Air vs Rail: Airports and airlines take a new train of thought on partnerships for the 21st century

DeeDee Doke/LONDON Julian Moxon/PARIS

As growing numbers of aircraft crowd European skies, more and more airline and airport operators are turning their attention to a ground force to relieve the congestion.

Across Europe, the newest solutions to moving passengers quickly between major hubs and smaller industrial centres involve rail - air travel's older transport relation - much to the chagrin of regional airlines.

From France to Sweden, the air transport industry major league's pioneering spirit in this effort is driven more by need than by a desire to share its influence and ever-increasing customer base.

"It's not economical to fly a 300km (162 nm) sector. You pay so much in landing fees," says Andrew Sharp, director general of the Heathrow-based International Air Rail Organisation (IARO).

The organisation's members include airports, airlines, railways and the supply industry. Its aim is to increase market share by improving existing rail links to airports and through promoting new ones by sharing practical ideas and world-class best practices.

But landing fees and slot utilisation are not the only consideration. Contributing factors that make air-rail partnerships attractive to key players include the crowded skies and continuing air traffic delays, pollution concerns, the smooth flow of passengers, and government pressure to create a new infrastructure to support increasing ground traffic that in turn feeds the air traffic.

Seventy airports around the world have some form of air-rail link today. In 1998, 10 airports opened rail links. In 2001, 14 are to open. "And about 140 are planned or thought about," Sharp says. "A lot of them are in the [United] States."

Nearly as many different types of air-rail services exist as there are reasons for forming them. Sharp outlines five different primary varieties:

A high-speed network serving various industrial centres such as France's TGV; A high-speed, dedicated airport link such as Stockholm's Arlanda Express and London's Heathrow Express; Regional rail services; Metro-suburban services, such as the London Underground and Paris Metro; Light-rail transit, such as those serving Bremen, Germany; Portland, Oregon; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Growing fastest of all are high-speed dedicated airport links, Sharp says, which reduce pressures on neighbouring roadways and parking facilities while delivering steady streams of travellers to and from the airport. One of the newest, the Arlanda Express, was created as a condition of the airport's receiving permission to build a third runway.

But while such industry-leaders as American Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines are throwing their considerable weight behind various air-rail initiatives, the trend's gloss is lost on their less influential associates. "If you are a regional airline, this is not good news," Sharp concedes.

Simon McNamara, European Regions Airline Association (ERA) manager for infrastructure and environment, agrees: "As far as ERA is concerned, air and rail are becoming more competitive at all levels. What we would like to see is that rail and air compete equally. We've always had a suspicion that rail enjoys enormous subsidies which allow them to have a competitive edge over air, which has had to pay its own way in terms of infrastructure."

A recent ERA report entitled "Financial Subsidies in Rail Transport" claims that in 1997 - the year for which the most recent data was available - 14 rail companies in 12 European countries received a total direct subsidy of c12.3 billion ($11.2 billion) on a total operating income Europe-wide of c59.8 billion. Subsidies per 100 passenger/km ranged from c0.55 to c17.48, the report says. On average, it goes on to say, subsidies represented 38% of the subsidised rail companies' total income.

McNamara emphasises that the air transport industry in Europe suffers from nagging infrastructure problems that contribute to air traffic delays and adversely affect its ability to compete with rail on a level playing ground. In the ERA report he suggests that, judging from their investments, "both national governments and the European Commission (EC) appear to favour road and rail transport".

"If Europe is to have an effective multimodal transport system," McNamara says, "it is vital that all compete on an equal basis. In this way, the end user would be offered the best possible service and value for money, and the tax payer would no longer have to finance a major proportion of Europe's transport network." In the report foreword, ERA director general Mike Ambrose urges the EC to address "the imbalance without delay" of rail's "substantial economic advantage".

Some small airports, too, are feeling the pinch in the tightening bond between air and rail. According to an IARO newsletter, Denmark's Odense airport has shut down, others are on the endangered list, and domestic air traffic has decreased by 30% as a result of increased regional rail linkages that feed into Copenhagen Airport.

Nevertheless, Sharp predicts "a big future" for high-speed rail services that link the large hubs with major regional centres because of rising pressures to rely less on finite opportunities for airport infrastructure construction and to increasingly address cost and environmental concerns.

But Sharp acknowledges that some destinations simply do not fit the bill as candidates with which to replace an air route with rail.

"Belfast to London is the classic example of this," Sharp says of the Northern Ireland and UK capitals, which are separated by significant land mass as well as the Irish Sea. "You can't duplicate it by rail."


