Paul Tuohy is chief executive
of the UK's Campaign for Better Transport
In his Budget last week, the UK Chancellor announced that Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights would be cut by half. With the UK currently hosting the COP26 climate conference, the Chancellor's zeal for getting as many people as possible onto polluting short-haul flights seemed jaw-droppingly tone-deaf.
Price is of course a key factor when choosing which transport mode to use, including for business travellers who are often obliged by their employer or client to justify their choice on price grounds. If flying is the cheapest option, then fly they must.
The Chancellor's announcement will lead people to fly who would otherwise have caught the train, which is a big problem for one simple reason: domestic flights produce seven times more harmful greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent train journey.
The timing of the announcement could not have been much worse, threatening to undermine the chance of successfully negotiating a path to curb catastrophic climate change at COP26.
Campaign for Better Transport is calling for a ban on all domestic flights where the equivalent train journey can be completed in under five hours. This would mean an end to flights from London to Edinburgh, for instance, and from Birmingham to Glasgow, with people offered cheaper train tickets instead. We also want the government to stop all plans for airport expansion until 'net zero flights' are a reality.
But is it reasonable to expect business travellers to catch the train? There is an argument that productivity would be harmed by condemning business travellers to long and inefficient train journeys rather than short flights. In reality, the opposite is often true. With train stations more centrally located than airports and without the need for lengthy check-in procedures, door-to-door the train journey can be as fast as the flight.
To test this assertion, earlier in October we held a race from London's Piccadilly Circus to George Square in Glasgow, where world leaders are currently meeting at COP26. I travelled by plane from London Luton airport, while my colleague and former transport minister, Norman Baker, caught the train. Amazingly, I beat Norman to George Square by just two minutes.
What's more, Norman was able to spend his time much more productively than me. His smooth train journey enabled him to catch up on work along the way, while I spent much of my journey queuing, trapped in a plane seat, and changing between modes, and had little time to do any work that wasn't on my phone.
The plane journey emitted seven times the carbon and was stressful and unproductive, all for the sake of a two-minute time saving. As a business traveller, in this case the choice of modes would be a no-brainer.
The Chancellor justified his decision to cut Air Passenger Duty by saying it would help to ‘cut the cost of living’ and ‘bring people together across the UK’. He could do both of these things – without catastrophically undermining efforts to tackle climate change – by improving train travel and making it more affordable.
We want to see a freeze on rail fares for 2022, followed by major reform of fares and ticketing to make them fit for the future and make rail travel more attractive. And we want to see new lines and stations built, and closed Beeching lines reopened, so that more people can access the network easily.
After the Covid crisis, our transport system is at a crossroads. As people begin to move around more, for business and pleasure, the government should be doing all it can to form new, more sustainable habits, by making the green choice easy and affordable. The Budget was a step in the wrong direction.