By train or by plane: Europe’s passengers and their post-pandemic journeys

Covid restrictions stunted years of consistent growth in rail passengers in the EU

Most countries across Europe have dropped virtually all Covid-19 restrictions after some 2½ years since the pandemic began. During the worst of the restrictions public transport networks fell eerily silent as public health measures took hold.

Following the World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic in March 2020, stay-at-home orders, border closures and lockdowns swept across Europe almost as quickly as the virus.

Planes were grounded and trains and buses remained parked. But what impact did this have on passenger numbers and – potentially – emissions? While aviation is widely accepted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions through carbon dioxide, the sector has made reductions recently.

Only limited public transport services remained in place to accommodate essential workers and freight services during the pandemic. For example, in Ireland, all public transport was cut to 25 per cent of capacity.

These restrictions stunted years of what had been consistent, steady growth in air and rail passengers across the European Union, the bloc’s two chief forms of public transport. More than 1 billion passengers boarded aircraft to carry them between EU member states in 2019. Eurostat data shows this is an increase of some 163.4 million from 2016′s figure of about 871.6 million.

The scale of the impact of the restrictions on Europe’s aviation sector can be seen from the data for 2020. Passenger numbers declined to 393.2 million – a decrease of 73.2 per cent.

Air passenger figures for 2021 remain partially incomplete, with multiple EU member states, including Malta, Latvia, Cyprus and several others yet to report their figures to Eurostat.

Irish air passenger numbers also fell dramatically during the pandemic. Much like the rest of the bloc, Ireland’s passenger figures had been on a steady increase since 2016, when 35.6 million people used the country’s airports.

This figure reached just under 41 million in 2019 before falling to 8.8 million in 2020 – a 78 per cent decrease in just 12 months. The total number of air passengers for Ireland in 2021 was 9,132,872, according to data available from the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Though a slight increase on the 2020 figure, this was still 76 per cent down on 2019. Dublin Airport handled 90 per cent of the country′s air passengers for 2021.

More recent CSO data, from April 2022, show more than 1.37 million passengers arrived into Ireland by air from overseas. While this is a massive increase compared to April 2021, when the figure was just 61,400, it remains below April 2019 when 1.59 million passengers touched down on our shores.

Increased rail travel is a cornerstone of the EU’s European Green Deal, which includes doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and tripling it by 2050.

The amount of fuel burned per air passenger carried dropped by 24 per cent between 2005 and 2017 but this decrease has been offset by a large surge in overall air travel over the same time period. People were flying 60 per cent more in 2017 than in 2005, according to data from the European Commission.

At the same time rail transport across the bloc has become increasingly popular as member states invest in commuter, urban and high-speed intercity and cross-border networks. Carbon dioxide emissions from rail transport have decreased across the bloc almost every year between 1995 and 2019 as more and more of the continent’s rail lines are electrified. The Dutch rail network is now almost entirely powered by electricity generated from wind.

Total rail passenger figures for the EU are not known because several countries, including Belgium and Austria, which both have extensive rail networks hosting cross-country and international services, keep passenger numbers confidential and other members, namely Cyprus and Malta, have no mainline railways.

Eurostat data show despite this, the majority of members reported increased rail passenger numbers for the third quarter of 2021 when compared to the same period in 2020. Ireland ranked second in this, with a 42 per cent jump. This points to an industry-wide recovery across most of the EU but the figures were still below 2019 levels.

Recent moves including wider investment in overnight sleeper trains across the continent, in particular Austrian operator ÖBB’s Nightjet service of new vehicles and Germany’s €9 train tickets, may have added to the increased demanded for rail services.

Irish people have also embraced a move to rail travel. Passenger numbers increased almost 17 per cent between 2016 with 42.8 million passengers and 2019 with just more than 50 million carried. This increase is accredited to the introduction of 10-minute service frequency on the capital’s Dart network as well as improvements to other intercity services.

Rail passenger numbers here collapsed to 17.9 million in 2020 due to capacity limits imposed on public transport networks as part of public health measures and a large number of the workforce working remotely.

Major decreases in 2020 were recorded by every EU member state but Ireland saw the biggest decrease of minus 65.2 per cent. This was closely followed by Italy, the epicentre for the virus on the continent in the earliest days of the pandemic, at minus 60.7 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum, Bulgaria saw the least impact on their rail passenger figures at minus 26.4 per cent in 2020.

France and Germany were the bloc’s largest contributors to rail passenger transport performance in 2020, in a similar fashion to their respective contributions to air passenger figures for that year. France recorded 57.5 billion passenger-kilometres while Germany saw 56.5 billion passenger-kilometres, both covering 51 per cent of the bloc’s total passenger kilometres.

Complete rail passenger statistics for Ireland have yet to be fully compiled for 2021. However, Irish Rail passenger figures began to show signs of recovery during 2021, with the number of rail journeys standing at 40 per cent below than pre-Covid levels as of the week commencing September 26th.

Indications point to a steady increase in passengers returning to both air and rail travel in the EU with some of these figures fast approaching a return to pre-pandemic levels. However, an early tally for total rail passenger numbers in Ireland in 2021 stands at 17,072,961, down from 2020′s 17,934,000. This figure is likely to change later in the year pending further analysis.

As of April 2022, CSO data shows Dublin Airport passenger numbers were at 85 per cent of their April 2019 levels, while public transport journeys for the month stood at 77 per cent of their 2019 levels – an upward trend that is expected to continue.

This article was produced in conjunction with UCD Data Journalism

Glen Murphy

Glen Murphy

Glen Murphy is an Irish Times journalist