France has by far the world's largest network of railways dedicated to high-speed trains, with 1,500km of track extending from Paris to the rest of the country and as much again due for introduction over the next few years.

As such, French railway system SNCF presents a major target for airlines wishing to develop onward connections to regional destinations in the country, and it has not been slow in promoting itself as an alternative to regional air travel. With TGVs operating at 300km/h (190mph) the high-speed train presents a real challenge to aircraft on shorter routes. SNCF limits its train/aircraft offer to routes of less then 3h, where the advantages of city centre to city centre routings provide real competition to regional aircraft working from airports that are often located far from the city.

To date, SNCF has signed up four airlines - Air France, United, American and Lufthansa - for train/aircraft agreements. It makes no secret, however, of the difficulties of merging two totally different infrastructures to provide a seamless service to passengers. "We're working on the problems of tickets, which are still provided solely by the airlines and travel agencies, and of baggage handling," says SNCF manager for partnerships, Véronique Teynier. "We are still quite a long way from being able to offer passengers the same facilities as the airlines when they arrive at stations for an onward connection by air", she adds. "Not only are there important cultural issues, but reservation systems."

There are still very few TGV stations linked directly to airports - the two examples in France are at Charles de Gaulle, where a new station has been included in the growing Terminal 2 complex, and at Lyon-Part Dieu. Both are ultra-modern installations and provide airlines with entry points at geographically widely separated points with combined high-speed train connections to an increasing number of destinations.

While not divulging passenger growth figures for individual airlines, Teynier says the global figure over the last six months for those with which agreements have been forged is "around 30%". This is set to continue, she adds. "We think we'll see intermodal passenger traffic growing from 30,000 today to 1.5 million within five years."

The first agreement to be signed was with Air France, in July 1995, covering connections between Charles de Gaulle and Lille-Europe. The next, signed shortly afterwards, was with United Airlines, for onward connections from Paris to Lyon-Part Dieu. Lufthansa followed in February 1999, with connections to Lyon, Nantes and Tours, and the deal with Air France was extended the following September to include Angers, Le Mans, Lyon, Poitiers and Tours. The second US airline, American, then joined in December 1999, for connections to Lyon, Lille and Nantes, and this March the agreement with United was expanded to include Angers, Le Mans, Nantes, Rennes, Poitiers, Tours, Bordeaux and Lille.

That airlines have chosen to extend their existing agreements provides strong evidence that the scheme, while still in its early days, is working, says Teynier. She reveals that a "large number" of other airlines are now knocking at SNCF's door looking to join the scheme. "We're open to working with all of them - but we have to look at the benefits for us".

With this in mind, SNCF is preparing a major strategic plan for its long-term relationship with airlines, which is due in the autumn. It is also talking extensively to the French civil aviation authority and the customs and police services about how to deal with the bilateral arrangements necessary to allow seamless travel to and from French regional TGV stations and foreign countries. While European destinations present minimal difficulties, Teynier says that for those located further afield "we have to look at the costs involved in setting up suitable security arrangements and so on".

The strategic plan will be centred around the fundamental decision on what kind of relationship SNCF wants with the airline industry. "We are aware that there is a major evolution going on with regard to global alliances," says Teynier. "We're paying a great deal of attention to this because the groupings represent huge blocks of airlines which together account for two-thirds of world traffic. The keys as far as we're concerned are the levels of service that are tied up with any alliance and how to merge our respective frequent flier offers". [SNCF operates a system called Grand Voyageur]

"We think it will be a big strategic plus for our chosen partner or partners to be able to penetrate the French market, which is one of the most active in the world," says Teynier. "So we are asking 'is it in our best interests to work with a privileged alliance with one airline - or airline grouping - only, and if so which one, or should we work with all of them?"

Given their common knowledge of the market, a deal with Air France and its SkyTeam alliance partners Delta/Korean Air/Aeromexico partners would seem to offer advantages. But Teynier points to the "very strong natural competition" with the French national carrier. She admits, however, that SNCF is "talking very deeply with Air France because they have the biggest volume of traffic into the country and therefore could provide the biggest potential market". She adds "We will decide in the autumn. At the moment, everything and anything is possible."


"The challenge is, you have to be successful in establishing co-operation between two very different modes of transport," says Wolfgang Weinert, Lufthansa's project manager for intermodal transport. "The railway people must act as an airline, and some airline people have to think in terms of being a railway. If you can bring the two together, you have it made."


