Rail News


November 12 , 2021

Revival of rail travel a potential weapon to combat climate change

Irish Times 
November 11, 2021 (UK)

Italian example shows how investment in rail can drastically cut traffic on air routes

In the 19th century, rail travel rapidly supplanted most other forms of transport. Could it be about to do so again?

With all eyes on Glasgow and the Cop26 summit, British chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a tone-deaf budget that slashed tax on domestic flights and declined to fund an eastern leg of the already beleaguered High Speed 2 train line. Sunak’s decision to incentivise air travel over rail is all the more confusing when contrasted with the experience of another European nation of similar size, population and geography.

Last month, Italy’s former flag carrier Alitalia made its last flight. Having struggled for a decade, Alitalia was eventually renationalised and liquidated during the pandemic. Although various factors are responsible, one leaps out: the rise of high-speed rail. In 2008, Italy’s high-speed trains carried 6.5 million passengers. By 2018, they carried 40 million.

Government investment in rail infrastructure has been vital to this, but so too has market liberalisation. Private operator Italo now competes with government-owned Trenitalia, and prices have become competitive with low-cost airlines. Passengers travelling from Rome to Milan now make the journey by rail 80 per cent of the time, compared with 36 per cent in 2008; flights account for just 14 per cent of journeys on the route, down from 50 per cent.

Remarkably, this could be the second time that rail has supplanted another established mode of transport. In the 18th century, rapid industrialisation created demand for new modes of transport that could cope with large amounts of materials and goods. In 1731, work began on canals to link the Tyrone coalfields to the Irish Sea and to Dublin, so that local collieries could compete financially with imported British coal. The Grand Canal (completed in 1804) and Royal Canal (1817) linked Dublin with the Shannon. By 1820, Ireland’s major industrial and commercial centres were connected to each other and to the sea by a network of inland waterways.


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