Revival of rail travel a potential weapon to combat climate change

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.

Each of these canals was a marvel of engineering, crossing difficult terrain such as the Bog of Allen and opening previously isolated areas to commerce. But despite their success, the supremacy of canals was short-lived. In 1830, the first public steam railway opened between Manchester and Liverpool and in 1834 the railway arrived in Ireland when the world's first commuter line was established between central Dublin and Dún Laoghaire.

Railways could compete on price and speed with canals and did not have to rely on connecting waterways, meaning they could extend to places impractical to reach by canal. Although it was still economical to transport bulky goods by canal, time-sensitive and passenger traffic quickly moved to rail. By 1880, it was possible to travel to almost any significant settlement in Ireland by train. Luxurious railway hotels, often adjoining stations, sprang up, attracting fashionable crowds to previously remote areas, including Parknasilla in Kerry, Recess in Connemara and Slieve Donard in Down. When the celebrated American preachers Moody and Sankey toured Ireland (in 1874, 1883 and 1892), tens of thousands of people chartered trains at discounted rates from towns that no longer have train service such as Letterkenny, Clones and Enniskillen.

Rise of air travel

For a century, rail was the dominant form of transport in Ireland, surviving the introduction of the car, the War of Independence and the Civil War. However, coal shortages during the second World War drastically reduced its efficiency and reliability. Just as the ease of connecting towns by rail, and the speed, cost and luxury of train travel allowed it to outcompete horse- and boat-based transport, improved road networks and cheap petrol and diesel engines saw cars and buses supplant trains in the mid-20th century. The subsequent rise of air travel saw aircraft become the favoured way to take journeys of more than a couple of hundred kilometres. Fast, unconstrained by terrain and increasingly affordable since jet fuel was not taxed, routes such as Madrid-Barcelona, Paris-Toulouse and Frankfurt-Berlin became the busiest in Europe. Rome-Milan is no longer on that list. Similarly, Madrid-Barcelona was the busiest passenger flight route in the world when a high-speed line opened between the two in 2007. Today, it is not even in the top 50.

Transport accounts for about 20 per cent of Irish greenhouse gas emissions, double the 1990 figure. Using the most efficient transport is therefore vital. Hopefully, we and the world will learn more from the Italian example than Rishi Sunak has.

Dr Stuart Mathieson is is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dublin City University school of history and geography