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Take the Train: France Moves to Ban Short-Haul Domestic Flights

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. The French National Assembly voted to ban short-haul domestic flights on routes where the train journey takes less than two and a half hours. Connecting services are not affected. Reuters reported: The measure is part of a broader climate bill that aims to cut French carbon emissions by 40% in 2030 from 1990 levels, though activists accuse President Emmanuel Macron of watering down earlier promises in the draft legislation. The National Assembly vote is the first of three necessary steps before the ban may become law. According to Reuters: Saturday night’s vote in the National Assembly was the first. The bill goes to the Senate before a third and

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The French National Assembly voted to ban short-haul domestic flights on routes where the train journey takes less than two and a half hours. Connecting services are not affected.

Reuters reported:

The measure is part of a broader climate bill that aims to cut French carbon emissions by 40% in 2030 from 1990 levels, though activists accuse President Emmanuel Macron of watering down earlier promises in the draft legislation.

The National Assembly vote is the first of three necessary steps before the ban may become law. According to Reuters:

Saturday night’s vote in the National Assembly was the first. The bill goes to the Senate before a third and final vote in the lower house, where Macron’s ruling party and allies dominate.

The slowdown in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic made it easier to press for this measure at this time, as did the French government’s recent investment of further bail-out funds in Air France. Per the BBC:

Saturday’s vote came days after the French government more than doubled its stake in Air France. The government had previously offered €7bn ($8.3bn, £6bn) in loans to help the airline weather the pandemic, although France’s economy minister said at the time the funding was dependent on the airline scrapping some of its domestic flights.

Regular readers are probably aware of my fondness for train travel  (see Take the (Night) Train Redux and Take the (Night) Train). Not only do trains use considerably less carbon, but  I find them a more relaxing way to travel. For many journeys, train travel also saves time, especially for short hauls, as trains generally run  between city centers, and eschew the time-wasting security theater practiced at airports.

In a curiously snippy piece, Treehugger pointed out that there’s a bit less here than meets the eye,

It’s making news all over the world as an effort to reduce carbon emissions, but there is actually less to this than it seems.

  • President Emmanuel Macron’s Climate Convention citizens panel recommended a four-hour limit (PDF in French) but that got watered down, leaving the biggest and most popular flights, like Paris to Nice or Toulouse, in place. This has outraged the environmentalists and the Green Party. However, the unions and the socialists are angered by the ban because of the “disproportionate human cost” and job losses in the aviation industry. (In French politics, everyone is always outraged.)
  • The French government already forced Air France to abandon short routes in its recent $8.3 billion bailout deal; the ban really is designed to keep Air France’s low-cost competitors from grabbing the routes. As Leo Murray, the co-founder of climate charity Possible, noted in an op-ed for The Guardian: “The partly state-owned airline complained that the ban should apply to other airlines too.” A cynic might point out that the government is protecting its investment.

The BBC noted that French consumer groups still hold out hope that a four-hour ban might be adopted:

But French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir called on lawmakers to retain the four-hour limit.

“On average, the plane emits 77 times more CO2 per passenger than the train on these routes, even though the train is cheaper and the time lost is limited to 40 minutes,” it said.

It also called for “safeguards that [French national railway] SNCF will not seize the opportunity to artificially inflate its prices or degrade the quality of rail service”.

French High-Speed Rail Network: Train à Grande Vitesse

France can implement such flight restrictions without major disruption to domestic travel because decades ago it invested in a high-speed rail network, Train à Grande Vitesse. (TGV). I took such trains when I lived in the UK and Switzerland during the 1980s. More recently, in pre-COVID times, the TGV network carried more than 100 million passengers per year.

Treehugger compares the French situation to the U.S. one:

The distance from Paris to Nantes is 238 miles and the train zips there at 200 mph in just over two hours. The distance from New York City to Boston is 220 miles and according to Tripsavvy, the fastest Acela train is a three-hour-and-40 minute trip and it is often cheaper to fly. The “high speed” Acela can go up to 150 mph but averages 66 mph between New York City and Boston because of the quality of the tracks.

Bloomberg reported earlier this year that there is a proposal on the table — the North American Rail Project — to run electric trains at 200 mph from New York City to Boston in 100 minutes. Estimated cost: $105 billion. Estimated construction time: 20 years.

The most interesting thing about the French debate is that they can actually have it at all since the TGV infrastructure is in place, built over the last 30 years. They have a choice, and it is not such a tough one to make. In North America, we can only dream of such things.

Flight Bans Are Necessary As Even Well-Intentioned People Are Unaware of the Personal Actions That Most Reduce Carbon Consumption 

Serious climate change policy must include such bans, as even well-intentioned people who pride themselves on taking individual actions  to mitigate climate change are actually woefully uninformed about the carbon-saving impact of various measures, according to an article in yesterday’s FT, Clothes dryer vs the car: carbon footprint misconceptions.  So, although recycling as much as possible produces tangible environmental benefits – reducing plastic pollution – the reductions it achieves in one’s carbon footprint are negligible, compared to the impact of avoiding a single long-haul flight. The recycling saves 0.2 tonnes of carbon per year, compared to 1.6 tonnes for the long-haul flight.

According to the FT:

“Our research shows that the issue of the environmental crisis is familiar to people around the world,” said Kelly Beaver, managing director of public affairs at Ipsos Mori. “But people remain confused about what actions are most likely to have a significant effect on their carbon footprint.”]

“The public seem to have got the message when it comes to the importance of recycling, but the reality is . . . the actions that need to be taken require significantly bigger sacrifices,” Beaver added.

The French ban – admirable as it is – is low-hanging fruit for a country that’s constructed such an extensive TGV network. Even so, we should laud the French for moving to pick that fruit.

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