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Train or plane?

For business travel within Europe, the odds are swinging back in favour of the iron road according to Selwyn Parker


There’s a long-held belief in the business world that to get anywhere fast you have to take a plane. Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Jets fly at four times the speed of trains. That’s why the boss says: “Get yourself on a plane. The client wants to see you tomorrow.” It’s also why you paid heavily for the privilege of sub-sonic transport, at least until the last few years or so when low-cost airlines took off with a vengeance. But for businesspeople in a hurry the European transport landscape is changing rapidly, largely because of the increased frequency of fast-train services and business-friendly carriages. Rocketing along at speeds of up to 200mph on dedicated lines, France’s TGV, Germany’s ICE, Spain’s AVE and the cross-border Eurostar and Thalys services provide serious competition for airlines. Indeed on some routes, particularly short-haul ones such as Paris-Brussels or Paris-Amsterdam, airlines have thrown in the towel and no longer compete.

The current deregulation of European rail from January 1 can only accelerate this trend. According to rail-watchers, it’s likely to produce a profusion of services at lower ticket prices right across Europe.

“There’s never been a better time for business travellers to choose train not plane in terms of avoiding the hassle and time-wasting nature of modern flying,” explains Briton Mark Smith, founder of train buff website The Man in Seat 61. “Also, the high speed network is growing and the quality of the trains is improving.”

And in the same way that low-cost airlines set out to undercut their full-service rivals, rail has thrown down the gauntlet to low-cost airlines. Adds Smith: “Airline competition has already produced the rail equivalent of cheap air fares, such as Paris-Geneva for e29 or around e55 in 1st class, London to Cologne or Düsseldorf for e49, or e99 in 1st class, Paris-Frankfurt e39 or around e89 in 1st class. “And you don’t get charged for checking luggage, as some low-cost fliers do.

Simultaneously, rail operators are falling over themselves to offer services such as lounges in stations, WiFi connections, business-class as distinct from first-class, table service for food and drink so you don’t have to lug laptop and/or documents to the restaurant car, and even private meeting rooms. Plus, of course, there’s the considerable bonus that trains are generally extremely punctual, pulling out of the station at the timetabled minute.

Any European firm with a big airline travel bill should be taking a serious look at the rail option. But to get down to brass tacks, let’s compare the relative speeds of plane and train. For most businesspeople, the first requirement is rapid transit whether up in the clouds or on terra firma. Generally, comfort comes second or third when you’re on a mission. With time being of the essence, the old rule of thumb had it that rail travel became a viable alternative only when the flight took less than three hours. However the era of terrorism with its airport delays and other unpredictabilities has changed that assumption, pushing the benchmark out to around five hours.

The important thing for businesspeople however is not so much the time of the journey as its downtime. Here, fliers definitely spend more unemployable hours on the ground than they do in the air. For instance, on a fairly typical two-hour flight on a low-cost operator, the budget traveller will have to allow for at least an hour getting to the airport from the office and sometimes longer, at least one to one and a half hours at the airport for security checks and other procedures, and another hour travelling from the airport to the destination city, generally by bus. Often enough, the bus stops at the outskirts of the city where urban transport takes over.

As low-cost fliers know, the airports of most operators are remote from the destination city. For instance, Ryanair’s Paris flight lands at Beauvais, its Brussels flight at Charleroi and its Frankfurt flight at Hahn. Most of these airports are a good hour from the city and some even further – Hahn is 75 miles distant from Frankfurt. You can’t blame the airlines for this; the lower landing charges of these airports are an important part of their business model. They wouldn’t be low-cost operators without them.

The upshot however is that around three and a half hours of every “flight” will be spent on terra firma, waiting in queues, getting on and off buses, with little opportunity to get some work done. All up, a two-hour flight actually takes around five and a half hours. By comparison, the only downtime in train travel is getting to the central station, which is almost always in the city centre anyway. To all intents and purposes, that part of the journey is like a normal commute.

