Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS
Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS

Stepping off the Eurostar train at London’s glorious St Pancras station is always a thrill, but on a recent Sunday evening it felt downright radical. Unusually, I’d started my journey more than 10 hours earlier and 966km away in Berlin.

I was attending a summit on decarbonising the economy organised by Bloomberg NEF, and turning up by plane would have seemed hypocritical. Following Greta Thunberg’s example, I booked a train rather than the 90-minute flight.

With the flight shame movement gathering force, this is an increasingly common choice for international travellers and one the rail companies are eager to exploit. From the planet’s point of view this is great, but there’s still a way to go on making long-distance train a consistently convenient and affordable option. While my journey from Berlin was fine, not everybody has the same experience of this mode of transport.

The rail operators’ ambitions are certainly impressive. Eurostar International is pushing for a merger with its Franco-Belgian rival Thalys International SCRL in a project they’ve dubbed “Green Speed”. Together they hope to lure people away from planes and cars, thereby lifting passenger numbers by almost two-thirds by 2030.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn hopes to attract 200-million long-distance rail passengers by 2030, an increase of 35%, and Austria’s OEBB is expanding its popular Nightjet sleeper services to connect Vienna with Brussels and Amsterdam.

Airlines are also trying to get ahead of this trend. KLM of the Netherlands plans to replace one daily Brussels to Amsterdam flight in 2020 with train seat capacity on Thalys.

Even before Thunberg’s emergence, Europe had already been adding a huge amount of high-speed rail (much of it in Spain) and has about 10,000km of operational track. That’s not as much as China, and the trains here aren’t always as punctual as Japan’s Shinkansen, but it’s a lot better than the US, where even moderately fast trains are rare.

Admittedly, building all this track has produced plenty of carbon emissions and it hasn’t been cheap. On average it takes about 16 years to build a new high-speed line in Europe and some have cost more than €100m for each minute of travel saved, a report found in 2018. HS2, a state-backed UK railway connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds may cost a Pharaoh-style £88bn and probably won’t be finished until 2040. Deutsche Bahn plans to invest an astonishing €156bn in the next 11 years.

Nevertheless, Europe’s railways are potentially a huge asset in the fight against emissions. Unlike cars, much of the rail system is already electrified. Deutsche Bahn says its long-distance trains run on 100% renewable power. As part of its recent €54bn climate package, Germany announced higher aviation taxes and gave several billion euros to the national rail company. Berlin intends to boost demand by cutting sales tax on train tickets.

And trains have plenty going for them besides their green credentials: stations are in city centres, you don’t have to pay for baggage, kids travel free and there is none of the hassle of airport security. Deutsche Bahn even offers childcare on some weekend trains.

Still, if Europe wants to persuade us to shun airports, more work is needed. About one-quarter of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance trains run late. In France, the TGV has seen passengers lured away by buses and budget airlines. In Britain, frustration with soaring ticket prices and shoddy service has led to calls to re-nationalise the railways.

It’s unhelpful, too, that Europe’s high-speed lines were largely developed in isolation. That has created a patchwork system that lacks co-ordination across borders, the EU’s external auditors complained in 2018. Their report identified 11,000 national rules, which contribute to unnecessary stoppages at borders for technical and staffing changes.

Missed connections are a source of anxiety for rail passengers as bookings often force them to take trains at specific times. Online portals such as loco2 and thetrainline have simplified bookings across multiple operators, but passengers often still have to trawl national train company websites to find the right fare.

“Air travel is easy to book but unpleasant to do. Train travel is pleasant to do but difficult to book,” says Mark Smith, who runs the “Man in Seat 61” website, which advises passengers.

Cheap, high-speed fares are available if you book ahead, but a multi-leg international journey can be prohibitively expensive compared to the plane, especially if booked at short notice.

Tougher competition should help fix some of these shortcomings. From 2020, EU reforms will require all state-owned railway companies to open tracks to rival operators. Done right, liberalisation can deliver financial returns for operators and still be popular with passengers.

Look at Italy, where upstart Italo-Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori  has joined the incumbent Trenitalia in offering train services. In just four years the two companies doubled their share of traffic on the Rome to Milan route at the expense of the airlines, while ticket prices fell by about 30%.

In Europe, people are most happy using high-speed rail for journeys of up to four hours. Much longer than that and the plane becomes tempting. So how can we be persuaded to switch to the slower alternative? A nascent project called Climate Perks aims to do just that by getting employers to grant staff paid “journey days” if they take a train when going on vacation instead of flying.

Such initiatives might help. In my rush to get back to Berlin, I took the plane. As the aircraft surged down the runway at London City airport I felt uneasy. Flight nerves? No, flight shame.

• Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies.

Bloomberg