Bloomberg is reporting that Germany and Sweden are seeing a trend of reduced domestic air travel and greater rail usage. In Germany, intercontinental air traffic is up 2% year-over-year and international European traffic is down 2%, but domestic traffic has crashed in the last few months and is down 12% now. In Sweden, domestic air traffic is down 11%.
The Greta effect
Greta Thunberg famously crossed the Atlantic by sailboat to avoid personally contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. But she’s fairly practical about alternatives and said right out that she travels in such conditions to highlight how difficult complete decarbonization is. She is also very insistent on the fact that while changes in behavior are nice, collective political action is still needed.
Moreover, the young (as in, younger than me) Greens I meet in Germany are themselves practical as well. The more committed might take a train to France or Italy, but there’s not much interest in back-to-the-land 1960s communes, degrowth, or political revolution in the sense of the socialists and anarchists. Nor have I seen anti-nuclear sentiments recently – the one anti-nuclear sign I saw at the September 20th climate march, which had 100,000 people in attendance, was held by a pensioner and someone who looked 40, whereas the median age at the rally looked like 20.
It’s relatively easy to change travel behavior to avoid domestic flying in Germany as well as Sweden. Domestic rail travel pain in Germany means hourly Hamburg-Munich and Berlin-Stuttgart trains take 5:40 each. International rail travel pain means Berlin-Paris trains take 8:11 with a short transfer that I don’t trust DB or SNCF to meet. Domestic trains only get this long if many transfers are needed, in which case the main competition to the train is the car rather than the airplane, or if one needs to travel between Umeå (population 123,000) and central or southern Sweden. It’s thus likely that the shift in travel pattern reflects a change in consumer desires to avoid polluting – other explanations, such as the grounding of the 737 MAX, would equally affect domestic and European air travel.
Upcoming carbon taxation
Germany has been planning climate legislation for years, but the September 20th protest created a lot of pressure on the government to enact an aggressive package. A carbon tax will begin at €25/t-CO2 in 2021 and rise to €55/t by 2025, where the original plan was to only go up to €35/t. Sweden has had a carbon tax going back to 1991; starting in 2014, the Löfven cabinet has hiked the tax on industry to match the tax on transportation, both currently at €114/t. The effects on the German economy are to be seen, but in Sweden, economic growth has been healthy throughout this period, ahead of any not-newly-industrialized developed country save Australia (although the differences near the top are small).
In addition to the German carbon tax package, the EU is planning to levy a carbon tax on jet fuel for internal flights; so far, international emissions, including international aviation and shipping, are not subject to carbon tax. A leaked report suggests the EU is considering a tax of €330 per 1,000 liters of jet fuel, which corresponds to a hefty €130/t-CO2, the high figure coming from the fact that a ton of CO2 emitted at high altitude causes more global warming than one emitted at ground level. A very fuel-efficient plane like the A320neo consumes 2.25 liters per 100 seat-km on a 1,200 km flight, raising fares on a full flight by €9.06, which is not a game changer but is noticeable at low-cost carrier rates.
Planning for busier trains
The upshot is that demand for flights in Europe is likely to go down, shifting toward rail. The article linked above about the Greta effect says that DB expects its intercity rail traffic to double to 260 million passengers a year by 2040. The article makes no mention of which further investments in intercity rail DB is assuming, but a virtuous cycle is likely: higher ridership justifies more investment, and faster and more convenient trains attract higher ridership.
Of note, the weakness of international rail in Europe points to international connections as an investment priority. In Sweden, trains from Stockholm are fast toward Gothenburg and Malmö, averaging almost 140 km/h, and there are unfunded plans for high-speed rail connecting the three largest cities. However, Stockholm-Oslo trains are quite slow (about 6 hours for what looks like 500 km), even though Oslo is bigger than Gothenburg and Malmö and there are extensive economic and cultural connections between the Nordic countries. The Greens have called for Stockholm-Oslo high-speed rail, and the government should work with Norway on establishing such a line.
