Why is travelling to Europe cheaper by plane than by train?

Plane Talk: Eurostar and Avanti West Coast aren’t offering good deals at present

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 02 November 2022 08:05 GMT
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Far sighted: a sign at Chester station
Far sighted: a sign at Chester station (Simon Calder)

Philippa Smith’s son lives in Belgium. He has, she says, “been looking forward all year to the final of the Rugby League World Cup Final in Manchester”. He had hoped to travel from Brussels to Chester on Saturday 12 November, returning on Sunday 20 November 2022 – ideally “doing the right environmental thing and travelling by train”.

But his mother wonders: “Why is train travel so expensive compared with flying?”

I made a series of test bookings for those dates. The cheapest Eurostar ticket from Brussels to London St Pancras was initially selling for around £200 return – but the outbound date has now sold out completely.

The second part of the journey to Cheshire begins at London Euston with the journey to Chester on Avanti West Coast. Advance tickets are not available due to uncertainty over which trains the beleaguered operator will be able to run, especially at weekends.

But had he been able to reach London by rail, he would be able to buy a flexible, off-peak ticket for £98 return allowing him to travel on any train at weekends.

The total cost: roughly £300 return. In contrast, Ryanair has a flight for €30 (£26) return on his chosen dates. This is from Charleroi, about 40 miles from Brussels, to Manchester – about 40 miles from Chester. The Ryanair journey time is a speedy 80 minutes to northern England’s main aviation hub, by which time the Eurostar will barely be in Kent.

Agreed, Ryanair’s cheapest fare allows only one small backpack as cabin baggage; the airline expects most passengers to pay significantly extra for luggage, as well as extras such as booking a specific seat. So let’s add an extra £100 for luggage and ground transport.

Even then, the discrepancy between plane and train is huge. The immediate problem: Philippa’s son is trying to travel on two train operators whose businesses are in some disarray.

“Both Eurostar and Avanti West Coast have constrained capacity for different reasons,” says Mark Smith – The Man in Seat 61. “So fewer cheap prices than normal.”

Eurostar says its current high fares and low availability are due to Brexit. The train operator has had to reduce peak services by 30 per cent because of the extra passport checks the UK insisted upon by leaving the European Union; there is physically not room at the St Pancras terminal to handle the numbers of people that could previously travel. As a result supply is highly constrained.

On Avanti West Coast, meanwhile, capacity is limited by serious problems with resourcing and industrial relations. People who are prepared to commit weeks in advance are unable to find cheap tickets.

Right now, the situation is particularly grim. But I am not sure that rail will ever regain competitive pricing against budget airlines from the UK to Continental Europe.

My colleague Helen Coffey, author of Zero Altitude: How I Learned to Fly Less and Travel More, says: “Sadly, flying is going to remain cheaper than more sustainable travel options until it is properly taxed – currently, aviation is the only transport sector that pays zero tax on fuel, and there is no meaningful environmental tax despite the sky-high carbon emissions produced by air travel.”

A start would be for the government to be bold enough to apply some serious taxes on flights between points that could plausibly be connected by rail rather than air.

Rishi Sunak has instead chosen to incentivise flying within the UK, by halving Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights from next April. It will make flying on the key London-Edinburgh route even cheaper, and entice passengers away from the state-run train operator LNER and upstart Lumo to British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair.

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