Less travel is not something travel bloggers or travelers seem to talk about often. But it’s an important issue which, unfortunately, took an emotional turn, and therefore sometimes irrational.
« Stay off public transport if you want to stay healthy, warns Boris Johnson: PM orders britons to walk or cycle to reduce risk of infection.» It was in May 2020, in UK, with a very clear message: avoid public transport and railways. Last September, 1500 kilometres from London, the Comitato Tecnico Scientifico (CTS) decided in Italy not to relax the rule of occupying every second seat on mainline trains. Italian high-speed trains can only be filled up to 50%, as the law decided. What do these two examples have to do with the climate cause? With strong measures, travel restrictions can be organized quite easily. Of course, this is a health emergency, to fight against the pandemic. But imagine for a moment if such measures had been taken by « climate emergency » governments?
Some radical political groups have welcomed the fact that the effects of the lockdown caused a drop in CO2 emissions during March and April. It has indeed been shown that a fall in human activity restores colors to the sky. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average. Radical groups want to install also form of lockdown to also be applied to save the planet.
Where it becomes irrational is that if we were to opt for an official government climate policy (the great ecological dream), it would affect all transport, not just the most polluting. In the spring, the idea of replacing one-hour flights by plane with train journeys seemed attractive. In reality, it relieves the national airlines, which can thus eliminate certain « political obligations », such as serving certain cities in France, Italy or Scandinavia by air « on request of local elected representatives ». It is therefore a purely accounting calculation, because stopping these flights, barely twenty or thirty per country, will obviously not save the planet but eliminates deficit routes.
Some want to believe that fewer planes would fill the trains. This is obviously what we want. Trains are one of the most environmentally friendly forms of mass transport available, releasing 0.046kg of carbon dioxide (CO₂) per kilometre each passenger travels. A diesel car is more than double that at 0.117kg. But a study released in May 2020 in the Nature Climate Change journal found that drastic reductions in air travel only accounted for 10 percent of the overall pollution drop. It’s too low and this shows that attacking symbols will not restore nobility to the train. All the more so as by « air travel », one has to take into account the large amount of intercontinental travel, impossible to make by train.
Rail transport is the most electrified transport sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. Globally, three-quarters of rail passenger movements and half of rail freight relies on electricity, a green energy. But if you say that railways are also the most energy-efficient means of motorised passenger transport, comparing to road and aviation, why the modal shift is so difficult?
The answer is that the train does not meet all possible demands for mobility or all industrial logistics flows. We can dream of a climate lockdown, but this does not mean fewer cars and fewer planes in favour of the train, it simply means fewer passengers. There will therefore be no automatic modal shift to the least polluting mode if we decree very severe climate restriction measures, as we do for the pandemic. People will always manage to choose what suits them best, unless an authoritarian political regime is put in place.
It is easy to understand that it is not a climatic lockdown that we need if we want the trains to run. We know very well that restricting travel leads to a drop in trade and societal activities, which is not sustainable for those who make a living from it, very often in small unskilled jobs, who would be the big losers in such a situation. It is also understandable that some political groups that make a lot of noise on social networks are not there to put the train back in the spotlight, but use the climate argument to fight aviation and automobile capitalism. They talk about subsidizing the train at whatever cost to the taxpayer and promote social control of citizens through public service. These people are bad news for the future of the railways. It is not the obligation to take the train that should be the political guideline, it is the obligation to make the train better than other forms of transport, which is quite different. This includes a rebalancing of taxation and VAT on tickets, but not only. We won’t force people to take cheap rotten trains to save the planet…
Another perspective to save the planet also risks being fatal to the train: the return to the village, the promotion of the local economy. Indeed, this means an autarchy that does not encourage even short journeys. In the theory of the local economy, one lives and eats only what is in the immediate vicinity. No more need for freight trains, since a single monopoly farmer would be enough to feed two or three villages, at the price he wishes to apply. And since citizens are called upon to manage their own community vegetable garden and to recycle everything possible. What role do transport and trains play in this climate vision?
Of course this presentation of the local economy is expressly forced, because the need for travel remains, if only to go to a hospital, library or university, which not every village has. Moreover, autarky makes people very precarious, and would not be socially accepted in our modern societies. Surely not everything can be made/produced locally. If you’re not providing a way for things to be produced and materials to be remade locally, you don’t have a circular economy. It is surely that some kinds of manufacturing will still require an economy at regional, or national scale. We will therefore always need to move around and transport goods, but these journeys will not be 100% by train, but also by other forms of mobility more in line with local realities. So we must not stop our journeys to save the planet, but rather bring people closer to the stations so that a maximum number of citizens can benefit from the train without having to resort to another mode for the last kilometer.
What can we learn from all this? That the well-being of the citizen always involves meeting, visiting, travelling, and that travel remains necessary. That some needs can only be met by objects made elsewhere, sometimes far from the village or town. That you cannot build sustainable transport either with a lockdown or with a circular economy. A climate lockdown imagined by some radical groups would indeed cause a collapse of the rail mode of transport. That it is not useful to promote rail transport for political ideological purposes, but to promote the train for what it is, i.e. sustainable transport which will be used as much as possible and which has yet to make a major leap in technology and cost control. You can’t buy new trains and improve the infrastructure by fighting capitalism and industry. In this respect, it is imperative to count on all good will, not just on a few established monopolies.Other related articles:
Railways: making progress with the existence of other transports
10/12/2020 – The modal shift to rail will not be promoted by prohibiting other transport modes from progressing, but by meeting the demands of users, whether citizens or industrialists.
Reconnecting cross-border railway services
10/05/2020 – Cross-border services sometimes present operational difficulties, but this actually depends on many factors.
How real estate can financing railways?
09/28/2020 – The railway is a sector that brings very little return. Other adjacent areas could bring in additional income, but not by selling frenetically. Explanations.