In Germany, the situation is different. London and Paris are vast cities, and Paris is within reasonable high-speed rail distance of most of Germany, with good connections on the French side and poor ones on the German one. Trains between Paris and Frankfurt take about 3:48, of which 1:47 is between Paris and Saarbrücken on the German side of the border, a distance of 380 km, and then 2:00 is between Saarbrücken and Frankfurt, a distance of about 200 km by rail and 160 by air. In Belgium, the existing high-speed line east of Brussels is compromised to the point of being slower between Brussels and Liège or Aachen than legacy lines like Stockholm-Gothenburg or London-Manchester.
The reason the map of the high-speed rail I think Germany should build is heavy on international connections is mostly that Europe is gradually building thicker international economic and social connections. However, a future with more expensive air travel and a consumer taste for greener ways of travel does not change the basic picture, and makes it more urgent.
(Map legend: blue is existing or under-construction lines, red is lines that are either in planning or not even in planning but should be built.)
Speed and capacity
DB’s forecast for 260 million annual rail travelers argues in favor of building more capacity. However, in no way does this conflict with building a dedicated high-speed rail network for Germany. On the contrary, the bypasses providing relief to congested lines are already planned to be high-speed: this was the case for the Tokaido Shinkansen and LGV Sud-Est decades ago, and this is now the case for HS2 and the planned Frankfurt-Mannheim express connection.
A largely dedicated network for high-speed passenger rail, with freight using the legacy lines, improves intercity rail reliability, allowing average speeds to rise to be closer to their theoretical technical maximums. Average speeds of 250 km/h on a few lines are plausible, as on Paris-Strasbourg or Madrid-Barcelona. Moreover, through-tunnels enabling intercity trains to run through Frankfurt and possibly Munich without reversing direction facilitate planning high-speed rail as a separate system. Timed connections with regional trains remain important, but critical trunks like Frankfurt-Cologne and Berlin-Hanover can run very frequently.
The schedule I tried writing for the above map in which domestic city pairs mostly run every half hour all day, interlining on a few trunks, assumes ridership of about 250 million. This is not the same as DB’s forecast of 260 million: this counts only high-speed rail riders, and assumes the average trip is 350 km long. To get from DB’s forecast to 87.5 billion p-km per year requires the virtuous cycle of higher ridership and more investment to work over time, but this is plausible given high levels of investment.
When Greta talks about systemic solutions, she understands that it’s important to make it easier to live a comfortable life without greenhouse gas emissions and harder to live one with high emissions. There are many aspects to green convenience: carbon-free electricity (largely achieved in Sweden but not in Germany), pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, urban and periurban public transport, intercity and freight rail, passive solar design, urban density, carbon-free industrial power generation.
In every case, it’s important to seize upon any social, economic, or political trend that facilitates the green option. If people want to live in big central cities, then governments should make it easy to build housing there so that more people can enjoy the low-carbon wealth of Munich or Stockholm rather than live in cheap declining rural areas and drive. If people support solar power, then governments should leverage its political popularity and subsidize it to decarbonize electricity.
In the case of intercity transportation, a shift in taste toward intercity rail is a cause for celebration. Europe is full of intercity trunk lines ranging from ones that scream “build me now” no matter what (HS2, completing Berlin-Munich, etc.) to speculative ones. Any positive shift toward rail justifies adding ever more marginal intercity rail lines to the network. Perhaps if the network I mapped was justified before the Greta effect, after the Greta effect the most marginal parts of the network (like Stuttgart-Würzburg) are on more solid footing, while unmapped marginal lines like Munich-Prague or even Bremen-Oldenburg-Groningen become plausible.
But celebration does not mean idleness. Climate change is a systemic issue. The state must plan ahead, using the shift toward rail to plan further investments now so that they open in the 2020s and early 30s. This way, the rail network will meet near- and medium-term growth in demand, while stimulating long-term growth, to be satisfied through future investment, paid by taxes on the richer Germany of the 2030s. Good transit activists should take a page from Greta’s refusal to treat good news as grounds for letting up, and demand intensive investment in Europe’s rail network to ensure that green travel will be more convenient, featuring higher speeds rather than more sitting on luggage in the corridors of full trains.