How low cost flights killed night trains

From the Swiss on-line media Tribune deGèneve we have kindly got this translation (from French)

In the 1990s, since Cornavin (main railway station in Geneve), night trains left for Rome and Barcelona every night. To Yugoslavia via Venice in the wake of the Orient Express. Sleeping cars decorated with a hammer and a sickle carried us to Moscow. Today, nothing like that.

In 2012, the TGV Lyria linked three times a day Geneva to the south of France. Today, the services to Montpellier and Nice have been stopped, only one remains for Marseille. A symbolic threshold has recently been crossed for TGV Lyria. Less than half of the travelers to Paris are using them now. Absorbed by the sky.

From Geneva, to go to Moscow or Belgrade, aviation offers unbeatable rates. They also make salivate over short distances. Easyjet carries a bewildering number of additional passengers every year. Since Cointrin in November (the month when air traffic is the least loaded), a good dozen planes fly daily to Paris. About twenty to London. Not to mention the business jets.

Difficult not to see a link between the increase of air services, even that of low-cost buses, and the disintegration of the international rail offer. Especially since, everywhere in Europe, the trend is similar.

Expensive infrastructures

In France, over the past ten years, TGV (high-speed train) traffic has remained sluggish, while air transport has received 20% more passengers, according to the Ministry of Transport. In Italy, despite the success of TGVs and competition between two operators, the long-distance rail offer has barely developed in twenty years. In Europe, the network of slow night trains, not necessarily comfortable, has largely been dismantled.

The explanation is simple, according to Yves Crozet, professor at Sciences Po Lyon: the train (even its low cost variants) is more expensive than the plane, which allows to go faster and further. From Lyon to Paris, it takes 10 to 15 cents per passenger and per kilometer for the train, against 5 to 6 cents for the plane, according to his calculations.

“The trains depend on a railway line whose maintenance has to be paid; the plane, in the sky, is flying on its own, believes Yves Crozet. And electricity, which propels trains, is not a cheap fuel. ”

International aviation benefits from tax-free access to kerosene, but in Europe, despite subsidies for rail, the train has less room for maneuver to adjust its costs, according to Yves Crozet.

“The competition with the train is not direct since most often the air routes have no railway equivalent. But the universe of choices being changed, young and old are choosing more and more the mode of transport (the plane) before choosing the destination “, adds the specialist of the transport economy.

“The trains have dug their own grave”

Observers worried about the planet want to believe that the offer of night trains, less polluting, resurfaces. In Austria, a new overnight intercity network runs from Hamburg to Rome – with departures in Basel and Zurich – and additional lines are to be inaugurated. In France, the Minister of Transport said this fall that “yes night trains have a future.” A petition circulates to relaunch them. Its authors argue that if bicycles and streetcars are back on the scene, night trains can do the same.

But the experts consulted in the context of this article see a niche market, expensive, nostalgic. Nothing, according to them, that will reverse the trend.

“The railway did not wait for the rise of low cost air to collapse,” says Vincent Kaufmann. EPFL’s transport specialist estimates that the railways are back on their national markets, as they did twenty years ago, when low-cost airlines made their appearance.

“Railway equipment is less unified than in the past. This makes it incompatible to use a train from one country to another. The trains have dug their own grave, the plane is engulfed in the gap, “according to Vincent Kaufmann.

New rules?

A report by the European Court of Auditors, published this summer, evokes a “fragmented and inefficient” European high-speed rail network and calls for the creation of a unified space.

Voices propose to harden the rules. More than 80% of flights departing from Switzerland serve a European destination and 40% of them travel a distance of less than 800 km, “feasible by train”, indicated this spring in our columns Florian Egli, Vice President of Foraus think tank.

“If we removed all flights from Geneva with a service of less than three hours, to Milan, Paris, Zurich, Marseille for example, it would quickly 40 fewer flights per day,” said Vincent Kaufmann. Utopian? Not for the University of Basel, which has just banned its employees to use a plane for trips of less than 1000 kilometers.

>>Read the article in French (behind paying zone)

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