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Aviation Feature: Trains Replacing Planes

In 1981, with one eye on its balance sheet, the then West German national airline Lufthansa wanted to lower the costs of short haul connections (with flight times of only forty to forty-five minutes) between Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt, replacing these flights with rail transport. In partnership with Deutsche Bundesbahn, three complete train sets were refurbished and re-fitted with the same seats as used on Lufthansa’s DC-10 business class cabins with the airline’s livery on the outside. (image: Lufthansa)

Calling at the city centres rather than at the airports, on board the passengers were served by Lufthansa stewardesses as they would have been on an airliner. It appeared to be successful in both passenger figures and costs compared to the Boeing 737 used before. In the summer of 1988 the seating capacity was enlarged and one year later the same formula was introduced between Frankfurt Airport and Stuttgart. With the extension to the south more rolling stock was needed and additional trains were repainted in Lufthansa livery and coaches were refurbished in the same way as the earlier trains had been. Despite a hiatus in the early 1990s, and with Germany now reunited after the fall of the Berlin wall and East Germany, the airline’s train services were subsequently revived and now extend to more cities and are set to grow further due to its successful codeshare alliance with Deutsche Bundesbahn under which passengers travel across the German countryside in dedicated compartments (rather than the airline running an entire train).

“The passenger travelling with the train stays our customer, as he travels with a Lufthansa ticket - not in the air but on the ground,” says Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky.

The German airline might have been one of the first to employ trains instead of planes but the world has moved on: CNN’s Francesca Street and Isabelle Gerretsen look at further moves in airline and rail partnerships:

We might not all be Greta Thunberg, shunning air travel for weeks-long odysseys aboard Atlantic yachts, but turning our backs on short-haul flights in favour of train travel is, for many of us, a more practical enterprise. Rather than bemoaning the loss of eco-conscious travellers, some airlines seem to be embracing this rail-orientated gear switch. Dutch airline KLM recently announced plans to partner with European train companies Thalys and NS to replace one of its five daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels with a high-speed rail service. Elsewhere in Europe, Austrian Airlines is offering ‘AIRail,’ another terrestrial service in partnership - or codeshare, in aviation parlance - with that country's national rail operator ÖOB.

So are these down-to-earth moves by air carriers being made for the sake of the environment, or the bottom line?

There's clearly a business rationale. Replacing short-haul flights with trains frees up landing and departure slots at busy airports that can be used for more lucrative long-haul services. They also make the airline look greener, even if there may be little long-term difference to its carbon footprint.

Below: Lufthansa's air-rail network (Lufthansa)

Re-evaluating short haul

As train expert Mark Smith, founder of rail route encyclopedia The Man in Seat 61, puts it, airlines replacing flight routes with train services combines both ‘good PR’ and ‘hard commercial reason.’

“There is this trend towards lower carbon travel and the airlines are aware that this is something they can be seen to be doing,” Smith said. “This sort of nods towards that, whilst actually there are sound commercial reasons for doing it, by freeing up the long haul slots.”

KLM makes no secret of the business sense behind cutting short haul Amsterdam-Brussels flights, but insists the move will help long-term sustainability and a ‘fly responsibly’ campaign that advises passengers to pack light and offset the carbon emissions of their travel.

“If we can really build a product that is comparable to our current products, we will consider replacing more short-haul flights in the future,” said KLM spokeswoman Manel Vrijenhoek. By eliminating one in five of its Amsterdam-Brussels flights departing Schiphol Airport, KLM will play a part in the Dutch air transport sector's overall mission to reduce C02 emissions by 35% by 2030, she added. “KLM is committed to driving a sustainable future for aviation. Part of that commitment is that we want to reduce our footprint​."

