EUROCONTROL Think Paper #11 – Plane and train: Getting the balance right

How can the transport sector reduce its emissions most effectively to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and what role can air and rail play?
Airplane flying over a train

Urgent action is needed to curb climate change and reduce transport emissions, and the aviation industry recognises the need to ‘go green’ and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, as per the ambitious goals of the European ‘Green Deal’.

In parallel, many commentators have hypothesised that some air routes should rather be operated by high-speed trains or sleeper trains. This Think Paper, our 11th in a thought-provoking series of studies, assesses the extent to which a shift from air to rail is feasible for travel below 1,000 km; where there are natural complementarities between the two industries; what impact such a shift would have in terms of reducing total transport emissions; and what environmental, economic and societal implications this would have.

Using exclusive EUROCONTROL aviation data and analysis, we conclude that transportation decarbonisation is more complex than simply planning to shift to rail for travel below 1,000 km.

Such a shift, we find, would achieve only limited emissions savings while generating a range of drawbacks including a high total cost; a long lead time, resulting in new lines potentially entering into operation after aviation decarbonisation has started to deliver huge gains from upscaled Sustainable Aviation Fuel use and innovative propulsion technologies; and entailing significant economic and environmental downsides without being able to match the connectivity air provides.

However, while we conclude that rail cannot effectively substitute for air, we do find that multimodal solutions that combine air and rail are highly attractive in terms of optimising sustainability and improving connectivity.

We therefore argue that transport investment should be balanced between both industries, building on natural complementarities and working towards the transport industry’s emissions reduction goals, making the optimal solution more “plane and train” rather than “plane vs train”.

Download the full paper to learn more.

Think Papers are produced to stimulate debate and look at alternatives. They do not represent the official view of the Agency or its Member States.

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EUROCONTROL Think Paper #11 – Plane and train: Getting the balance right