Green Technology

‘Twisted economics’: UK trains 4 times more expensive than planes


The cost difference between travelling on a low-carbon train or an emissions-intensive flight is more acute in the U.K. than it is in any other country in Europe, new research has revealed.

A report published earlier this month by campaign group Greenpeace argues that European governments are actively encouraging citizens to travel in the most emissions-intensive way possible, by enabling an uneven regulatory landscape that benefits low-cost airlines at the expense of the climate.

Nowhere in Europe is the cost disparity between rail and air travel more pronounced than in the U.K., according to the research.

Across the continent, trains are on average twice as expensive as flying, but in the U.K. they are four times more expensive, the research notes.

To reach its conclusions, Greenpeace compared the cost of train and plane tickets for 112 routes between large cities in 27 European countries.

The research, “Ticket prices of planes versus trains: How low-cost carriers destroy the climate while their unfair and aggressive pricing strategies go unchecked,” finds that flights were generally cheaper on seven out of 10 routes, despite being five times more polluting than flying.

Flights were consistently cheaper than train tickets on all 12 U.K. routes included the study, including domestic routes between London and Scotland and international routes to Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Marseille and Amsterdam.

For example, traveling from Barcelona to London by train was found 10 times more expensive on average than flying. The price differential widened further for tickets booked at short notice, with a train ticket in some cases up to 30 times more expensive than a flight.

The journey between Edinburgh and London was similarly found to be “systematically cheaper by plane,” leading to 3.4 million passengers a year traveling between the two cities annually by air, despite dozens of train connections each day.

Greenpeace said the price difference was a result of an uneven regulatory playing field, leading to increased emissions and rewarding low-cost airlines with questionable employment practices.

While airlines pay no kerosene tax or VAT across Europe, train operators pay energy taxes, VAT and high rail tolls in most European countries. In the U.K., operators are relieved of VAT, but are notorious for imposing some of the highest ticket prices in Europe.

“As millions of Brits head off on their European breaks — many to areas that are being scorched by this historic heatwave — the twisted economics of the transport industry means they are being encouraged to keep throwing fuel on the climate inferno,” said Doug Parr, director of policy at Greenpeace. “Flying only looks like a bargain because the cost of pollution is so cheap. Low-cost airlines are paying negligible tax while imposing low wages and poor conditions on staff.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a keen user of domestic and private flights himself, was heavily criticized when, as chancellor, he cut passenger tax for flights in the U.K. in October 2021, just days before Glasgow hosted the COP26 Climate Summit.

Greenpeace has called for short-haul flights to be banned where there is a reasonable rail alternative — a policy embraced earlier this year in France — and for an end to subsidies for airlines and airports, starting with a phase-out of tax exemptions for kerosene and the introduction of a frequent flier levy.

It has also called for European governments to introduce “climate tickets” — simple long-term tickets that are valid on all means of public transport in a country or region.

In response to the report, a government spokesperson said: “We’re committed to decarbonizing air travel without the need to limit demand. Our Jet Zero Strategy sets out our approach for net zero aviation by 2050, and recent reforms to air passenger tax means those who fly furthest, and have the greatest impact on emissions, incur a greater cost.”

The report follows an analysis earlier this month from Transport and Environment, which calculated that governments across Europe are missing out on $38.05 billion a year in revenue due to aviation tax loopholes.