Corporates must lead the shift from air to rail

diciembre 4, 2023
Only seven companies surveyed have ambitious plans to shift from air to rail.

Flying is becoming an increasing climate problem. While other sectors are reducing their emissions, the climate impact of aviation is increasing. This year, the 6th of July was the busiest day for commercial aviation in history. In a single day 134,386 commercial flights were tracked. Forecasts show that the number of passengers is set to double by 2050. With current trajectories, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) will not be scaled-up in time to meet the urgency to mitigate climate change and respect the Paris Agreement to limit the increase of temperature to well below 2 degrees celsius.

Curbing demand from flying is an absolute necessity (see T&E roadmap). Some of the most heavily flown routes in Europe and even in the United States can be very easily travelled by rail. The Travel Smart campaign has calculated that travelling by rail between Amsterdam and London reduces emissions by 93% compared with flying, 92% between New York and Washington and 82% between Madrid and London.

Reducing corporate flying started with the coronavirus pandemic. T&E has found that all companies in our new survey that have reported their kilometres travelled by air in 2019 have reduced them in 2022. This trend needs to be accelerated by using all existing tools. For corporates these are: redefining purposeful travel, developing virtual collaboration tools, and shifting to rail which is the focus here.

The new Travel SmartRail first campaign has analysed the corporate travel practices of 322 of the world’s biggest companies to see if they are engaged in shifting from air to rail. Let’s see what we found out.

Few rail corporate leaders, a majority sitting back in their plane seat

Out of the 322 companies screened, only 28 have been identified with internal policies to shift from air to rail. Around 90% of the companies in the panel have no actions to shift from air to rail or have not communicated about them. Seven out of the 28 companies are frontrunners due to their higher commitment to shift from air to rail.

To source this information we contacted each of the 322 companies with a survey and used publicly available corporate information  related to rail. For the past six months, we have exchanged  with different multinationals on the shift from air to rail. We wanted to understand the barriers to action. Here are the two main takeaways from these exchanges:

  1. The shift from air to rail is greenfield for many companies. All companies we discussed with are engaged in reducing their climate footprint overall, but mostare lacking concrete internal policies to limit flying. Our most recent publication details best practices by companies across the world and lists five key policies companies can implement to activate the  shift to rail. One starting point is  setting travel climate budgets and bans on flying short distances.
  2. Some companies highlight barriers to the shift to rail. In our exchanges, some businesses regularly pointed out that shifting to rail wasn’t possible due to rail network inefficiencies (e.g. complex ticketing, time lost due to delays or slow trains etc.). While some of the barriers identified are legitimate, I believe not all of them  are. First, because you can be much more productive working on a train than in a plane. But also because companies’ view of the time spent travelling must evolve. The way of working post-pandemic and in a context of increasing climate urgency cannot be the same as before. To say things clearly: a return trip by plane within a day between Berlin and Brussels has  too high a climate impact to be acceptable in our day and age, when the consequences of the climate crisis are already so visible. For the legitimate barriers, we are pushing companies to raise their voices to decision-makers and become advocates for a better rail network that will allow them to more easily shift to rail. Some companies have shown willingness to do so. In October, 70 companies, including IKEA and Unilever, called on the European Commission to legislate on better ticketing (MDMS Regulation) to enablethe shift from air to rail. Having global companies calling for better rail and joining voices with civil societyand the rail industry is the path to follow.

Demand reduction in the aviation sector is required to achieve the Paris Agreement target. As business travellers represent up to 75% of the revenues from some flights, companies must lead the way forward to reduce aviation’s climate impact. The Travel Smart Rail first campaign is the place for them to learn from each other. The journey to reducing flights starts with reducing business travel.

Victor Thévenet
Rail Coordinator

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