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Can This European High-Speed Train Compete With Airlines?

How long can a train journey be to still compete with air travel?

This is a question surfacing in Europe this month, as the first-ever direct London-to-Amsterdam train service gets ready to launch. With tickets going on sale next Monday, two daily trains run by the high-speed Eurostar will start serving the route on April 4. Currently, a Londoner bound for Amsterdam by train can expect the journey to take a little under five hours, with a change of trains in Brussels. The new service will reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour and cancel the need to change in Brussels, shaving off over an hour. 

The prospect has already generated a palpable buzz, and the 900 tickets offered a day (starting at a reasonable $47 one way) are likely to sell out fast. But it’s not clear how the service will fare if it extends beyond two trains a day (as it likely will) on a route where price competition with airlines is already fierce. 
Image credit: Citylab

Airline delays are making downtown-to-downtown rail travel increasingly attractive for longer distances.

Most existing year-round Eurostar routes are far shorter: Think London to Lille in 1 hour 22 minutes, to Brussels in two hours, and to Paris in 2 hours sixteen. Only the flight-phobic or train-obsessed would normally choose to head off for a Dutch visit via rail: The hugely popular London–Amsterdam route is Europe’s second busiest for airlines (after London–Dublin). Can a train trip that takes more than than three-and-a-half hours succeed in competing with a flight time of scarcely an hour?

The tentative answer provides an interesting snapshot of just how much European travel has changed: 20 years ago, a train taking more than three hours would struggle to compete with an hour-long flight. Today, however, such as service is at a distinct advantage. It’s not necessarily the case that speed and comfort have necessarily skyrocketed for train travel (though there are indeed more fast routes now on offer). It’s because—especially for shorter distances—flying has become increasingly hellish and time-consuming.

“It used to be an axiom that, in order to compete with a one-hour flight, a train journey could be a maximum of three hours,” Mark Smith, founder of rail travel website Seat61, explained to CityLab. “That was allowing for an hour in the air and two for security, boarding and transfers. That simply isn’t the case anymore.” According to Guillaume Pepy of the French national railway SNCF, Smith said, “with longer check-in and security times, they were finding the cut-off was at least four and sometimes even over five hours, a limit that their popular Paris-Perpignan Route just exceeds.”

This certainly makes sense. Back in the 1990s, before Europe’s cheap flight boom, it was still possible to breeze into an airport an hour before your flight, clear security, and even stop for a coffee before making your way to the gate. Catch a plane from London to Amsterdam now and, even with online check-in, you’re cutting it close if you allow 90 minutes at the terminal. And as the number of flights have proliferated, short-hop flights from economy carriers increasingly depart from smaller airports that are at a greater distance from the city, lengthening journey times further—not to mention obliging passengers to rely on sketchy onward transit. Anyone that’s made the 40 minute rail trip out to London Stansted Airport, or touched down at Southend Airport to find the last of the evening trains to London has long gone will know exactly what I mean here.

When you finally get to the terminal, meanwhile, the experience can be cramped and demoralizing, with some London airports (step forward, Stansted) essentially becoming a succession of endless, snaking queues where passengers are laboriously urged forward like some indigestible, resented lump of food in a small intestine.

It’s these delays that make downtown-to-downtown rail travel increasingly attractive for longer distances. Eurostar trains have security and passport checks too, of course, but you’re broadly safe arriving at the station 30 minutes before departure (45 during peak times) and as little as 10 minutes for the most expensive ticket class. Under these circumstances, anyone might prefer taking a direct train from London to Amsterdam and back.

The problem with the new service, however, is that there is in fact no coming back: Direct Amsterdam-to-London services have been postponed until 2020. The hold-up is Britain’s border arrangements—ones that long predate, and are not connected to, the push for Brexit. The U.K. is not part of the 26-state passport check-free Schengen Area (which has a slightly different set of members from the E.U.) and thus needs to check the documents of everyone arriving via the Channel Tunnel before they actually arrive on British soil. On the Paris, Brussels, and Lille routes, this issue has been solved by placing British border check booths in both continental cities and a French one in London. This system works well, although people traveling to London on one of the seasonal routes from Marseille or the French Alps (neither of which have the necessary British border post) already have to drastically slow their journey by getting off at Lille, their train’s final stop before the border, to clear British passport control there.

To avoid the need for stops like these, the Dutch are already constructing border facilities at Amsterdam’s and Rotterdam’s central stations. Until they (and the border system they will rely on) are ready, London-bound passengers will have to change at Brussels, meaning there will be no improvement on the current journey time of 4 hours 47 minutes. In the long run, trains may well take over from planes as the main connection between London and Amsterdam, just as they have to Paris and Brussels. Before that happens, however, there are still more than a few kinks to iron out.

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