Another brilliantly delusional Guardian story

The article starts with a dramatic statement:

“Britain has become a nation addicted to flying”

and continues from there to discuss the relationships between long haul flight, short haul flight, climate change, increased travel taxes and carbon offsets.

Okay let’s start from the beginning.

  1. This is an island. It is remarkably difficult to get off said island without flying and it is unlikely that concerns about climate change are likely to alter that simple fact.
  2. Although I think the train system here is quite remarkable, it does struggle to compete price-wise. Some examples that spring to mind: a round trip flight London to Dublin set me back £24. The rail fare to the airport (30 miles) to take the flight ran £15. My trip to Nottingham last week was nearly £50. A colleague in Nottingham who was from Glasgow ran me through the numbers and both in terms of time and cost, it was orders of magnitude easier to fly to Glasgow than to take the train.
  3. Increased taxes on air travel are unlikely to tip the balance against air travel in an era of increasing globalization.

While the economics of the rail-air-environmental debate will rage on ad nauseum, point 1 is unlikely to change any time soon. This is a small over-crowded island and people are aching to leave it on occasion, both for work and for pleasure. What is unclear to me is why there is such an apparent divergence in the rail vs airfares in terms of price per mile traveled even without leaving this island. Until the Ryanairs of the world cease to exist, even for medium-haul travel on this island the low-cost airlines seem likely to win this battle. The environmental war will simply have to be waged on other fronts.

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2 responses to “Another brilliantly delusional Guardian story

  1. As a frequent and grateful, yet guilty Ryanair traveller for the past 9 months, I agree only partially. Yes, the ability to leave this cramped island is important for us expats, for various reasons, which include the need to maintain our sanity. No, the fact that airlines are so much more competitive than rail should not be accepted as bald, unalterable fact. Both rail and air services are run here by private companies using public infrastructure. Could railway companies get better at competing on cost? Could airlines be made to reduce their CO2 emissions in absolute terms, not just intensity, by regulation and taxation? Could rail tracks be improved so higher-speed service becomes possible, at a fraction of the environmental impact? Could ferries (which used to work pretty well back in the day, you know) be brought back? Could we reduce the speed of our culture even just a little bit and start figuring the environment into our priorities, even at the expense of convenience, cost, and speed? I’d say yes to all of the above and consider such steps to be essential to minimising the impact of climate change.

  2. When I come “home” from Canada I, of course, need to fly. But for short trips to the continent, rail should be competitive. The sorry story of the Chunnel is a tribute to the success of Lady Thatcher’s narrow minded approach. Planes do not pay any tax on the fuel they burn. This is due to an international agreement that is long overdue for review. The UK government continues to build airports on the “predict and provide” model – but does not apply that to other modes. The French spent a fortune on their TGV network, but saw a significant drop in domestic air travel as a result, which has freed up airport capacity for long haul travel. Europe is now following suit with German ICE trains now running to Paris. Air travel is going to be one of the hardest nuts to crack in reducing global ghg emissions, but that does not mean it must not be done, and done soon.

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