London’s train links to European cities are remarkable assets for sustainable travel. But are we using them as much as we should be? Centre for London’s Rob Whitehead and Nicolas Bosetti examine further.
The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 was a striking achievement in many ways, most notably in engineering and international relations. 25 years on, the Tunnel and the high speed lines on either side of it have also delivered a great boost for sustainable travel, as some 80 per cent of passengers between London, Paris and Brussels take the train – emitting 10 times less carbon than the equivalent plane journey.
But for cities outside the Eurostar triangle, flying has been the preferred mode, and it has boomed. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of passengers at London airports grew by 39 per cent. Then the pandemic brought air travel to a standstill. As we recover from it, the challenge of how to satisfy our desire for international travel while seriously tackling the climate emergency will be greater than ever.
Flying contributes around three per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and is one of our most carbon intensive activities, but it brings enormous economic, personal, and cultural benefits, and so it is likely to remain an important part of our transport mix for the foreseeable future. However, we believe there is also a great opportunity to expand international rail travel from London.
Besides the environmental imperative, widening London’s reach by train makes strong economic sense. As the dust settles on Brexit and borders open after the pandemic, businesses across London and the UK will want to explore new ways to strengthen relationships with our European neighbours. The Tunnel’s record so far is impressive: in the five years after Eurostar was launched, total passenger numbers between London and Paris had already grown from four to 10 million.
So as travel restrictions loosen, we should be boosting train travel to make it a viable alternative to flying where possible. Yet since 1994, the expansion of international train services out of London has been slow. An early attempt to run night train services from UK cities to continent – called Nightstar – was abandoned before launching, fearing lack of demand. Only in 2015 did Eurostar start reaching down to the French Alps and Marseille in the high tourist season, and in 2020, it introduced a service to Amsterdam. The Dutch city is only as far as Paris, but it has taken 25 years for direct train service to connect it to London.
Currently, travelling by train beyond the Eurostar triangle is far from an obvious choice – the costs and the hassle of changing trains add up, while low-cost airlines serve many nearby European cities directly from London’s airports with often very low fares. For example, Frankfurt is among the 10 busiest flight routes out of London despite being only slightly further away than Glasgow. The city would be easily trainable if it were not for a stopover in Brussels, while services could also sweep passengers to cities along the way such as Cologne or Dusseldorf. After all, if a train can cover the 1000km between London and Marseille in under six hours, then the prospect of an overland journey to Berlin, Bordeaux or Geneva is not so unrealistic.
Some may find longer train journeys daunting, but it’s accepted knowledge that travellers value the convenience of a direct journey without having to go through airports. If prices are competitive, train travel could also benefit from stronger tailwinds. Consumer awareness of the climate emergency is rising, and higher take up of remote working will make the train more attractive for business trips as passenger value productive ‘transition time’.
One key barrier to running trains across national borders is that track and signalling systems differ – requiring both infrastructure upgrades and bespoke trains. These issues are not insurmountable, but they require focus, strategy and investment from governments. There’s no denying that the costs involved will be big – but Western Europe is already a world leader in high speed rail, so the potential is there.
So what are the chances that London could become a hub for green international travel?
As things stand, an expansion of train services soon seems unlikely. Eurostar has been fighting for survival from the double blow of Brexit and the pandemic, though did at least get a short term bailout from shareholders. Fortunately, the train agenda is gaining momentum across the continent. The EU has designated 2021 as the year of rail, as part of its European Green Deal. Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden are elaborating plans to increase international train links, which includes a revival of sleeper trains across the continent. New train services from Brussels to Stockholm, and from Paris to Vienna, are expected launch within a year. These changes aren’t only happening in Europe: Joe Biden has called for a ‘second railroad revolution’, and China plans to increase its railway network by a third in the next 15 years.
London and the UK should consider joining in on European plans to boost train travel. Last month, the Government announced plans for legislation that would curb the UK’s carbon emissions by 78 per cent in 2035 – and for the first time these objectives will include international aviation – opening the door for radical changes in policy and investment.
Centre for London is planning a project that sets out the opportunities that lie ahead for London and the UK, to explore how policymakers might make London a main hub for international rail travel. We are looking for partners to support this project. If you are interested, please get in touch with Rob Whitehead.