Season 2 - (Very, very) high-speed trains

Episode 3 - Can it make a dent in the aviation industry?

These days, planes travel at an average of between 810 and 910 kilometres/hour. So when we talk about trains potentially moving at more than 1,000 kilometres/hour, like those we’ve touched on in our previous episodes, there’s one question that has to be asked: could they replace planes?

Let’s look at politics first. As we saw last week, as well as costing an enormous amount both financially and ecologically, the construction of Very, Very High-Speed lines requires a lot of political determination. For example, a Hyperloop or Maglev line from Paris to Beijing would involve passing through, at a minimum, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and China. Given today’s geopolitical context, the idea of an agreement between these powers, with all the various tensions between them, doesn’t seem very realistic at all. Of course, there are definitely other, less direct routes, passing through the Middle East or southern Asia, for example, but the safety and logistical problems would be less significant.

From this point of view, it’s thus very difficult to imagine that the Very, Very High-Speed could make a dent in aviation. The airborne nature of the latter allows it to fly over any geopolitical tensions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the best example. All carriers had to do was change their flight routes to not put passengers in danger, and could then simply carry on as before. Meanwhile, as we’ve mentioned in a previous newsletter, China’s ‘new Silk Road’ has been severely impacted as a result of the war in Ukraine. So as for Hyperloops travelling all the way across Europe and Asia…

Now for economics. Who will stump up the billions of dollars required for construction of such lines? And with what aim in mind? The EU, which isn’t capable of formulating a Bloc-wide railway policy? Russia, suffering as it is from Western sanctions and its invasion of a sovereign country? China, which has already invested dozens of billions in the development of its ‘new Silk Road’ so it can continue to export its goods all over the world? How about the Czech Republic? Kazakhstan? Ukraine?

Once again, aviation appears to come up trumps. For the simple reason that it preexisted the Very, Very High-Speed. Airports exist already, planes and their marketing too. And as we all know, we’re not exactly living through a Golden Age: there’s not a lot of money and investment going around. It’s thus difficult to imagine different countries investing in research and infrastructure that wouldn’t work any better than what already exists. Perhaps that’s sad, but that’s how things work, even if the future of the planet is at stake.

That leads us to our third point: the environmental impact of the development of the Very, Very High-Speed. We already looked at this last week, alongside railway economist Patricia Pérennes, though detail might have been a bit lacking. Even if it’s difficult to measure in concrete terms, an article written by the excellent Bon Pote in 2021 provides food for thought. In it, the blogger compares the environmental cost of LGB in French urban areas with the circulation of planes over the same area. The result? Annual emissions from domestic flights, 1.6 million tonnes of CO2, are equivalent to building 250 kilometres of LGV each year, as each kilometre is equivalent to roughly 6,200 tonnes of CO2. Even if you add the emissions from the general functioning and maintenance of the lines, around 23,000 tonnes of CO2 over 30 years, in the case of the 140-kilometre LGV Rhine-Rhône line, it’s the ultra-fast railways that win, not planes. Clearly, Very, Very High-Speed lines would probably have a more significant toll on the planet than LGV, but in the long term, they will prove better for the planet than air transport, whose emissions don’t ease over time.

Finally, there’s the social question. Who would these Very, Very High-Speed lines be for, when, by all accounts, they would cost so much? “It has to be understood that the choice of means of transport for a holiday departure is the result of a complex equation between available time, financial means, the number of travellers and the way in which the journey can be factored into leisure time. The ecological question is an important issue, but not the only one and doesn’t justify choosing one means of transport instead of another. Only those with time and money have the luxury of looking at things like that,” explains Bertrand Réau, tourism sociologist and professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. He adds: “Of course, you can imagine that if Elon Musk built an underwater train between Paris and New York that took just three hours, there would be an element of uniqueness that would attract people. But how much would a ticket cost and what would its impact on the planet be? Who would be the target market?

But the sociologist adds that it also depends on the way in which each person incorporates travel time into their holiday: “If you consider your means of transport as a key part of your holiday, like for example taking a comfortable night train, opting for one airline over another or flying first-class, you’re going to appreciate it and give it importance when choosing how you travel. But if it’s simply about getting from A to B, most people will go for the most efficient and least expensive mode of travel. So it often depends on the importance you give to travel time and the means you have to personalise it.” The same goes for business travellers, because as long as there are no environmental regulations in place, they will probably continue to look for profitability and efficiency. Which, at this point in time, doesn’t seem to favour the Very, Very High-Speed.

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