Trains versus planes

Hi folks! Margaux here from the Support team 👋 Today, I’m taking a look at what difference it makes to travel by plane or train, when both options are available.

A couple years ago, I started taking the train instead of flying when I travel back to France. I’m not gonna lie, this was in part due to the cancellation of EasyJet’s direct Berlin-Lyon flight during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the convenience that the train suddenly seemed to offer by comparison. Its route isn’t direct either, but now it’s almost as fast as flying, except I get to see the view, work from the train, and drink reasonably-priced coffee.

While planes “only” account for 2.5% of total carbon emissions, transportation accounts for 3/4 of carbon emissions linked to tourism. And partly due to the rise of low-cost flights, tourism has increased by 115% in 20 years. Of course, it’s incredibly enriching to discover new cities, live in new places, meet new people — but nothing’s free, and planes have a big environmental cost.

It’s important to note that these are estimates. There are a lot of varying factors for flights in particular, such as route, type of aircraft, whether the plane is or isn’t full, and even whether you’re flying business or economy. Most CO2 calculators assume a direct flight, though in real life you might be making a stop. And on top of CO2, planes emit other gases and particulate matter. (See the white lines in the sky after a plane has passed? That.) Studies have shown that “when emitted at high altitudes, these emissions affect atmospheric physical and chemical properties, resulting in an increase in greenhouse gases and the potential formation of persistent contrail cirrus. The consequence is a net warming effect, which may be up to three times worse than the warming caused by aviation’s CO2 emissions [alone].” You might have noticed that comparison tools like Google Flights also give you information on the CO2 emissions of your flight, and those estimates are about a third lower than those of climate-focused online calculators. So this isn't foolproof, but gives me a rough idea — and what I can be sure of is that planes pollute much, much more than trains.

Now, one argument against taking the train is that the trip can take much longer. This is sometimes true, especially for longer distances such as from Berlin to Bordeaux or Milan. For shorter distances, however, the difference is very minimal.

The train looks even faster once you consider that airports are often far away from the city center, and you have to arrive early to pass security. For example, flying to Lyon from Berlin takes about 9.5 hours less, but if you add one hour each way to get to and from the city center, plus arriving at least one hour early at the airport (but often more), the difference is only about six hours, which I think is pretty ok considering the difference in carbon footprint. For shorter distances, like going to Prague or Munich, this extra travel means it’s actually more time efficient to take the train.

As I’ve already mentioned, the rise in CO2 emissions from air traffic is also linked to the rise in tourism in recent decades. Travel is more and more accessible, and traveling by air is now very cheap with low-cost flights from companies such as EasyJet and Ryanair. Sometimes, flying is more cost efficient than taking the train — but this is far from being true for all destinations.

Some of those differences are quite big, on both sides. There is close to zero chance that I’m ever taking a plane from Berlin to Prague (on top of being much cheaper and greener, the view from that train is wonderful, so it’s a win-win-win).

Like a lot of those “little gestures” linked to climate change, there is a social factor that comes into play. Not all of us can say, “Ok, it’s more expensive to go to Copenhagen by train, but I’ll do it anyway because it’s better for the planet,” the same way not all of us can afford to eat organic or switch to an electric car. And you can’t blame people for wanting to discover the world and travel a little. It’s interesting to really see the difference though, and personally it will help me make more conscious choices about transportation — I won’t necessarily stop taking planes entirely, but I’ll maybe think twice before hopping on a Berlin-Milan flight. Sure, it’s 120 cheaper and more than 13 hours faster, but historically people have never travelled thousands of kilometers in just a few hours. Taking the train is also a way to reconnect and think about what it means to travel, and how far you’re actually going.

If I go to Milan, I might choose to take a stop in my hometown of Lyon on the way, and make two trips out of one, saving on CO2 and perhaps, if I’m smart with my bookings, even a bit of money and time, thanks to the direct Lyon-Milan high speed line 😉 That’s it for me this time — stay tuned for Simon's Weekly Chart next week!