Now let’s consider price. Under the yield-management system of operators such as AirBerlin, Germanwings, EasyJet, Tuifly, WizzAir and Ryanair, first in gets the cheap fare, of which however there are very few. Incidentally, don’t ignore full-fare carriers. Unless they happen to own the low-cost carrier, some attempt to compete with low-cost airlines by offering a handful of cheaper seats. However there’s a case for arguing that advance booking isn’t very relevant for business travellers because, with the best will in the world, meetings are often re-scheduled or cancelled. In that event an unused ticket becomes invalid, or effectively so when fees for changing dates are included.

This makes it unrealistic to compare cheapest fares with standard or even early bird rail tickets. Also there are too many significant variables with both forms of transport to come up with exact comparisons. Some of those variable arise in terms of time of departure (very early and very late in the day are generally cheaper for both airlines and trains), early booking, frequent-user discounts, the kind of plane or train, popularity of the route, ease of getting to airport or station and other factors.

It is however possible to come up with certain principles plus a few hard and fast rules. First, the principles. It may not be possible to make the earliest and cheapest flights except by taxi because public transport may not be running at that time. The extra expense of a pre-booked, early-morning taxi trip can nullify the bargain-basement price of the flight.

Recent studies by some travel agents show that short-haul rail of two or three hours duration generally works out much more economically than even low-cost flights, particularly when travelling between a variety of cities that are in reasonably close proximity. For instance, a survey by American Rick Steves, a writer of European travel guide books, showed that an ordinary Eurail pass worked out cheaper as well as faster than plane for travel from Rome and back via Florence and Venice.

“Eurail won this round by a landslide, offering both the shortest total travel time (nine hours and 56 minutes) and the lowest price,” he said. “The [air] travel time was almost twice as long the train’s, not because of time in the air but because of lengthy layovers.” Nor did that exercise take into account the likelihood of delays because of airport security.

On routes where they can’t compete, some airlines have seen the light and started selling “intermodal” tickets for plane and train. For instance, Air France no longer flies passengers into Belgium and the Netherlands out of the rather shambolic Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris. Instead it offers seats on the Thalys high-speed trains. Passengers pick one up near the airport – they leave just about every hour during the day – and hurtle in comfort to Brussels or Antwerp, Luxembourg, Rotterdam or Amsterdam.

Frequency – or rather, lack thereof – used to be a problem for rail fans but that’s changing almost by the day on popular, high-speed routes. For instance, Italy’s government-owned Trenitalia is throwing its resources behind new high-speed runs through its heartland areas such as Milan-Florence-Rome-Naples. A private operator, NTV, plans to compete with Trenitalia on the Milan-Florence-Rome routes from next year and is considering invading the territory of France’s state-owned Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) with open-access trains on lucrative routes such as Paris-Brussels frequented by civil servants and businesspeople travelling on fat expense accounts.

The Thalys trains certainly show how the game has changed in the last few years. When I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport six years ago and wanted a train to Strasbourg, I had to hunt around for an SNCF booth. When I finally found it, the functionary could hardly have been less helpful. As far as he was concerned, there was only one destination and it was Paris (at the time there were no TGV trains to Strasbourg, even from Paris).

Similarly, Eurostar has changed the game from Britain to France and Brussels. Leaving roughly every hour, it now takes around two and a quarter hours between London and Paris, and has killed off most of the London-Paris flights of the full-service airlines (I remember taking the Wagon-Lits train between Paris and London Victoria in the seventies and it took the whole night, crossing the Channel by ferry).

Thus while low-cost airlines have proved a boon to business-travellers, the balance of power is shifting. “On major lucrative routes competition may well result in more choice and lower prices,” summarises Smith. That leaves the issue of convenience and comfort. Here too, the rail operators are rediscovering the golden age of rail travel highlighted by novelists such as Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express and Graham Greene in Stamboul Train (Greene also wrote a thriller called simply Orient Express). Eurostar, which was launched as a predominantly tourist train, now provides a work-friendly Business Premium class as well as restful lounges in London, Paris and Brussels. Similarly, certain Thalys routes offer lounges, at-seat meals included in the fare and free WiFi in first class on all trains. On Deutsche Bahn’s ICE trains, there’s all of the above, plus group booking in compartments for strategy-planning sessions. It is of course possible to work on a plane, but not very efficiently. Phone calls are out, for example, and space is too confined to spread out laptop and documents.

