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Planes vs. Trains – A complex issue

Comparing planes to trains could be seen as a topic better avoided for those of us who work in the aviation industry. Because it is a topic about competition that has already affected the industry in a number of countries, or has the potential to do so. The topic is not new but given the relatively slow progress of high-speed trains in recent decades it has been more of an evolution than revolution. The arguments for and against each mode of transport are also not new, with time of travel, environment, accessibility, infrastructure and others being part of them. Comparing planes to trains can unfortunately become more political than pragmatic and polluted with arguments that may not be as complete and transparent as they should be. This situation is made even more difficult as different lobbying groups may cite research funded by the respective group. In this post we will try to keep it simple, as a few examples will be brought up to illustrate the topic, and some considerations in relation to the topic will be presented.

The development of high-speed trains is probably best known in connection with the TGV trains in France or the ICE in Germany. Many would also have heard of the large scale development of a high-speed train network in China. However, the highest number of kilometers of high-speed railway in Europe is in Spain (link to article below). This has been a slow development over recent decades, but as more operators are competing on this network there is an expectation of a coming increase in passengers. Still, even today and with this competition, the flight between Madrid and Barcelona is the busiest short-haul route in Europe. This may however change as two new low-cost train companies have begun operations this summer, offering basic fares below 10 Euros for the trip between the two largest cities of the country.

Another case study can be found in Italy (link below). Here, the evolution of high-speed rail transport is seen as a reason for why Alitalia could not survive (the dysfunctionalities of Alitalia and competition from low-cost carriers were probably other important reasons). The main travel route between Milan and Rome is three hours by high-speed train, which should be compared with a drive to the airport, checking in an hour before a flight, an hour in the air and then another drive to get into town. The result has been that passenger numbers on high-speed trains in Italy has gone from 6.5 million in 2008 to 40 million in 2018. In 2018 69% of all passengers going between Rome and Milan used the train, which represented an increase of more than 7% over three years, while air travel lost about the same amounts of passengers in the same time period and was left with less than 20% of the market on this route.

These examples are typical for the competition situation between high-speed trains and air travel. Comparisons between the two on short-haul routes (link and link) shows similar total journey times. While there used to be a cost gap in favour of planes, this gap shrinks as soon as there is competition on the high-speed train routes. Service levels in terms of frequency and onboard service has previously been an advantage for air travel, but this gap can also be reduced by train operators. With concerns about the environment favouring trains, the results is that flying comes under severe competitive pressure from high-speed trains.

However, these are the easily visible arguments. There are other arguments to consider as well and foremost is the large-scale investment cost required for high-speed rail transport. There have been reviews of this (such as link and link) and to quote from the first link, an analysis from Leeds University: “Decisions to invest in this technology have not always been based on sound economic analysis. A mix of arguments, besides time savings, strategic considerations, environmental effects, regional development and so forth have often been used with inadequate evidence to support them.” To summarise further arguments in the same paper, the investment cost for high-speed rail can be motivated only in the unusual circumstances of low construction costs plus high time savings (because of poor existing rail lines and inadequate services on competing modes of transport), and with for a level of at least 6 million passengers per year (for more typical construction costs and time savings, 9 million passengers per year is required).

In another report (link), the following conclusion is drawn related to the environment: “Investment in high-speed rail is likely to reduce greenhouse gases from traffic compared to a situation where the line is not built. The reduction, though, is small and it may take many decades for it to compensate for the emissions caused by construction. In cases where anticipated journey volumes are low, it is not only difficult to justify the investment in economic terms, it is also hard to defend the project from an environmental point of view.” This brings in an environmental aspect on the sizeable investment needed for high-speed rail.

So, while not denying any of the advantages of high-speed rail transport, the question is if the vast resources required for this mode of transportation could be used differently and more efficiently to achieve the same goals. Also, the time frame for the project is important – a comparison of the different modes of transportation today may be irrelevant in 20 years due to new innovations. And for large projects like these it is often public funds that are used and which are at risk if the project is not successful, not private funds, as is more common in aviation. As an example, if even some of these funds in recent decades had gone to develop alternatives to jet fuel (sustainable fuel, batteries, hydrogen) perhaps aviation could have been carbon neutral already? This demonstrates that the full picture of a long-term and complex issue as this one must be thoroughly investigated, preferably by a third party entity. In the end, it is likely that high-speed rail is the best solution in a number of scenarios, but equally likely that there are many scenarios considered today where it will not be the best solution. Let us hope that pragmatism will be what decides which is the best solution for different scenarios.

Link to articles:
Spain’s high-speed railway revolution
How Italy’s high-speed trains helped kill Alitalia


  1. Thanks Nicklas!
    This was a wellwritten and very interesting post!
    One aspect is the difficulty in predicting future flows of passengers. You may see a need for a connection between two cities and invest in railway (not necessarily high-speed). When the construction is finished, or just a few years after, the need has diminished and the investment will never pay off.
    Air transport is much more flexible. Any city with a decent airport can in a very short time start any new connection. And just as quickly stop it if it does not work.
    So, I believe that connections between big cities (not too far away) are a thing for railways. There will always be a need and trains have a large capacity. While connections between smaller cities is the thing for aviation – and very soon for electric flights.

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