Why Are Train Journeys More Expensive Than Flights?

The Eco Experts
woman on a train looking out the window

Taking the train is 50% more expensive than flying

Trains are six times better for the climate than planes

The UK government gives the aviation industry £7 billion in subsidies


We all know that taking the train is better for the environment than flying – and in a perfect world, we’d all take the more climate-friendly option.

But when it’s cheaper – and almost always quicker – to fly, it’s hard to blame customers for choosing to save money and time by taking a plane.

Flying shouldn’t cost less, though. We all know instinctively that the modern marvel of air travel should be more expensive than trains, which have been transporting passengers since 1830.

So we’ve investigated why trains are often more expensive than planes, whether this phenomenon exists in other countries, and how the government could fix the issue.

woman looking annoyed with her suitcase

Why are trains more expensive than planes?

Trains are more expensive than planes because the aviation industry is one of the most undertaxed and overly subsidised sections of the UK economy.

There’s no VAT on plane tickets, and there’s no tax on aviation fuel, despite road fuels like petrol and diesel being taxed at 57.95p per litre, plus 20% in VAT.

A 2019 government briefing paper said the lack of an aviation fuel tax was seen by many as “an indefensible anomaly” – but nothing has changed.

Instead, the aviation industry receives £7 billion in annual subsidies, according to the New Economics Foundation. In fact, eight days after the COP26 climate conference ended in November 2021, the government added £4.3m to this total.

Germany taxes transport fuel suppliers £21.50 per tonne of CO2, and there are plans to create a similar policy across the EU – but the UK continues to drag its heels.

Germany’s fuel tax isn’t even that high – not by a long shot. Let’s imagine that a similar tax was imposed on airlines in the UK.

Planes emit one tonne of CO2 per 2.4 miles of travel, so a return journey from London to Edinburgh – which is 664 miles – would cost an airline £5,948.

Airlines currently charge £102 for this trip, which means it’d take just 59 passengers to cover the cost of the fuel tax.

And that’s just from the price of the ticket. Budget airlines can fill seats at practically any price, because they know a large percentage of passengers will pay additional fees for priority boarding, choosing a seat, an extra bag, food and drink, and so on.

Naturally, this often results in those airlines undercutting train companies.

Andrew Murphy, aviation director at the Transport & Environment think tank, told Time Magazine: “There is a reason why Ryanair can sell tickets for €19 (£16).

“On every step of the way, from designing the plane to running the airport to paying for the fuel, there are subsidies involved.”

To make plane journeys cost their true amount, the government must dramatically slash subsidies and impose high taxes on the industry – and use the resulting money to fund the train network and help train companies to lower prices.

How much more expensive are trains?

Taking the train on 10 of the most popular UK routes is 50% more expensive than making the same journey by plane, according to The Guardian.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule here – sometimes plane rides are pricier, and sometimes the train costs twice as much as going by plane – but in general, the gap goes in one direction.

The example we gave above, of a return trip from London to Edinburgh, costs £148 by train, according to our research – 45% more than the equivalent £102 plane ride.

And of course, flying between the English and Scottish capitals is also faster – three times faster, to be exact, with a three-hour round trip contrasting favourably with the nine hours it takes by train.

There are a couple of routes that are cheaper by train – for instance, you can save 27% by riding the rails instead of flying from Newcastle to Southampton – but this should be the norm, not the exception.

The worst offenders

1. Birmingham to Newquay costs £67 by plane or £180 by train, meaning that choosing an environmentally cleaner journey on the rails is 169% more expensive.

2. Manchester to Newquay has the second-largest difference. A return plane journey costs £119, while train travellers will pay £212 – which is 78% more expensive. You’ve got to feel for climate-conscious people from Newquay.

3. Edinburgh to Bournemouth rounds out our list, with passengers paying £178 to travel by train from Scotland to the south coast of England – and just £105 to fly. That’s 70% more expensive.

How much better are trains for the environment?

Trains are six times better for the environment than planes.

In the UK, trains emit 66 g of greenhouse gases per mile of travel, while planes release 410 g per mile, according to Our World in Data.

That means that you can reduce the carbon footprint of that journey you’re planning by 84% – simply by choosing a train over a plane.

To use our example journey of London to Edinburgh, a return trip on the train would emit 44 kg, while a plane would release 272 kg.

Are trains less expensive than flights in other countries?

Europe

Taking the train between cities in European countries is a gloriously cheap experience.

Want to go from Rome to Florence? That’ll be £8.60 by train, or £70 by plane. Fancy a jaunt from Berlin to Munich? You can travel by train for £16, or fly for £88.

If you’d like to travel from Paris to Marseille on the south coast, you can go by train for £43, or shell out £87 to fly. For a Madrid to Barcelona trip, a train ticket costs £13.50, while flying costs £27 – twice as much.

This difference is wiped out when you’re travelling across borders – for example, flying from Paris to Berlin costs £48, while the train costs £42.

And a Copenhagen to Vienna return journey costs £96 by train, and £95 by plane.

But if you’re looking to travel within a European nation, it’s considerably cheaper to take the train – as it should be.

The US

In the US, going by train is usually cheaper than flying. It’s also sometimes quicker to take the train – particularly for journeys of 300 miles or less – when you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport and through security.

The problem in the US, unlike in the UK, is that train routes are relatively limited, which is a different issue that could be solved by better funding infrastructure.

Australia

You’ll pay practically the same whether you choose to fly or take the train for long journeys in Australia.

For instance, a Sydney to Melbourne return trip costs £1 more by train, while a Sydney to Brisbane flight costs £10 more than a ride on the rails.

Have any countries tried to fix this?

The EU is attempting to institute a tax on jet fuel that will apply to all its members, which will hopefully make it more expensive to fly from one European nation to another.

This should lead to more demand for trains that go from one country to another, which will in turn lower prices for train tickets.

Around 35 countries tax passengers who take international flights, and sometimes domestic flights too.

This strategy is only effective when the tax is high enough to make a difference. For instance, the UK taxes passengers, but the lowest tax band is £13 – and it clearly hasn’t worked, as we’ve seen above.

It’s more difficult to solve the issue in larger countries – like Australia, Canada, Russia, and the US – where 15-hour train rides between cities massively increase other costs like food and staff wages.

However, there’s no excuse when it comes to the UK, which is smaller than France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, where cheap train tickets are a reality.

Josh Jackman Senior Writer

Josh has written about eco-friendly home improvements and climate change for the past three years. His work has featured on the front page of the Financial Times; he’s been interviewed by BBC Radio; and he was the resident expert in BT’s smart home tech initiative.

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