operators, including niche short-haul business-focused VLM Airlines.