Sea change

As for travellers, the stats suggest people are becoming more willing to look at train travel for longer distances. In the UK, Virgin Trains, which has operated the country's West Coast railway line for the past two decades, says its share of passengers travelling between London and Glasgow rose to a record 29% in 2019, a move it says is due to people choosing rail over flight. Given that travel time on this 400 mile route is averages 5 hours, 29 minutes by train and about 1 hour 15 minutes by air (plus connection times), and the fares are relatively close, there could be some merit to the claim. It could also reflect the growing popularity of the recent Sweden-originating 'Flygskam' or 'flight shame' movement that has seen some championing rail travel over short-haul flights. But does it represent a major trend that could change the way the world travels?

“I doubt it's got the airline industry scared,” says Mark Smith. “It's more likely that the airlines are going to look towards longer-haul and pull out of short haul.”

Codeshare agreements with train companies also stop airlines from losing their monopoly in a changing market. For customers, it's also a chance to use or earn air miles and retain airline club status.

On the train

So what's it like to travel on an air-rail codeshare? To make sure there's no misunderstanding, the airlines do make it clear from the outset passengers are travelling by rail, printing it clearly on tickets. Different types of rail-train alliances offer different services. On board the Amsterdam-Brussels trains, KLM promises to ‘fully match the speed, reliability and comfort that air travel offers passengers.’

"There will be a dedicated check-in desk at Schiphol in 2020 to make the connection as smooth as possible for train passengers from Brussels," said Manel Vrijenhoek.

(ÖBB/Phillipp Horak)

Austrian Airlines' AIRail service using ÖBB trains between Vienna and Linz operates under designated flight numbers. Customers get food vouchers redeemable in the train restaurant, while biz class passengers can use ÖBB Lounges at Linz and Salzburg Central Station. The service has operated since 2014 and is now a fixture of trans-European travel.

"Last year we cancelled our flight service between Vienna and Linz as the rail offering was running well," Leonhard Steinmann, a spokesman for Austrian Airlines, said.

Something similar happened when Air France began collaborating with French rail company SNCF on high speed services between Paris and Brussels. On this super quick service, typically taking just over 80 minutes, Air France purchases a block of seats and administers them as an airplane cabin, with bags checked pre-journey and returned to passengers at destination.

The service "really provides an Air France experience," said the airline’s Patrice Tétard. So much so that Air France has eradicated its Paris-Brussels air route altogether. “It didn't make sense to maintain air connections between Paris and Brussels, the distance is too short,” explains Tétard. “However there is still significant connecting traffic, which we wanted to capture. That is why we established this commercial relationship.”

(ÖBB/Harald Eisenberger)

So could such success stories mean the end of the line for short-haul European flights? “The decisive factor here is always the alternative for our passengers,” continued Austrian Airlines' Steinmann. “The geographical location and infrastructure play a key role in this case. If it takes too long for a passenger to travel the route by rail, the right framework conditions have to be created beforehand.”

Speed is perhaps the most important factor. In instances where a train service has killed off the equivalent flight route, it's usually a high speed service known for reliability, efficiency and high standards. When only long, slower services are available, short-haul flights maintain the upper hand.

“Trains do not always provide satisfactory solutions to cater to the specific needs of passengers, notably same-day return trips for business passengers,” says Air France's Tétard.

The success stories also, unsurprisingly, involve cities that have airports with integrated rail stations. Lufthansa's Boris Ogurksy points out that while its rail alliance routes from Frankfurt have been successful, rerouting airline passengers to trains to and from its second hub in Munich would be far trickier, since there's no long-distance train station at the airport. Customers will only accept a rail replacement if they consider the service to be equal - if not better - than what they get in the sky. As Ogurksy puts it, it's all about mastering “profitability, loyalty and ecological aspects.”

And airlines are acutely aware that if customers don't want to travel by train, they'll just look for rival airline offerings that stick to flying.

Service on airline rail connections are comparable to the carrier's airborne networks (Thalys)

Across the Atlantic, US travellers with no major intercity rail network to access, are used to taking short-haul flights across the country. There is one notable air-rail alliance. United Airlines has a partnership with rail company Amtrak, allowing travellers to connect to and from Newark International Airport to travel along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor - and collect United mileage points. Meanwhile Virgin - known for its planes and trains - is putting money into a high-speed rail project in Florida.

