How long a train journey will compete with air travel? (CityLab)

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Can Eurostar compete with airlines? As flying grows even less attractive, a new London-to-Amsterdam rail route could steal passengers from the skies.

This is a question surfacing in Europe this month, as the first-ever direct London-to-Amsterdam train service gets ready to launch. With tickets going on sale next Monday, two daily trains run by the high-speed Eurostar will start serving the route on April 4. Currently, a Londoner bound for Amsterdam by train can expect the journey to take a little under five hours, with a change of trains in Brussels. The new service will reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour and cancel the need to change in Brussels, shaving off over an hour.

The prospect has already generated a palpable buzz, and the 900 tickets offered a day (starting at a reasonable $47 one way) are likely to sell out fast. But it’s not clear how the service will fare if it extends beyond two trains a day (as it likely will) on a route where price competition with airlines is already fierce. Most existing year-round Eurostar routes are far shorter: Think London to Lille in 1 hour 22 minutes, to Brussels in two hours, and to Paris in 2 hours sixteen. Only the flight-phobic or train-obsessed would normally choose to head off for a Dutch visit via rail: The hugely popular London–Amsterdam route is Europe’s second busiest for airlines (after London–Dublin). Can a train trip that takes more than than three-and-a-half hours succeed in competing with a flight time of scarcely an hour?

The tentative answer provides an interesting snapshot of just how much European travel has changed: 20 years ago, a train taking more than three hours would struggle to compete with an hour-long flight. Today, however, such as service is at a distinct advantage. It’s not necessarily the case that speed and comfort have necessarily skyrocketed for train travel (though there are indeed more fast routes now on offer). It’s because—especially for shorter distances—flying has become increasingly hellish and time-consuming.

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Written by Long Branch Mike