Trains or planes not ‘good or bad’, but ‘different’

There is a tendency in our climate-aware age to think of trains as ‘good’ and planes as ‘bad’. I think that is a mistake. They are ‘different’. And each mode has its own strengths and weaknesses.

It was brought home to me last week when I heard about the Campaign for Better Transport’s eye-catching train/plane race from London’s Piccadilly Circus to George Square in Glasgow. Paul on the plane arrived in George Square just 2 minutes ahead of Norman who travelled by train. Total time: 5hr 17 minutes by plane; 5 hr 19 minutes by train. Time in the air of 1 hr 20mins doesn’t reflect the actual time.

It was a piece of theatre to make the point about total journey times. I know there are legitimate caveats to be made. If the starting or finishing point had been closer to an airport, the balance might have changed. And it didn’t address the question of connecting flights. But its broad point was well made.

However, if the race had been from Piccadilly Circus to Sydney Opera House, the plane would have arrived in Sydney as the train was just approaching Warsaw.

Encourage the train where it is a viable alternative to the plane. It usually causes less noise and always produces fewer emissions.

But never forget what long-distance air travel can achieve. It can give us the chance to enjoy rich new experiences and is critical to maintaining and opening up trade routes on which so much of the world’s prosperity depends.

Governments have a role in enabling us to get the best out of air and rail. The Campaign for Better Transport highlighted that the total time difference between air and rail is usually a lot less than people imagine. But comfort, convenience, ease-of-booking and, particularly cost, are also important when deciding how to travel.

There is a case for a proportion of the money raised from air taxes to be used to reduce access charges on the railways which could allow rail companies to lower fares and, ideally, new entrants to come into the market so private companies are competing to offer the passenger the best and cheapest deal.

 If rail is to be helped in this way, there may be a case for helping air with the long-distance journeys it is best placed to provide. It could be done through air taxes being proportionally lower than for shorter distances and/or by ensuing some of the money raised is ploughed back into research and development into quieter and cleaner planes.

Trains and planes are different beasts. Your pet cat is ideal for getting around your neighbourhood but would never walk to Australia. For that you need a tiger… at the very least!