Mark Smith says it'll only take one US railway triumph for other services to swiftly follow suit, with LA to Las Vegas a likely contender.

“It's a massively popular air route, but actually it's only about 300 miles,” says Smith. “So you could put in a fast train there and beat the plane centre to centre. I think it'll only take one before everyone else realises that in the States, the high speed link between major cities that are only 200, 300 or 400 miles apart actually make sense. In a European environment where open access is encouraged and now permitted, there is no reason airlines can't get involved with trains.”

But given the major costs this would involve, rail companies and airlines are more likely to use their mutual expertise to offer the most rewarding, quick and eco-friendly passenger experience. And in a future which could include super high-speed transport options such as Hyperloop, don't be surprised if the days of airlines confining their services to the skies become a distant memory.


The year is 2030. You're in a sleek pod-like capsule that's levitating inside a low pressure steel tube and accelerating across the country at speeds of more than 600 miles per hour.

(Hyperloop Transporation Technologies)

This is Hyperloop, the futuristic transportation method pitched by controversial US entrepreneur Elon Musk, drawing on 100-year-old principals updated for the 21st century. Big companies are investing serious money into projects to get Hyperloop - both literally and figuratively - off the ground, with pilot tubes being erected in Dubai's deserts and futuristic pods unveiled in European warehouses. With the news that Virgin Hyperloop One and Dubai-based supply chain firm, DP World, have got the green light by a state government in India to advance Hyperloop, the buzz around the new technology is stronger than ever.

Advocates say the technology's more sustainable than aviation and significantly faster than high-speed trains - but is Hyperloop really a viable future transportation method and can the hurdles involved in making this concept a reality be surmounted? In short, will we really be able to hop on one of these high tech vehicles any time soon? It's already been a long time coming. For all its futuristic claims, Hyperloop's roots lie well in the past.

“It isn't, in terms of technology, a new concept, because the concept of vacuum transportation's been around for quite some time,” explains Chris Dulake, global railways and transit leader at consultancy Mott MacDonald, a company that's worked on the London Underground and Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5. He points to the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a pioneering British engineer who experimented with using compressed air to transport carriages in the late 1800s.

“If you go down to the Brunel Museum in Bristol [in southwest England] you'll see the original prototype that Brunel put together for propelling trains,” he says. “And you look at that, you think, ‘Yeah, it's just a new cycle of some existing technologies.’ “

Despite Brunel's efforts, it was more than a century before Elon Musk premiered his futuristic transportation concept. In 2013, he described Hyperloop as ‘a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.’

“It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving,” wrote Musk in a technical paper outlining his vision. The billionaire said that this new transit system should be safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainable and self-powering, resistant to earthquakes and not disruptive.

So how's that ambition panning out five years later?

Musk himself has never played a particularly active role in rendering Hyperloop a physical reality, limiting involvement to a yearly Hyperloop design competition run by his SpaceX company with the aim of promoting and celebrating young engineering talent.

Others are, however, running with the concept. These include Virgin Hyperloop One, a US-based initiative formerly headed by Richard Branson; Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), a US-based start-up that signed an agreement in China to build a test track; Hardt Hyperloop, based in the Netherlands and TransPod, a Canadian company. Each organisation regularly touts its progress via press releases and social media campaigns, whether it's unveiling full-scale test pods or undertaking feasibility tests. But turning Hyperloop into a real-life mode of transport is proving a long process.

With the Calgary, Canada, skyline in the background, how a hyperloop tube might look (Transpod)

Need for speed

There's no denying the appeal of Hyperloop - for one thing, it's pretty cool. The idea of whisking passengers across country at super high speed, in a levitating tube, is an impressive idea. All the pods we've seen so far are sleek, streamlined structures that wouldn't look out of place in a futuristic sci-fi movie. Then there's the speed - claustrophobia sufferers might baulk at the idea of being propelled in a windowless tube but, as tunnelling expert Herbert Einstein of US university MIT points out, many of us would tolerate it if it meant reaching our destination quicker.

