European regional airline body calls for less biased and more balanced rail versus air policy debate
Fri 25 Nov 2011 – A report published by the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) says there is a blatant bias in favour of rail travel over air by European policy-makers, typified by unsubstantiated green claims. The report, ‘Air and rail: Setting the record straight’, says the economic and environmental case for preferring high-speed rail (HSR) over air is unproven and a more balanced debate is required. The ERA says the purpose of the report is not to attack rail or that air should receive preferential treatment but is part of a campaign to rebalance attitudes. Accepting that comparing the environmental impacts of the two modes is difficult, the report seeks to show that on a full life-cycle basis, rail is a questionable green alternative to air.
Part of that difficulty, says the ERA, lies in the energy sources powering the two modes – jet kerosene for aircraft and electricity for HSR. Its report quotes a European Commission publication that described HSR as a “safe, fast, comfortable and ecological mode of transport, assuring low environmental impact”. The EC publication went on to state that CO2 emitted during electricity generation did not need to be taken into account as “this rate varies depending on the primary energy source used to generate electricity consumed by the HSR [coal or nuclear]”.
The ERA report argues that despite the known risks, the future of HSR in Europe will largely depend on nuclear sources for power, citing the example of France, where 78% of electricity is produced by nuclear energy.
“Before embarking on a debate about which mode is greener, policy makers should examine the real cost of producing and decommissioning nuclear power stations in the pursuit of green energy,” it says.
The study also says a life-cycle environmental analysis of HSR should not just capture the energy used to move the train but also the emissions from, for example, power plants, vehicle manufacturing and maintenance, raw material extraction, infrastructure construction and end-of-life treatment of vehicles. It takes the example of the 1,100km HSR line between San Diego and Sacramento and looking only at energy at the point of use, shows the route to be some 35% more environmentally-friendly than aviation. However, it claims, on a full impact life-cycle basis and on a common low-occupancy scenario, GHG emissions on the rail route are 50% higher than by air and sulphur dioxide emissions ten times higher.
A UK study by Booz Allen and Hamilton is quoted to show that taking into account the impact of construction alone in a life-cycle analysis adds around 35% to the CO2 that results from direct operations. Another study from UK infrastructure provider Network Rail estimated life-cycle emissions for a Eurostar train to be split 80% from direct train operations, 18% from infrastructure and 1% from train production.
The UK is currently engaged in a debate on the feasibility of a HSR rail route, dubbed HS2, linking London with the north of England via Birmingham and in a later phase to Scotland. The ERA study finds that if the proposed London-Manchester route moved from an approximate current 50-50 air-rail split to 100% rail, GHG emissions emitted by building and operating the new HSR route would be larger than the entire quantity of carbon emitted by the air transport services over a period of 60 years, were the 50-50 split to be maintained.
Apart from the economic advantages HS2 is touted to bring to regions outside the more prosperous south-east England, the present UK government sees environmental benefits in shifting domestic air traffic to high-speed rail. The company in charge of the HS2 project has forecast that for the proposed first phase – London to Birmingham – 6% of HS2 passengers will have switched from plane by 2043. There is a further claim that a national network could see as many as 6 million air trips switching to HSR each year.
However, a major report published last month into HS2 by the House of Commons Transport Committee concluded that the claims of substantial carbon-reduction benefits from HS2 “do not stand up to scrutiny” and “at best, had the potential to make a small contribution to the Government’s carbon-reduction targets.”
The ERA report quotes another UK transport study submitted to the UK government that given a 1.2% contribution by domestic aviation, it concluded it was unlikely that building a high-cost, energy-intensive high-speed train network would be a sensible way to reduce UK carbon emissions.
On noise impact, ERA says that at a distance of 100m from a rail track, a typical European high-speed train creates 93.5 dB, 17% higher than the noise level of an ATR 72-500 at the equivalent distance from the runway. At sideline distances where typical non-transport land use will start – 30m laterally from a TGV high-speed train and 280m from a runway – the sideline peak noise observed can be as much as 12% greater in dB for rail travel than from a regional jet such as the Embraer 145 at takeoff, found ERA.
Aside from the environmental considerations, ERA calls into question the economic case for rail at the expense of air. It says, for example, that the investment cost of building a new runway will build just 30km of HSR track.
According to Simon McNamara, Deputy Director General of the ERA, the cost of constructing HS2 in the UK is projected to be in the region of £30 billion ($46bn). “Given that there is already a good rail link to the north of England, it is reasonable to suggest that this investment would be better spent on expanding airport capacity in the UK, which would generate a far better economic return,” he argues.
Should HS2 go ahead, McNamara shares the view of many within the airline industry that there should be a direct HSR link to Heathrow Airport and not, as has been proposed, a spur link. Although supporting the case, Heathrow operator BAA believes that a direct link could have the unintended effect of attracting extra passenger traffic to the capacity constrained airport hub.
The ERA is also unhappy at what it sees as a biased imbalance in the level of European subsidies and funding that are allocated to the two modes. Despite the turnover of the EU transport market being almost twice that of the railway sector, the latter receives nearly €42 billion in state subsidies each year, compared to €340 million in state aid to airports – around 125 times as much. Out of 30 Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) projects established by the EU using a mix of EU state funding and European Investment Bank loans and guarantees, 19 are rail plans with just one dedicated to air. The total projected cost for the rail projects is €318.72 billion, against €1.34 billion for air transport – the lowest out of seven transport modes.
The argument that air is under-taxed compared to other transport modes is refuted in the report. It cites European Commission UNITE data that compared rail and aviation in terms of fiscal net contribution to show the latter provides a net surplus in Germany, France and the UK, with rail fully reliant on large, continuous subsidies to cover the deficits. For example, it adds, in France an air passenger makes a net contribution of €8.40 per journey, whereas a rail passenger’s journey is subsidised to the tune of €7.40.
“You have to be careful not to just pick out the fuel tax alone – you need to include all the taxes of the different modes,” says McNamara. “In spite of not paying tax on aviation fuel, we are still a net contributor of EU tax revenues.”
He says the purpose of the study is not to attack rail or seek preferential treatment for air transport. “It’s about injecting a better balance. The two modes work best when they work together but, importantly, where it is based on fair competition and a freedom of consumer choice.”
The ERA will be seeking face-to-face meetings, reports McNamara, with policy-makers in the European Commission, European Parliament and EU member states to discuss the findings of the report but he accepts it might be a tough sell. “We are under no illusions that there will be any changes in the short term,” he says. “But what we want to see as a long term policy is air and rail as equal contributors to European transport.”