In making these comments, Weinert is looking ahead to the gradual introduction, in conjunction with German railway system Deutsche Bahn, of high-speed trains known as the InterCity Express (ICE) to replace certain Lufthansa short-haul routes in Germany. Averaging 160 km per sector, the routes targeted by Lufthansa are between Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, Cologne/Bonn, and Stuttgart - "all are historically loss-makers," Weinert says. "But we can't just abolish them; we need the feed for the international market."

Lufthansa has not yet developed projections for anticipated savings, but Weinert says the key goal is to "get rid of the loss-makers". About 20,000 flight movements could be affected annually, which is less than 5% of Frankfurt airport's current capacity.

The Stuttgart-Frankfurt route will be the first in the partnership, with the rail service to begin on 1 March 2001. Flight check-in and check-out will be conducted at Stuttgart's main railway station, and checked baggage en route between locations will be transported in containers.

Flight time between the two cities, which is roughly an hour, will be matched closely by the rail connection. "We expect to stay within five and 10 minutes," Weinert says.

The rail spokes between the Frankfurt hub and the other cities will be added later, probably in 2002. One reason is to perfect the Stuttgart operation "and get experience with logistics and other problems", Weinert says. Another is the 2002 opening of the high-speed track to Cologne, which will cut the 2h rail travel time between Frankfurt and Cologne by half, Weinert says.

ICE's installation in Germany in 1990 led to "substantial losses" for Lufthansa's local traffic on the Hannover-Frankfurt route, the airline says. According to its analyses, any air service inside a block-time of 1h could fall prey to high-speed trains, if the train trip does not take longer than 2h, the train costs less than the flight and it offers at least the same frequency of service. On the other hand, air service inside a block-time of 1h may survive if the competing train trip takes more than 2h, the air fare is "very competitive" and the frequency of flights is "extremely high".

Lufthansa says the success of intermodal air/rail projects depends on offering "a seamless product" in which transferring from aircraft to train must be as simple as from one flight to another. Requirements for that seamlessness, Lufthansa says, include:

trains must be available and bookable through computer reservation systems; airline tickets must be valid for train rides; passenger and baggage check-in must occur at the point of origin; baggage claim and customs services must be available at the final destination, whether it is train station or airport.


In Scandinavia, the new Øresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden is not only instrumental to developing a new economic growth centre in the Oresund region between Greater Copenhagen and Sweden's Skäne area. The bridge, which opened 1 July, also promises to form a strategic bond between Copenhagen airport and Malmö-Sturup airport, located about 45km apart.


A rail link between the two countries already exists on the new bridge, but a feasibility study on providing a direct link between the two airports determined that air traffic would "increase somewhat more rapidly" there than elsewhere in the region if the airport link was created.

"We are now entering a main study that will cost an estimated c1 million and be completed by the end of 2001," says Stefan Karlsson, Sturup's airport manager.

Half the study's cost will be paid for by the European Union. Among the contributors of the remaining funding will be Sturup airport, regional rail authorities and communities. Copenhagen's airport is "not financially" contributing, "but Denmark supports the link to Sturup airport," Karlsson adds.

Such a line could reasonably be described as "the missing link" in the region's rail services. Copenhagen airport manager Niels Boserup points out that a railroad line already lies "relatively close" to Sturup, requiring only a short-line linkup with the Swedish airport. Across the border in Denmark, a railway link between Scandinavia and Europe passes through Copenhagen's airport, and Copenhagen's downtown is also linked to its primary airport by rail. "I find it a good idea that short haul traffic is relieved by rail," Boserup says.

The Øresund region sees, combined, about 20 million airline passengers today, and between 40 million and 52 million are anticipated for the year 2010. Sturup handles 2 million passengers a year. About half the 17.5 million passengers travelling through Copenhagen's airport annually are transfer passengers, Boserup says.

While Boserup doubts that "anyone [airlines] will move out of Copenhagen [airport] of their own free will", he suggests that the increasing air traffic and competition for slots in peak hours could help "a few airlines see advantages of moving to Sturup. If a rail link is built with a dedicated train, I think more airlines would be interested.".

"Capacity in both airports will be scarce in the future. It is important to use the airports in the smartest way possible," says Karlsson. "We think this cooperation between Sturup and Copenhagen airports will grow in many ways, in marketing and in distribution, for example."

If the main study confirms the benefits its organisers expect, the rail link between the two airports could be completed by 2008 - "and by that time, there will be enough passengers to make it profitable," Karlsson says.

Source: Flight International