Impacts of High-speed Rail on Air Transportation in Europe: an Analysis of Demand and Emissions

Impacts of High-speed Rail on Air Transportation in Europe: an Analysis of Demand and Emissions


R Clewlow, MIT, USA


This study examines air transportation demand in Europe, the impacts of high-speed rail on aviation demand, and the potential reduction of CO2 emissions.


The continuous growth of air transportation in Europe (and around the world) has significant implications for strategies to reduce CO2 emissions of the transportation sector. Although air transportation is currently responsible for only three percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, it is among the fastest growing modes (in passenger miles) within the transportation sector. Under business-as-usual scenarios, CO2 emissions from global aviation are expected to increase by 300 percent over the next 40 years (IEA, 2008b). A dominant factor affecting growth of aviation emissions is continuous growth in the demand for air travel, which has increased dramatically at a global level since deregulation (Belobaba, Odoni, and Barnhart, 2009). Although the recent economic downturn has resulted in a slowdown in demand, it is predicted that globally, over the next 50 years, general transportation volume will increase and continue shift towards faster modes, primarily aviation (Schafer and Victor, 2000).

High-speed rail (HSR) is often promoted as a lower-carbon alternative to air transportation, and is being considered in some nations as one component of a broader climate policy agenda (e.g. in the United States). There is some evidence from the European experience that HSR is, in fact, a competitive alternative to air transportation, particularly for intercity, short-haul travel. However, there is limited analysis of historical air traffic demand (and thus total demand) on these short-haul European routes, as well as the potential impacts of HSR on systemwide air traffic.

This study examines aviation passenger demand in Europe, with a focus on countries where high-speed rail offers competitive service to air travel. Building on previous studies of mode choice between air travel and HSR, this report summarizes an analysis of historical trends of passenger air traffic at the route level, airport level, and country level, in order to examine systemwide aviation demand and its environmental impacts.

This research includes an analysis of countries where European air traffic is most heavily concentrated: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. Air traffic data is collected for airport pairs and city pairs between 2002 and 2009, including major corridors that have been the focus of previous European reports (Steer Davies Gleave, 2006). Based on this analysis, it can be concluded that air traffic and associated CO2 emissions are, in fact, reduced on a majority of short-haul routes where high-speed rail offers service, as anticipated. However, airport-level traffic has significantly increased at numerous airports across Europe, beyond business-as-usual growth. Various factors to explain this growth are explored in this study, including: 1) the expansion of low-cost carrier air travel service; and 2) the expansion of medium- and long-haul flights, potentially made possible by the reduction of short-haul flights (which has eased capacity constraints at the airport level).

Understanding the interaction of air transportation and high-speed rail demand is critical for developing policies to reduce emissions in the transportation sector. This study will highlight complex factors that have impacted intercity demand in Europe, as well as examine how CO2 emissions from aviation and high-speed rail have evolved over the past two decades. The goal of this study is to inform transportation and climate policies that will lead to more sustainable intercity transportation systems.


Association for European Transport