If you’ve ever been to Bratislava, Bucharest or Baden-Baden, chances are it’s because a budget airline took you there for a romantic break, sporting tour, or stag or hen-do. Cut price charters have completely transformed the way we travel over the last 30 years.
But there are signs something is stirring. It’s led by concern over the environmental impacts of flying – epitomised as the Swedish flygskam (‘flight-shaming’) movement, or the Greta effect. Combined with people re-thinking the nature of travel in a post-pandemic world, it is causing a measurable shift in attitudes. Whisper it – Europeans are falling back in love with trains.
Rail travel in Sweden jumped 11 percent in 2019. Financial firm UBS predicts there will be around 800 more high-speed trains in operation in Europe in the next ten years, contrasted with 196 fewer planes globally.
This people power is shaping political and commercial thinking, and it’s not limited to Sweden. Pre-pandemic, 36 percent of Europeans said they had already started flying less for holidays in order to fight climate change.
Sensing the mood, France has announced a ban on domestic flights on routes where train journeys could be made in under two and half hours, including routes between Paris and Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux. The French government also offered Air France €7 billion in Covid loans on the condition it scrapped some domestic flights.
All this comes against the backdrop of an expansion of its high-speed rail network, with a new line now whisking you the 499km from Paris to Bordeaux in just two and a quarter hours. SNCF is innovating, taking a leaf out of the airline’s book with its no-frills OUIGO service. Germany and Italy have also announced billons of investment in their own networks.
After years of being mothballed, sleeper services are also making a continental comeback in a big way. Sweden is putting £26m into couchette services to Hamburg and Brussels from 2022. Austria is massively expanding its sleek Nightjet sleeper offer. The UK could even deliver a long-promised overnight equivalent under the Channel direct to the continent, with the potential to link with HS2.
As someone with a self-professed love of train travel, I’ve always appreciated the civilised joys of seeing places from the ground not the air. I’ve taken the train all the way to Seville, without a faraway boarding gate or shuttle bus in sight. Yes, it took a day and a half, but we enjoyed a three-course meal as we bobbed through the French countryside, and breakfast as Spanish mountains glided past.
And while we’re at it, let’s bring back the Motorail service, with the ability to drive your Austin Ambassador (or car of your choice) on the back and retire gracefully to the buffet car, while the train takes you all the way to the Highlands or French Riviera.
Budget airlines may not have completely hit the buffers during Covid, but perhaps more people’s next continental holiday may just start by letting the train take the strain.
Mike Cheshire is an account director at Camargue