Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
To reduce emissions from air travel, Germany’s Green Party wants to eliminate the need for domestic flights by making big investments in trains.
When it comes to reducing the environmental impacts of the airline industry, you can shame people into avoiding air travel, or you can try to make air travel the transportation of the past.
That’s the approach Germany’s Green Party is adopting, proposing that the country should work to make domestic flights obsolete by 2035. A party document released last week imagines a future in which there is no longer any practical or economic reason to fly between places in Germany.
As the Green Party currently holds no role in national government, these plans are purely aspirational. But as Europe’s largest green political body—and a frequent participant in coalition governments—the agenda nonetheless has substantial power to shape future policy. Right now, that policy is about preparing for a future in which trains have totally supplanted planes, making flying within the country a distant memory.
Germany certainly makes an interesting case study for the potential of junking domestic flights. It’s not a small country by European standards—it’s a little smaller than Montana—but its major cities are far enough from each other that flying can be a plausible alternative to rail. As a result, 16 percent of the country’s flights are to domestic destinations. But the distances are also short enough that flights can equally be judged to not be essential.
Interestingly, the German government is itself a major consumer of these domestic flights. In 2018, officials booked just under 230,000 flights through the government travel portal. This volume is substantially due to a quirk of the country’s post-reunification history. Fifty-two percent of those flights were between Berlin and Cologne-Bonn Airport. That is the nearest terminal for the former West German capital of Bonn, a city to which officials frequently travel because it is where six of Germany’s 14 national ministries are still located.
That officials often fly between the two seems a poor choice. When it comes to travel times, trains and planes compete pretty closely on most major German routes. Guillaume Pépy, director of French national rail carrier SNCF, recently noted that the current cut-off point after which trains are slower than planes is somewhere around four hours and sometimes as much as five. This has much to do with the slowing down of airport procedures like security checks and boarding processes. When you factor those in with the time it takes to travel to and from ex-urban airports, downtown-to-downtown rail feels increasingly attractive.
In Germany, many important city-to-city services hover around this four-hour mark. The fastest service from Berlin to Munich is now just three hours and 55 minutes; it’s three hours and 52 minutes to Frankfurt; and four hours and 17 minutes to Cologne. The only major routes that breach the five-hour mark are long north-south intercity journeys, such as Hamburg to Munich, which takes five hours and 46 minutes, and Dresden to Stuttgart, which requires five and three quarter hours.
With investment in further line upgrades, the train could easily become the fastest choice from border to border. Germany’s high-speed rail network is growing, but still piecemeal, so it’s clear to see where improvements can be made to boost competition with air travel. There is, however, another issue: price. Book a train far in advance and it can be an extremely good value: fast service Berlin-Munich tickets for November can currently be purchased for as little as €29, for example. Book a week or so before traveling, however, and it’s often slightly cheaper to fly.
That’s where the Green Party’s plan comes in. In order to bring as many destinations as possible within the four-hour mark, the plan envisions giving national carrier Deutsche Bahn a €3 billion annual subsidy. This money would go in part to creating faster links along major rail corridors, as well as wooing business travelers by greatly increasing service around peak periods. Meanwhile, sales tax on train tickets and electricity would be cut, making it possible for the railways to offer somewhat lower prices.
This on its own, the plan argues, wouldn’t be enough. Germany would also need a tax on the flight fuel kerosene, which is currently untaxed and thus gives airlines a competitive advantage over road and rail transit. There would need to be a rebalancing in which rail regains its competitive edge.
“It’s unacceptable that aviation—the most climate-damaging mode of transport—is still subsidized with billions, while environmentally friendly railways are chronically under-financed,” Green Party spokesperson Daniela Wagner told newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
There is still a major hurdle to this idea of re-jigging the tax system. If Germany introduced a kerosene tax, there would be nothing to prevent planes from refueling tax-free outside the country. So far, the only E.U. country with a tax in place is the Netherlands, a country too small to have a real domestic flight industry. An E.U.-wide tax currently seems unlikely, as it would require the agreement of all member states, some of which would fight anything seen as risking the health of tourism-reliant economies. That makes the way forward far from clear.
As Euractiv notes, one possibility might be bilateral agreements between member states in which they mutually agree to a fuel tax on flights between their countries. That could be workable, but the process sounds intricate and gradual.
All told, it is perhaps sensible that Germany’s Green Party has placed the date they want to make domestic flights obsolete as far forward as 2035. In the meantime, the debate is helping to push another issue up the agenda. With officials taking so many flights between the government’s various headquarters, politicians of all stripes are starting to agree that it’s time to slash travel of any type—by getting the federal government out of Bonn.