Air France’s pledge to end some of its domestic flights in return for billions of euros in government aid is a weak contribution to climate action, as weak railway infrastructure stands in the way of a plane-to-train shift.
Announced as a quid pro quo for the €7 billion granted by the French state, Air France’s commitment involves “reducing flights on routes for which there is a rail alternative in less than two and a half hours”, France’s now former Ecological Transition Minister Elisabeth Borne told France Inter on 24 April.
For Air France, it is a question of “making commitments to speed up its ecological transition”. Yet, despite state support, the company has announced the elimination of 7,500 jobs by 2022.
A shrinking market
What exactly do these commitments represent?
Although the French market share has decreased, it accounts for 81% of domestic flights according to the 2018 industry report.
France is itself dominated by Air France and its low-cost subsidiaries Hop and Transavia, the latter of which has requested that this measure should also apply to other airlines.
Lines between Paris and the cities of Toulouse, Nice, Marseille and Bordeaux alone account for 55% of the traffic and more than one million passengers.
With the exception of Bordeaux, whose high-speed line was inaugurated in 2017 and which links the capital to the fifth-largest urban area in France in less than two and a half hours, the geographical distance and the absence of railway structures do not allow air traffic to be transferred to rail.
In total, all airlines departing from Paris carry two-thirds of the traffic, which corresponds to about 17 million passengers.
Generally speaking, the air transport sector is growing as there will be a 20% increase between 2012 and 2017. As the report points out, “it is correlated with the growth of traffic in Metropolitan France and that of “metropolitan – foreign country” flights.
The latter has major weight in terms of passengers and the growth in associated passenger traffic is 2.5 times higher than that of domestic flights within Metropolitan France”.
In fact, domestic flights only grew by 1% per year over this period. The share of traffic between Paris airports and regional airports has thus fallen over 40 years.
From 25% of passenger traffic in 1980 or even 29% in 1990, traffic between Parisian airports was only 10% in 2017, a value that has been more or less the same since the start of 2010. On the other hand, intra-regional traffic, which carries fewer passengers, has stagnated at around 5% since 1980.
Fast but centralised trains
So where is the supply of railway services? According to Statista, “the French rail network extends over a total length of almost 28,000 kilometres, making it the second-largest rail network in Europe”.
In terms of performance, it ranks seventh in the 2017 European Railway Performance Index, lagging behind Germany in fourth place, Austria and Sweden.
However, the index does state that the larger countries lose out in this ranking, as the costs of development and maintenance are consequently higher. Nevertheless, it can be seen that the French are, on average, very close to railway stations in terms of proximity.
In terms of consumer costs, France is in the high average range compared to other EU countries. For a Paris-Lyon journey, the ticket costs the passenger 4.4% of the country’s median income.
By comparison, a Helsinki-Vaasa journey costs only 2.2% of the country’s median income. However, Germany ranks even worse, given that a Berlin-Cologne trip costs 5.3% of the country’s median income.
This high cost is probably due to the speed of the journey as France offers faster journeys for the same trips with significant time gains between rail and car.
However, when travelling French passengers are confronted with centralisation in Paris, a huge obstacle that makes air travel the preferred option.
Indeed, to go from one region to another, it is difficult to avoid the capital and its station changes. Some direct links between major cities are not high-speed or simply do not exist, which pushes travellers to make trips without any geographical logic.