“People may be willing to put up with something, which is sort of a disagreeable environment by [arriving in] half of the time or a quarter of the time,” he suggests.

Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, pointed out: “If you're able to go from one city to another, going at a max speed of 670 miles per hour or 1,080 kilometers per hour, and you're able to do that, instead of in three to five hours depending on traffic, in under 30 minutes - that creates huge socio-economic benefits that are equivalent or exponential to the creation of the plane or the train, as an example.”

Travelling by air is generally swift, but, says Sebastien Gendron, co-founder and CEO of TransPod, Hyperloop will combine “the frequency of the subway with the speed of the aircraft.” Gendron envisages a metro-like system where Hyperloop trains arrive frequently, allowing passengers to get on the first available service. The various companies involved in developing the technology also say they plan for the service to be an affordable mass transit system with ticket prices more comparable to railways than aviation.

Sustainable alternative?

With more travellers now wanting to switch from air to rail travel because of environmental concerns, Hyperloop raises the tantalising prospect of greener transport networks that don't rely on decades-old, temperamental infrastructure.

So could it be a better alternative? Unsurprisingly, those involved in Hyperloop projects think it is, although they admit it will have some environmental impact, particularly during the testing phase. “It's 10 times more efficient than an airplane and even more efficient than trains,” says Tim Houter, CEO and co-founder of Hardt Hyperloop. Ryan Kelly says the tech will be about five times more energy-efficient than short-haul flights. And while it's unlikely it will replace air travel completely - cross-continental Hyperloops would be incredibly costly and logistically complicated - the technology could be an alternative to short-haul budget flights. “I’d look at places like the connection between Melbourne and Sydney, in Australia, which I think is the fourth most heavily used domestic air corridor,” says transport expert Dulake.

Safety and security

Whether Hyperloop could really function as a viable alternative to air travel likely depends on how prevalent it becomes and there are some doubts about its universal appeal. “My concern with Hyperloop is that it would - just by the physics of the way it functions - probably discriminate against quite a few in the population, who'd want to use it,” Dulake says. “It's at the limit of the top of the tolerance of the human's ability to be able to manage those sorts of accelerations. So if you are a frail old lady I don't think you'd be putting them in what would be a quite an extreme ride, whereas you would put them on a high speed train.”

Ryan Kelly insists the pods are safe and will be suitable for all. “Being in a closed environment gets rid of a lot of safety concerns that rail has - and even autonomous vehicles," he says. “Our mission is to make this the most boring trip of your life. We want it to be comfortable, we don't want it to be a roller coaster.” The controlled environment will avoid turbulence, he added. “So while you'll be going at airplane speed, you won't feel that take off and you won't feel those sudden drops or that shaking that you would feel in a plane.”

TransPod's Gendron agrees, saying the experience will be safe for most, “In the same way pretty much everybody can take the aircraft,” adding “We won't make any compromise regarding passenger comfort and safety.”

While the tubes will need to withstand natural disasters, questions also currently remain over how people will be evacuated from a pod in the case of an emergency.

Challenges of Hyperloop

Turning a groundbreaking concept into a reality naturally comes with some difficulties. Hyperloop companies were keen to emphasise their confidence in their projects' viability and their main quibbles were potential challenges caused by red tape.

“We know that the tech works, right, the physics works,” says Kelly, who explains that Virgin Hyperloop One is currently focused on certification and regulatory steps.

“I would say that the challenge is more on the political side," agrees Gendron. “The challenge is more to convince a government that if they are serious about supporting innovation, true innovation - I'm not talking about improvements, but true innovation, creating jobs - risks must be taken in a way that they need to be confident in the work we're doing.”

Chris Dulake says that private finance will be a necessity in many instances with Hyperloop companies unable to rely on government investment alone, and that would present its own difficulties. He says there's also confusion about whether Hyperloop would be overseen by railway authorities or aviation.

(Virgin Hyperloop One)

So just how close is Hyperloop to reality?

