Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

No More Choo Choo Mr. Nice Guy

I have always loved train travel, especially very exotic trips such as the train across the Alto Plano between Peru and Bolivia; the famous 14-hour Copper Canyon experience in Chihuahua, Mexico; and the bullet trains of Japan. However, I have always enjoyed and appreciated the efficiency of inter-urban European trains that are often the best way to get from A to B to C quickly, relatively inexpensively, and in comfort. However, in the car culture of North America we seem to have missed the boat … um … so to speak.

Recently Air Transport World, the trade magazine for the airline industry worldwide, published an intelligent article by Cathy Buyck titled “Planes versus Trains.” In it Ms Buyck creates an analytical portrait of the new rail realities in Europe, with reference especially to Railteam.

The latter is a brilliant marketing partnership of rail companies and similar to airline alliances (Skyteam, Star Alliance, One World etc.). And … it is giving European airlines (especially those popular low-cost ones) a real run for their money. The marketing strategy is, in some respects, a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to buy a train travel product that emphasizes “intra-Europe high speed passenger rail as the faster, more reliable, more punctual and greener alternative to short-haul flights”?

In her careful analysis of the new planes versus trains competitive marketplace, Buyck also clearly demonstrates the larger issues. For example, some airlines point to what they see as the unfair subsidization of national-intranational train travel; the regulatory framework and security costs that place heavy financial burdens on airlines; and the fact that train travel may not be so squeaky green clean after all. (A study by the Royal Society indicates that 70 per cent of the electricity in the UK — which powers most trains — is generated through fossil fuels.) On the other hand, Guillaume Pepy of France’s state-owned SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer) points out that airports are also heavily subsidized through the public purse. And yet, as Buyck points out, the networkwide average price for a high speed train ticket is 50 per cent less than the equivalent airline ticket.

Even stranger is the fact that Air France is now a code share partner with SNCF because its TGV routes starting from Charles de Gaulle airport are more economically viable and preferable to many travellers. Lufthansa also codeshares with some train routes in Germany.

So where’s the truth? Of course, its the same old caveat emptor and be a travel-smart consumer conundrum. Like any marketplace — any complex and diversified travel marketplace especially — this is not a simple, clearcut, black and white situation. However … it’s looking pretty good to me.

Air Transport World (ATW)

I’m not sure how I became a subscriber to this industry magazine, but I must tell you that this is a sterling publication, extremely well-researched, written, and edited; and one that covers very important issues in a very in-depth and content-rich manner. The magazine is an excellent resource and source of consumer information for the kind of savvy traveller on the go these days. When I read ATW, I often wish that the conventional (too frequently dumbed down) travel media outlets could produce their destination stories in as literate a fashion as a trade magazine like this one.

To visit the ATW website, click here.

To visit the Railteam website, click here.

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