Are airlines threatened by growing rail networks?
Even though links are improving, there are faster times and increased frequency, the journey between London and Cologne is still likely to be seen in five years as a plane trip, rather than train. But on how many relatively short journeys in north-western Europe, roughly bounded by London, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt, can airlines feel entirely safe from the challenge of rail? As the high-speed train network expands and trains get faster and more frequent, how many routes will become, if not train-only, at least train-dominated? The process has already started and is likely to increase at a rapid pace. The short-haul map of Europe is likely to look very different in 2010.
High-speed trains have been operating in Europe for more than a generation. France is where rail has had the biggest impact on air services and Paris to Lyons was the first air service to suffer from the arrival of the TGV. The route between Paris and Brussels by the high-speed Thalys train then ended the air route between the two capitals. Planes could not compete with the 90-minute train journey. Air France now books a large number of seats on the train for its travellers using Charles de Gaulle Airport, where the train calls.
Other flight services that have been affected are between Frankfurt and Cologne and direct flights between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, routes where, like Air France, Lufthansa uses the German high-speed train service, ICE, to carry its passengers. The Paris to Cologne service also goes via Amsterdam Schiphol.
Another route that will have drastic change will be the Milan to Rome. This journey time will be cut from the current laborious four and a half hours to a surprising two and a half.
In 2007 the Brussels to Amsterdam stretch of the Thalys service will become high speed. The whole route from Paris to Amsterdam going via Brussels will then take only two hours. This is regarded as the classic time when train journey becomes more viable than flying . The flight takes one hour fifteen minutes, but as the train will stop at CDG and Schiphol, it is likely to be more attractive both in terms of convenience and time spent getting to and from the airport.
Rail tracks between Paris and Frankfurt are being improved at the moment to be able to accommodate a high speed service, which should enable this journey to be taken in under three hours. This would then start a shift towards rail travel instead of
Seventy percent of the market on journeys between London and Paris and sixty two percent of the London to Brussels route are already taken by Eurostar which operates on the Channel Tunnel link.
Although the idea of there being no more flights between London and Paris or London and Brussels seems rather far fetched, the reality of there becoming fewer seems closer to reality.