The future of train-bragging in a post-COVID world

By Szebasztián Csernik-Tihn , GLOBUS Correspondent

Before COVID-19, travel habits could be described by two Swedish words, ‘flygskam’ (flight-shame) and ‘tagskryt’ (train-bragging). They refer to the widespread phenomenon where more and more people started travelling by train and were not afraid to share this on Instagram. According to Eurostat, in 2019 there were 416 billion train passengers in Europe, which meant a 3.4 % growth compared to the previous year. This trend was so significant that more people chose to use the railways during the winter of 2019 than in the summer of 2013.

Why this rapid growth? Did the railways become that much faster or cheaper in the 2010s? I don’t think so. However, there might have been other factors that affected the growth, which I will now explore.

Firstly, we have become more conscious of the environment. It is not cool anymore to pollute the environment for a £20 EasyJet ticket, and this shows in the statistics. Therefore, the increasing train passengers can not only be attributed to train-bragging, but to flight shame too.

Secondly, travelling by train does not have to be a struggle. As the focus of the consumer habits moved from products to experiences, travellers realised that a holiday could begin with the journey itself. If I want to spend a few days in Berlin, why not stop in Brussels, Paris, or Strasbourg? Bearing this in mind, the European Travel Agency not only started selling European train passes for intra-European journeys, but it also started offering free passes to all EU citizens for their 18th birthday.

Thirdly, we were getting sick of air travel anyway. Some people are not willing to travel for an hour and a half to the airport, and go through long security checks, just to buy some over-priced, soggy, duty-free sandwiches and get the most uncomfortable seat that Ryanair could offer. In contrast, trains take you from city centre to city centre, the security checks can be quicker, and you can also save money by catching a night train. The most exciting example of the comeback of night trains is the famous Vienna-Brussels line, operated by Austrian Railways. According to the operator, by taking their night train, passengers emit only a tenth of the CO2 emissions of a Vienna-Brussels flight.

All in all, life was great, trains were getting more popular, and it almost seemed like climate change could be addressed merely by a technological change. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Looking through social media in the first lockdown, it was quite clear that people were celebrating some kind of a green revolution that the pandemic had caused. Healing Earth, reduced air pollution, clear sky, clean air, no airplanes and even dolphins were “back” to Venice.

This ‘green’ turn made many, including The Economist, predict the demise of the air travel industry. According to their prediction, air travel would become less and less popular as older people avoid travelling due to health concerns and young people prefer the environmentally-friendly trains anyway. They also predicted that many airlines would end up leaving the industry in the hands of the low-budget airlines and the lucky national airlines that were helped by government funding.

However, it might be narrow-minded to assume that the agony of air travel industry is sufficient for a green revolution. The effects of COVID on international railways have to be considered if we want to picture a better and more sustainable future for international travel.

That is, there are major differences between airways and railways. Air travel does not need a complex infrastructure and doesn’t need to consider the tariff and passport control of all the countries it goes through. With some exaggeration, as long as there are two airports, airplanes can take their passengers from A to B. This meant the airplanes’ most significant advantage during the pandemic was that they can ignore all the COVID restrictions of the countries they fly over. As there is no single EU policy for travelling and self-isolation, air travel offers a great way to create air bridges. If I want to travel to Switzerland, instead of travelling through the highly infected France that has different COVID requirements, I could fly directly to my destination avoiding all the hustle.

In contrast, international train journeys require complex international cooperation. For example, the Vienna-Brussels line is co-run by the Belgian state railways and the infrastructure itself is maintained by three different national railways. Now, this cooperation is further complicated by all intermediate countries’ COVID rules which have to be taken into account.

Even Eurostar, the most popular international railway line, can face long-term issues. During the pandemic, its passengers decreased by 95%. According to the operator, if there is not a significant change very soon, Eurostar might run out of cash by the end of June and some trains might be sold off. Even after all COVID restrictions are lifted, the recovery could take an extremely long time. Train drivers are bilingual and must complete an 18-month long training. Unless there is a turn in international travel soon, these drivers will dissipate into the job market.

If Eurostar, the most successful railway company with relatively little administrational requirements faces these serious issues, it can be assumed that the case is even worse in Central and Eastern Europe where international train services are less popular. This vulnerability of the railway sector might drive private investors away from investing into private railway companies.

Therefore, it is worth doubting the arrival of a new green revolution. We can hope for the best, but the record number of EasyJet bookings after the PM’s announcement in February does not make the theory of a green revolution more likely. Many people will travel after the pandemic just as before, but we have to consider the long-term effects and changes not only in the most harmful industry but also for the greener alternatives.

Header image at Unsplash

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