Virgin Hyperloop One built a full-size pod back in 2017 which has reached speeds of 387 kilometers per hour on a test track in Nevada. “Since then, we have been working on moving this system from a very cool technology, and proving that it works in the early days, to making this a new form of mass transportation,” said Kelly.

Richard Branson stepped down from his former role of chairman of the board in late 2018, but his replacement, Jay Walder, is described by Kelly as a “pretty heavy hitter in the mass transportation space.” Walder helped launch London's Oyster Card cashless payment system for the London Underground.

Meanwhile American company Hyperloop TT unveiled a full-size capsule in October 2018 in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain, close to where it was constructed at Airtificial, a partner of HyperloopTT. The company released video footage depicting the construction of the test track.

In June 2019, Hardt Hyperloop announced the opening of a test facility, and distant long term plans to develop a Europe-wide transportation system.

“That will be the first step towards an eventual Hyperloop alternative network. It's going to provide an alternative for the polluting short haul flights,” said Tim Houter.

TransPod, meanwhile, is working on feasibility studies and construction of a test track and in India, Virgin Hyperloop One is about to go through the procurement process for a service between the cities of Mumbai and Pune, which lie about 75 miles apart. This route, says Kelly, is “probably globally the furthest along.”

Kelly added the company is hoping certification will be concluded by 2023 with a service up and running by 2029. Gendron says TransPod wants certification by 2025. Experts roughly concur on the timeline. “Probably, realistically, 2030 is the earliest that anybody will get to that point,” says Dulake, who contends that once one of the companies' successfully makes the concept work in actuality, the others will follow suit.

As yet, there's still been no pilot journeys with people involved. But, says Kelly: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

So who knows, in ten years time we might find ourselves speeding across the surface of the planet in a metal tube, with short haul flights a distant memory.

Thousands of people have stopped flying because of climate change

Isabelle Gerretsen.

Roger Tyers (Roger Tyers)

Twenty-four trains, nine countries, 13,500 miles - they are the numbers behind the epic train journey one man took from Southampton in the UK to eastern China. Roger Tyers, 37, spent a month on board trains and over $2,500 - almost triple the cost of a return flight - to travel to the Chinese port city Ningbo for academic research in May. It was the climate crisis, not a love of trains that drove the sociologist to choose this complicated route over a return flight. Tyers said that he felt compelled to stop flying when UN climate experts warned last year that the world has less than 11 years to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming.

Tyers is not the only person to shun air travel in response to climate change. Thousands of people worldwide have publicly pledged to stop flying, including teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who has inspired youth climate protests around the world. They say there is no justification for flying in a world where governments have declared climate emergencies and scientists have warned of global warming's devastating impacts on human health and on the future of countless species.

'Flight shame'

Activist Maja Rosen launched the ‘Flight Free’ campaign in Sweden in 2018 with the aim of encouraging 100,000 people not to fly for one year. Although only around 14,000 people signed the online ‘#flightfree2019’ pledge, Rosen said that the campaign had made more people aware of the urgency of the climate crisis and motivated them to travel by train more often.

The campaign sparked a wave of social media posts showing people travelling by train, accompanied by the hashtags #flygskam and #tågskryt, which mean ‘flight shame’ and ‘train brag’ in Swedish. According to a survey released in May 2019 by Swedish Railways (SJ), 37% of respondents chose to travel by train instead of plane where possible, compared to 20% at the start of 2018. An SJ spokesperson said: “Rail travel is soaring thanks to climate fears.” Domestic passenger numbers in July fell by 12% compared to the previous year, according to Swedavia, a company which operates Sweden's 10 busiest airports.

Rosen, who stopped flying 12 years ago, says the collective pledge helps combat the sense of hopelessness many people feel when it comes to tackling climate change. “One of the problems is that people feel there's no point in what you do as an individual. The campaign is about making people aware that if we do this together, we can actually make a huge difference,” she said. A passenger's footprint from an individual flight depends on a number of factors, including how far they fly and how full the plane is, but also on what class they travel in; first class passengers are given more space than economy passengers, meaning they're responsible for a bigger proportion of the plane's emissions. Emissions from train travel also depend on many factors, including how the train is powered. An electric train powered by clean energy will have much lower emissions than a diesel-powered train, for example.

