The Eurostar fast rail service between London and Amsterdam which started up on Wednesday is being seen as a major step forward in an overall plan to replace short European flights with fast rail journeys.
Rail services are operated city-centre to city-centre, eliminating connections to airports and long check-in times. But price, political will and passport checks are all issues which still need to be overcome.
In addition, there are glitches: it will take another two years before the return Amsterdam-London leg of the trip is made without a change of trains at Brussels. And perhaps a portent of times to come: Eurostar’s three hour, 41 minute maiden trip from London arrived six minutes late at Amsterdam’s central station.
After Paris, London is the second destination where the train can compete with the plane on trips to and from Amsterdam. Both Dutch Rail chief Roger van Boxtel (second right in photo) and KLM president Pieter Elbers agree that the train is a good alternative to the plane on journeys of up to 500 kilometres.
More than 75,000 flights arrived at Schiphol from airports less than 500 kilometres away in 2017. This is a substantial number given the 500,000 flight cap currently in place at the Amsterdam airport. If even one-third of the passengers aboard these flights travelled by train instead, Schiphol would have years to grow and the overflow airport at Lelystad would be unnecessary.
Last year 4.5 million passengers travelled on 40,000 flights between London and Amsterdam, according to broadcaster NOS. This more than all other short-haul flights put together.
The connection to Paris is the only truly competitive rail journey at present. Some 1.4 million people travelled by air between the two cities in 2017. Although figures are unavailable, NOS said, it is probable more people travelled by train between the two capitals.
Price is a hurdle which must be overcome if rail journeys are to prevail in the future. The train is generally more expensive than the plane.
‘We have a real issue. Value-added tax does not apply to plane tickets, but VAT is added to train tickets,’ said Van Boxtel. ‘Airlines are also exempt from duty on the fuel needed to fly. We want fair competition between cheap flights and expensive train tickets.’
Political will is another issue. The Volkskrant pointed out at the weekend that the European Rail Traffic Management System should have been rolled out across the continent by now, making it easier to run more trains and cut the cost.
In addition, countries want the maximum number of stops within their territory, which slows down trains and overall journey times. The 6.5 hour trip from Amsterdam to Berlin includes stops in Hilversum and Almelo, the paper points out.
Rail does score well on the environment, with 80% less of carbon emissions than planes. An aircraft travelling from London to Amsterdam spews out 50 kilos of CO2, while the Eurostar emits only six kilos of CO2, environmental expert Hans Hilbers told the broadcaster.