European Rail on Track to Eclipse Air Travel


With trains that travel through 10 European countries at speeds of 150 mph or more on 3,034 miles of track (and another 1,711 miles slated by 2010), European lines have become viable alternatives for short-haul, inter-country travel—so much so that a few airlines are cutting flights that compete with rail. Travel Agent went to Frederic Langlois, president and CEO of Rail Europe, for his take on this trend that’s quickly gaining steam.

The primary North American representation for over 35 European rail lines like Eurostar and TGV, Rail Europe is experiencing its highest level of sales ever so far this year, specifically on high-speed and “Premier” trains, Langlois notes. One reason behind this increasing popularity could be that train travel doesn’t require checking luggage or removing shoes to go through security.

In the first month of TGV East service, which started in June, Rail Europe’s ticket sales on the route—Paris into Germany and Switzerland—soared 65 percent over the previous year, when the only option was a train that ran at the conventional speed of about 100 mph, Langlois says. (And if American Express’ recent business travel forecast proves correct, rail fares should remain stable in 2008, only encouraging more travelers to ride the rails.)

Langlois points out that high-speed trains with a ride of three hours or less always have captured the major share of any route at the expense of air. “Air France stopped operating flights between Paris and Metz one month after TGV East started up,” he says. “In March, BMI discontinued its London-Paris flights. When the Thalys train between Paris and Brussels was launched, it didn’t take too many years before all the airlines operating on that route—the trip is only one hour and 20 minutes—discontinued flights. Today the only competition Thalys has are car drivers.”

Which brings us to the next point in favor of rail travel: It’s eco-friendly. “The environmental advantages of rail travel are tremendous, and Americans are becoming more and more concerned about the environment,” Langlois says. Using data compiled by the International Railway Association and from European environmental agencies, Langlois says that when calculated per 100 passenger kilometers (the number of passengers multiplied by the distance traveled), air travel generates more than four times the carbon dioxide emissions than high-speed rail, and private cars generate 3.5 times the carbon dioxide (measured in kilograms per 100 passenger kilometers).

This means that each passenger on a roundtrip flight between London and Paris generates 122 kilograms of carbon dioxide, compared with just 11 kg for a traveler making the roundtrip on Eurostar, according to independent research commissioned by Eurostar. “But there’s more to environmental impact than just greenhouse gases,” Langlois says. “Whether you measure energy efficiency, pollution or land use, rail is clearly the low-impact alternative.”

Finally, opting for rail over air travel may improve an agent’s bottom line. “Agent commissions for online bookings of European rail products—whether tickets between two points, rail passes or our Rail ’n Drive products—start at 5 percent,” Langlois says. “The great thing about rail from the standpoint of the agent’s bottom line is that people love the experience, so they go back for more on a later trip.”

In short, it seems selling rail in lieu of air has the potential to satisfy clients, no matter if it’s because they avoid long security lines or help save the environment—and that’s always good for the bottom line.