Roger Tyers calculated that his train journey to China produced almost 90% less emissions than a return flight. “It's hard to understand how polluting air travel is and the amount of energy and kerosene it takes to put people in the air and get them across the planet,” he said.

One of the selling points is the ground-level view from a train window, as opposed that of 35,000 feet above cloud cover...provided of course, the train is not in a tunnel or cutting. (ÖBB/Phillipp Horak)

Climate crisis

The aviation industry accounts for 2% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions (CO2). By 2050, this is expected to increase to 22% if nothing changes. A passenger on a return flight from London to New York generates as much CO2 as the average person in the European Union does by heating their home each year, according to the European Commission. According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change many airlines are doing too little to lower their emissions and it remains unclear what their long-term strategy is. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a 2050 target to reduce its emissions to half the 2005 level. “This is a difficult task as the industry is still growing ... but we are confident it is achievable,” a spokesperson said. IATA also said the industry plans on using a combination of sustainable aviation fuels, efficiency measures and new technologies, such as hybrid and electric aircraft, to slash emissions. Much of that will need considerable technological advances. Electric batteries, which are projected to power over half of all new cars by 2040, are not currently powerful enough to keep planes in the sky for long distances, according to David Romps, a professor of climate science at the University of Berkeley in California. Trains, on the other hand, can further reduce their carbon footprint by being electrified and connected to clean electricity. "If you want to really push change in the right direction, support the industries that have the potential to become part of the solution," Romps said.

© CNN/Francesca Street/Isabelle Gerretsen

Lufthansa may have been in the vanguard of supplanting flights with rail links but the airline is still under pressure from climate change activism (Kevan James)

Banning Air Miles

Air miles programs should be banned and a levy on frequent flyers implemented in order to reduce carbon emissions from aviation, according to recent research. The measure is one of a number of recommendations from Richard Carmichael at Imperial College London, who published a report on how the UK can meet its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Carmichael carried out his report for the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent body that advises the UK government, which has previously said the country needed to become carbon-neutral by 2050 in order to fulfil its obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change. The UK later became the first major economy to legally commit to the target. This report does not represent CCC's recommendations.

“Flying is a uniquely high-impact activity and is the quickest and cheapest way for a consumer to increase their carbon footprint,” the report says. Air miles programs encourage people to take extra flights to keep up their ‘privileged traveller status’ and should be banned, according to the report. So-called ‘mileage runs’ are a common way for travellers to top up their points in order to maintain access to perks such as priority boarding. An air miles levy would be based on the number of miles flown by each passenger, penalising those who fly the most while leaving the majority of people unaffected. Research shows that 15% of the UK population take 70% of flights, and these travellers - who tend to be wealthier and less price-sensitive - would shoulder most of the burden. By way of comparison, 50% of Britons don't fly at all in any one year. The levy would also encourage short-haul flights rather than more damaging long-haul flights, shift demand from planes to trains, and raise money that could be used to fund research into low-carbon aviation technology, the report said. 'Given the scope for frequent flyers to have carbon footprints many times that of the average UK household, a lack of policy in this area is likely to be increasingly seen as inconsistent and unjust and risks damaging public engagement with climate action,' the report reads. While the report pushes for government policies to tackle emissions, private initiatives have already sprung up.

IAG's Iberia - the Spanish airline's routes to the UK may be less affected by the drive to switch to rail links but domestic and other short haul routes might well be (Kevan James).

The International Airlines Group (IAG) - which includes British Airways, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Iberia - promised to remove or offset all carbon emissions from its fleet of more than 570 aircraft by 2050. IAG said it would replace older aircraft, invest in sustainable jet fuel and develop technology that removes CO2 from the atmosphere.Some employers have also signed up to a program that grants extra paid leave for staff who travel by train rather than plane.This report does not represent CCC's recommendations.

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