A recent travel analysis conducted by Forbes Advisor, the platform specialising in comparison and financial guidance, has unveiled a notable cost advantage in favour of air travel over rail transportation within the UK this holiday season. For instance, a journey from London to Edinburgh by plane was found to cost 33 pounds (about 37 euros), which is four times cheaper than the equivalent rail journey costing 130 pounds (almost 150 euros).
The study indicates that flying can be up to five times more economical than opting for train journeys. Furthermore, exploring various European destinations can be achieved for less than 100 pounds (114 euros*), a considerably lower expense compared to domestic travel within the UK. The specific surge in domestic rail travel costs is evident in the study. This does not bode well for a modal shift from carbon-heavy air transport, towards the greener alternative that is rail travel.
Opting for a flight from Bristol to Edinburgh would only incur around 43 pounds (49 euros) for a return trip, showcasing a fivefold cost reduction compared to the 214 pounds train fare. Similarly, a Christmas journey from London to Edinburgh by plane (33 pounds/ 37 euros) is four times more economical than the equivalent rail journey (130 pounds/ about 150 euros). The expense of covering significant distances from Wales is notably high, with a return flight from Cardiff to Edinburgh priced at 256 pounds (293 euros), whereas the train alternative stands at 218 pounds (249 euros) during this period. Interestingly, just across the border in Bristol, the same flight to Edinburgh is available for a mere 43 pounds (49 euros) for a return trip.
For those considering flying from London to Aberdeen this Christmas, the analysis indicates potential savings of 84 pounds (96 euros) and a time advantage of 5.5 hours compared to the train option. Similarly, a return flight from Newquay to London at 89 pounds (101 euros) proves to be a more cost-effective and time-efficient choice compared to a 125-pound (143 euros) train fare that takes six times longer. In essence, opting for air travel not only presents financial benefits but also significant time savings.
Short-haul European flights prices are competitive
The analysis reveals that surprisingly, it’s also significantly more economical to travel to a number of other European countries than it is to travel across the United Kingdom over the Christmas period. This underscores the increasing cost of rail travel within the UK. Flights from Manchester to Paris, for instance, are priced at only 51 pounds (58 euros), making it more affordable than the train journey from Manchester to London during the festive season. The train fare for the latter is 33 pounds (37 euros) more than the flight, and a flight to London costs over double, amounting to 110 pounds (125 euros).
This trend is not exclusive to the UK. In a comparison of prices for train and plane tickets on 112 routes in Europe, a Greenpeace analysis from July 2023 affirmed that trains are often, and in some cases significantly, more expensive than flights. The study notes, “The UK has become a hotspot for climate-wrecking low-cost carriers. EasyJet and Ryanair operate flights from London to all other capitals included in this analysis, except to Brussels.” For instance, the train cost almost doubles that of the plane for connections like London – Amsterdam and London – Paris. The study also notes that “Train tickets cannot be purchased 4 months in advance in the UK, which is disadvantageous for rail over planes. On average, the train cost twice as much as the flight.”
One analysis by non-profit UK consumer organisation Which? did find a silver lining, however. Taking a night train can be cheaper than taking a flight for certain passengers, especially groups of families. Indeed, Flights might seem a lot cheaper until you factor in the cost of baggage and an extra night’s accommodation, the consumer organisation points out. However, there are still only a limited number of night train routes in Europe.
According to data from the European Environment Agency, planes release, on average, 4.84 times more greenhouse gas emissions than trains. Greenpeace suggests that this figure is a conservative, low estimate. Since the European Green Deal, the EU aims to cut transport emissions by 90% by 2050. While the European Union wishes to promote the modal shift from air to rail, and some countries like France, Austria, and the Netherlands are banning short-haul flights, with others like Spain wishing to follow, this ambition is not shared by the British government.
Last month, the UK prime minister reiterated the UK’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050, with as an intermediary step in 2030, of reducing carbon emissions by 68 per cent compared to 1990 levels. While air travel represents only seven per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, the UK is still responsible for the highest emissions from international flights on the European continent, at 30.3 million metric tons of CO2 in 2019, according to Statista. It was France that had the highest domestic flight emissions, at 4.76 million metric tons of CO2 the same year.
