< PrevNext > Modal Shift By Andy Hoskins / January 25, 2023 / Contact Reporter Share Andy Hoskins, Editor-in-Chief, BTN Europe Some individuals have for many years chosen the train over the plane, motivated by convenience, cost, productivity or simply the fact it is kinder on the environment than flying. Corporates, too, have been pursuing travel policies that promote rail travel over air where feasible—and even mandating it—primarily as part of wider sustainability programmes. BCG Consulting, for example, has configured its online booking tool to prioritize train travel over flights, while employees of PwC Netherlands may now only travel from Amsterdam to two of its top destinations, Paris and Frankfurt, by train, with journey times of around 3hrs, 20mins and of 4hrs respectively. Salesforce is another company that recognizes the environmental gains to be achieved by shifting travellers off planes and onboard trains. It identified more than 20 city pairs, mostly in Europe, where the company strongly recommends rail bookings rather than flying. Further evidence of modal shift can be found in the raw numbers. In the UK, more than half (57 percent) of journeys between London and Edinburgh were made by rail between April and August last year, up from 35 percent pre-pandemic, and for the first time outweighing air passenger numbers between the capitals. Moving travelers off planes and on to trains is one of the simplest measures that businesses can take to begin ‘greening’ their travel programes. And while some organizations will follow the lead of influential corporates doing just that, greater powers could also force their hand. Only last month the French government’s plans to ban domestic flights where there are regular rail alternatives of less than 2hrs, 30 mins were approved by the European Commission. A review of the proposal—initially a condition of the government’s financial aid for Air France as the pandemic took its toll—had been prompted by objections from the Union of French Airports (UAF) and Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe). Meanwhile, the Netherlands has previously tried to ban all domestic flights as well as flights between Amsterdam and Brussels—a 45-minute flight or 1hr, 50min train journey—but was scuppered on both occasions by EU regulation. Last summer, however, its government announced plans to cut back the number of flights at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, of which it is a majority stakeholder, in order to “strike a balance between the importance of having a large international airport—which is also good for the business community—and of a better, healthier living environment.” A cap of around 440,000 flights annually represents a 12 percent cut on pre-pandemic volumes and could be implemented later this year. While there’s no doubting the appetite for rail journeys of up to four or even five hours exists, anything longer is challenging. Even UK-based cosmetics company Lush, which operates one of the most progressive and environmentally conscious business travel programs around, allows for air travel where rail is just a step too far. The arrival of competition in the form of new operators of new sleeper services between key European cities could take modal shift to another level. Austrian operator OBB expanded its NightJet and EuroNight partner services across central Europe last year while 2024 will see the launch of a new operator, Midnight Trains, with services from its Paris hub to the likes of Copenhagen via Brussels and Hamburg, and to Rome, Barcelona and Porto. Despite new levels of onboard comfort, anecdotal evidence suggests few organizations have yet adopted overnight sleeper services for business travel. For corporates, journey time is not the only barrier preventing greater modal shift—the technology to book trips that might incorporate different operators in different countries is simply woeful at present. Representing 13 travel buyer associations from across Europe, BT4Europe has been vocal about such shortcomings. In its first position paper, Sustainability in Business Travel, published last year, the organization expressed concerns about the accessibility of international rail travel in booking tools.“Rail booking capability is very limited right now,” said Angela Lille, sustainability working group chair for BT4Europe. “If I’m travelling from Vienna to Paris I want to see air and rail options side by side—that is difficult to find today. Rail tickets are often only available through operators’ proprietary systems. It’s going to require comprehensive integration”. Another group lobbying authorities for change is EU Travel Tech which claims “invisibility” of rail in indirect distribution channels is a key reason that 11 million passengers each month take a flight when they could take the train. But providing that is no mean feat, with booking tools and TMCs hindered by the fragmented operator landscape, the need for individual licenses, and, it is believed by some, operators’ disinterest in third-party commercial agreements. One development that might ease the pain could come from rail aggregators such as Trainline which is progressing a ‘sub-licensing model,’ a scenario in which it holds operator licences and its partner TMCs, OBTs and GDSs are able to operate off them. Another significant move is the European Union’s Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS) framework, new legislation designed to ensure access to all rail content for all distribution channels, with draft legislation due in the first half of 2023. With corporates identifying it as an easy environmental win, governments clamping down on domestic flights, and moves to improve bookability, the case for rail travel is only getting stronger.