By no means least, there’s the effect of pressurised cabins. Although short flights do not significantly affect a flyer’s health, according to doctors, the pressure is a known cause of fatigue.

In the carbon footprint debate, trains trump airlines. Although neither form of transport pollutes to anything like the extent of commuters in cars, studies show that electrically-driven high-speed trains are much easier on the planet.

Often overlooked in the train versus plane debate is the overnight train. Almost surreptitiously, they have made up a lot of ground in the last few years and are now viable alternatives for travellers who have business in different cities on succeeding days. Obviously, the key point of comparison here is the relative cost of a hotel room, which varies greatly from city to city, but you won’t go far wrong if you rate your cabin against a three-star hotel. Modern rail cabins such as those of Trenitalia’s ‘Notte’ overnighters are clean and comfortable, often with their own bathroom and shower. And while the clacking of the rail sleepers keeps some people awake, it sends others to sleep.

If only the booking arrangements matched the quality of the trains. Business travel agencies are practically hard-wired to look first for plane seats because of the legacy booking infrastructure. “It’s almost an institutional problem,” explains Mark Smith. “Only Eurostar is on airline distribution systems.” For practical purposes, this means that you have to go the national railway sites to make a booking.

The problem appears to be a reluctance to work together. The European consortium, RailTeam, has pulled the plug on a project to create a common booking system and website for all its members that would have given rail an infrastructure along the same lines as the airlines’ Galileo/Amadeus system. That’s seen as a big setback for rail-users. The European Commission is a part of the problem, having thrown the baby of convenience out with the bathwater of deregulation.

As Smith explains, the EC should insist that operators get together on common reservation, timetable, enquiry and ticketing systems, as Britain has. Believe it or not, for 150 years – between 1850 and 1990, every national operator could sell tickets for every other national operator on a simple, easily comparable kilometric tariff. However Rail Europe is a popular general site and some national operator sites work well. With full details of pricing, routes, timetables and on-board facilities, Trenitalia’s site is highly user-friendly, a modern Baedeker. Eurostar, Deutsche Bahn and France’s SNCF are also accessible.

To summarise, low-cost airlines have served their community well but the modern breed of trains are game-breakers because of punctuality, cleanliness, unfussiness as well, increasingly, because their prices are competitive. There’s also a robust argument that low-cost airlines aren’t appropriate for many businesspeople. For instance, if the plane doesn’t turn up because of, say fog, you’re in trouble. When our Ryanair flight out of Charleroi, Brussels, failed to arrive one morning, the low-cost airline abruptly turned into a high-cost one. With competing airlines booked out, there were basically two options for the stranded passengers: return to Brussels and find a hotel for an extra night, or scramble to another airport for an expensive last-minute seat on a full-service, multi-trajectory flight. This is exactly what a group of oil-company executives had to do.

Neither option suiting us, we had to make an executive decision to travel by ferry across the North Sea and ended up on a cross-Belgium safari. This involved two trains – one to Brussels and another to Zeebrugge – albeit on low-cost tickets, an expensive taxi from Zeebrugge station to the port where we scrambled aboard the overnight ferry to Edinburgh. Last aboard, we made it with five minutes to spare. (If we’d missed the boat, the cost of the crossing and cabin was not refundable.)

All up, the cost for this mad dash across half of Belgium plus the sea crossing was more than five times that of the air fares, not counting shredded nerves. And of course the Ryanair tickets were now useless.
Many business travellers like the buzz of airports and planes. And when the cost of flying was significantly lower than the iron road, it hardly made sense to go by any other way. But there’s been a quiet revolution of price, comfort, suitability and – for good measure – ecology that’s bringing people back to rail.

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