Nevertheless, the press release also states that the UK government will “Rule out policy ideas that would require people to share cars, eat less meat and dairy, be taxed to discourage their flying, or have seven bins to hit recycling targets – removing worrying proposals that would interfere in the way people live their lives.” Flights are indeed especially important to those living on an island, but the UK does have access to the Channel Tunnel meaning that there is both a road and rail connection to the continent. The UK still has a ‘Jet Zero’ strategy for delivering net zero aviation by 2050, however, it does not plan for any direct intervention by the government to limit aviation growth.
Jet Zero 2050
A core aspect of the UK’s Jet Zero policy, which set out the steps the UK will take to reach net zero aviation emissions by 2050, and net zero for English airports and UK domestic aviation by 2040, is aiming for accelerating aviation decarbonisation through the implementation of new technologies. These include increasing funding for and fast-tracking the development of innovative zero-emission aircraft and aviation technology, zero-emission flight infrastructure at UK airports and sustainable fuels. The UK also promises to further develop the UK Emissions Trading Scheme to help accelerate aviation decarbonisation.
“It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently. We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel,” writes Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, stated in a 2021 report entitled Decarbonising Transport: A Better, Greener Britain, “The Jet Zero Council will build on British leadership in sustainable aviation fuels to deliver truly guilt-free flying. The UK is already the home of the world’s first hydrogen aircraft and we have set ourselves the objective of flying the first zero emission flight across the Atlantic.”
Shapps did however acknowledge in the report that the UK “must make buses and trains better value and more competitively priced.” The Jet Zero policy does cover influencing consumer choices. This is planned to be achieved by informing consumers on the environmental impact of their flights, providing sustainable modes of transport to and from the airport, and “supporting growth in airport capacity where it is justified”. It, therefore, becomes clear that, as the UK government will not implement policies deterring passengers from options for air travel beyond providing information on environmental impact, and flight prices remain extremely competitive, rail has a lot of catching up to do before the masses have an incentive to take the train domestically.
Ways forward for UK Rail
According to findings by technology experts at SilverRail, the influence of high-speed rail (HSR) in Europe is evident, with heightened competition on crucial routes emerging as a pivotal factor in the rail industry’s expanding market presence in comparison to air travel. The Train over Plane campaign initiative, aimed at bolstering the rail sector’s passenger share, has discerned a favourable correlation between the introduction of high-speed rail alternatives for prominent European flight paths, the escalation of competition on these rail routes, and a noticeable increase in passengers opting for trains over planes.
The initiative seeks to quantify the potential impact of high-speed rail in Europe, considering both economic and environmental perspectives. Thus, increased competition on the railways could help decrease rail travel costs in the UK, thus encouraging a modal shift from air to rail. The positive impact of competition has been recorded in European Union countries like France for instance.
On the freight side, a spokesperson for the UK lobby organisation Rail Partners, said: “A level playing field across trains, planes and cars is essential to enabling the rail sector to effectively compete with higher carbon forms of travel and to help meet our net zero goals. To achieve that, the Government must look at transport holistically, considering rail fares in the context of air passenger duty, fuel duty and wider energy prices – making low-carbon travel a more attractive choice. In addition to attracting passengers back to rail, shifting freight from road to rail will be critical to decarbonising Britain’s logistics supply chains, and the government should set an ambitious target.”
The comparison between train and plane ticket prices in Europe, as well as the emphasis on high-speed rail in Europe, suggests that increased competition on railways could potentially decrease rail travel costs in the UK and encourage a shift from air to rail. However, the current policies and competitive pricing of flights, combined with the UK government’s focus on technological advancements for sustainable aviation, indicate that rail has hurdles to overcome before becoming a more attractive option for the masses. The challenge lies in achieving a balance between economic viability, environmental sustainability, and the convenience of travel options.
* Currency conversions are approximate.