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(CNN) -- Ever since the "flight shame" movement began urging travellers to seek greener alternatives to planes, many Europeans have looked to the continent's extensive rail network to replace short-haul air travel.
There is no doubt that progress has been made. Airlines such as Dutch's KLM are partnering with rail on certain routes, while countries such as Austria and France are trying to restrict the internal routes on which trains are available, although the French decree, which became law in May 2023, has been considerably softened from its original premise.
All this in the midst of a palpable rail revolution in continental Europe, with the implementation of new routes and high-speed operators, a setback in the decline of night sleeper services, new tunnel connections that reduce travel times and new locomotives that improve reliability and efficiency. In Spain, Germany and Austria, cheap train ticket offers have also played an important role in the momentum.
With so much rail investment, it seems that the shift of the European air transport network towards trains is underway. Surely, it is only a matter of time before the continent depends almost exclusively on its railways to get around and the skies are clearer and greener, right?
Actually, that's still a distant dream. But why?
As with many efforts to innovate and abandon environmentally harmful practices, there is good news and bad news. Corrections are being made, but none of them are quick. And there is no indication that European airports will be quieter any time soon.
- France bans short-haul flights when trains are available
A symbolic measure
In France, only three routes have been abolished, all from Paris Orly airport. Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images
This year got off to a strong start with promised new legislation in France that would ban short-haul flights on a number of domestic routes to help the country reduce levels of planet-warming pollution, but while approved by European Union officials and signed into French law in May 2023, The measures have limited impact.
For the ban to be enforced, the EU insisted that the air route in question must have a high-speed rail alternative that allows travel between the two cities in less than two and a half hours. There should also be enough trains running early and late so that travelers can spend at least eight hours at the destination.
Therefore, only three routes have been selected: those linking Paris-Orly airport with the cities of Bordeaux, Nantes and Lyon. To add insult to injury for those hoping for a rail revolution, it turns out that those routes had already been abolished in 2020, and the new law only means that they will not be reinstated in the future.
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What went wrong? The European Commission's decision diluted the original French plans, which would have ended five other routes: from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyon and Rennes, as well as a route from Lyon to Marseille.
The result, critics say, are false promises about climate concerns without actually doing anything about them.
"The flight ban in France is a symbolic measure, but it will have very little impact on reducing emissions," Jo Dardenne, director of aviation at Transport & Environment (T&E), told CNN before the law came into force.
T&E estimates that the three routes affected by the ban account for only 0.3% of emissions from flights taking off from mainland France, and 3% of emissions from domestic flights (again counting only domestic flights from mainland France).
If the five additional routes that the French authorities wanted to include were added, those figures would be 0.5% and 5% respectively.
It doesn't seem like much. But while aviation as a whole currently accounts for around 2.5% of global carbon emissions, its global contribution to climate change is estimated to be greater, due to the other gases, water vapour and contrails emitted by aircraft.
In addition, it is a rapidly growing sector, despite the pause imposed by the covid-19 pandemic, and is on track to become one of the largest emitters in the future. Aviation emissions in Europe increased by an average of 5% year-on-year between 2013 and 2019, according to the European Union.
Airlines pay zero taxes or tariffs for their fuel in the EU, unlike other forms of transport. Airline tickets are also exempt from VAT.
Deutsche Bahn and Lufthansa offer linked journeys by train and air. Credit: Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance/Getty Images
On the positive side, despite its limited impact, the French ruling sets a precedent that will be difficult for the aviation industry to ignore at a time when it is coming under increasing scrutiny from the public as well as politicians.
"The French measure is so marginal in its current scope that it is a theatre of sustainability rather than having a material impact on emissions," Patrick Edmond, managing director of Altair Advisory, an Ireland-based aviation consultancy, told CNN again before the law came into force.
"However, we can look at it another way: as the harbinger of more restrictions on aviation, which are likely if the industry doesn't take decarbonization more seriously."
France is not the first European country to take a harder line on super-short-haul flights.
In 2020, the Austrian government bailed out the national carrier Austrian Airlines on the condition that it abolish all flights where the train journey could take less than three hours.
In reality, only the Vienna-Salzburg route was abolished and, in response, rail services were increased. A similarly short route, from Vienna to Linz, had been moved to the railway in 2017.
That same year, the government also launched a 30-euro ($32) tax on all flights under 350 kilometers departing from Austrian airports.
Other European countries are also said to be considering curbing short-haul commercial flights, a move that could be welcome, as 62% of European citizens would support a ban on short-haul flights, according to a 2020 survey. Spain has outlined plans to phase out flights where train travel takes less than 2.5 hours by 2050.
It is not surprising that these measures have set off alarms in the aviation sector.
According to a 2022 report, commissioned by the European Association of Regional Airlines (ERA) together with other aerospace industry bodies, if all air traffic on routes of less than 500 kilometres were switched to another form of public transport, the potential carbon savings would amount to up to 5% of intra-EU emissions.
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"For many lawmakers, banning short-haul flights and supporting the rail sector is an easy way to curry favor with the public, especially in Europe," Montserrat Barriga, director general of the ERA, told CNN.
But Barriga and others, on both sides of the issue, point to the double standards of restricting short-haul flights and phasing out carbon allowances for flights in Europe while no major steps are taken to limit connections outside the bloc.
Long-haul flights produce the most emissions worldwide. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Transport Geography, flights of less than 500 kilometres account for 27.9% of departures in the European Union, but only 5.9% of the fuel consumed. In contrast, flights of more than 4,000 kilometres account for only 6.2% of departures from the Union, but 47% of the fuel burned.
"Governments continue to ignore aviation's biggest source of emissions: long-haul flights, which remain unpriced and unregulated," says T&E's Dardenne. "Flight bans should not be used by governments as a distraction from the real problem."
Obstacles to change
The European rail network is connected by spectacular stations, such as Paris Gare de Lyon. Credit:Tanya Keisha/Adobe Stock
Although rail is breaking new ground in Europe and has contributed to the recent bankruptcy of Alitalia, Italy's national airline, rail operators could do more, says Jon Worth, founder of the public advocacy group Trains for Europe.
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High prices and low frequencies remain an obstacle to more people stopping flying, especially on major routes such as Paris-Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Barcelona.
"In many corridors, the railway could achieve a share of multimodal transport much higher than the current one. Rail operators have focused on maximising profits rather than market share. The latter can only be achieved by managing rail as a public service or by introducing more competition," he says.
Better connectivity between intercity rail and airports would also reduce the need for short-haul flights. Worth adds that it is essential to offer combined tickets, so that, for example, if one train is delayed and the connection is missed, passengers are accommodated on the next, as is now the case with connecting flights.
This works quite well in countries where airlines and operators cooperate, such as Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland and Spain. In February 2023, Italian airline ITA Airways, Alitalia's successor, signed a collaboration agreement with Italy's national rail operator to also create links.
However, much remains to be done in this field: to begin with, the aforementioned plans are limited to domestic companies. The European Commission is expected to adopt in 2023 a legislative proposal called Multimodal Digital Mobility Services with the aim of facilitating this type of intermodal travel more widely.
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In France, reduced train travel times and increased frequencies may mean the end of more domestic air routes when the ban is reviewed (the measure is only valid for three years). However, advances in clean flight technology may end up changing the prospects for regional aviation as well.
Short-haul flights are likely to be the first segments of the aviation industry to decarbonise, as most ongoing projects in the fields of electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen-powered aviation focus precisely on small aircraft designed to cover very short distances.
The debate will continue to develop in the coming years, as the environmental, social, economic, political and technological parameters shaping this discussion evolve, and as the climate crisis continues.