Take the Train: France to Ban Short Flights

If you can get there in two-and-a-half hours by train, you won't have an option to fly.

TGV Train
TGV Atlantique.

Loic Lagarde, Getty Images

The French National Assembly voted to ban flights within France where there are alternatives that take less than two-and-a-half hours, like the TGV highspeed train. It's making news all over the world as an effort to reduce carbon emissions, but there is actually less to this than it seems.

  1. President Emmanuel Macron's Climate Convention citizens panel recommended a four-hour limit (PDF in French) but that got watered down, leaving the biggest and most popular flights, like Paris to Nice or Toulouse, in place. This has outraged the environmentalists and the Green Party. However, the unions and the socialists are angered by the ban because of the “disproportionate human cost” and job losses in the aviation industry. (In French politics, everyone is always outraged.)
  2. The French government already forced Air France to abandon short routes in its recent $8.3 billion bailout deal; the ban really is designed to keep Air France's low-cost competitors from grabbing the routes. As Leo Murray, the co-founder of climate charity Possible, noted in an op-ed for The Guardian: "The partly state-owned airline complained that the ban should apply to other airlines too." A cynic might point out that the government is protecting its investment.
  3. You have to wonder, why would anyone take a plane for such a short trip anyway? A flight from Paris Orly to Nantes takes one hour and five minutes, not including schlepping to the airport and going through security. The fastest TGV from Gare Montparnasse to Downtown Nantes takes two hours and nine minutes. As the French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari noted in the debate, "When there is a robust alternative, usually clients switch to trains... Each time high-speed lines have competed with flights, we have noticed that trains have largely drained (airline passengers)."

So in the end, nobody is really happy with the compromise: the environmentalists wanted four hours, the Airbus workers in Toulouse wanted zero hours, the longer flights continue. But also, nobody is really inconvenienced very much because the train options are so efficient. Not much to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Back in the USA ...

Acela Train

Juha Uitto/ Getty Images

The distance from Paris to Nantes is 238 miles and the train zips there at 200 mph in just over two hours. The distance from New York City to Boston is 220 miles and according to Tripsavvy, the fastest Acela train is a three-hour-and-40 minute trip and it is often cheaper to fly. The "high speed" Acela can go up to 150 mph but averages 66 mph between New York City and Boston because of the quality of the tracks.

Bloomberg reported earlier this year that there is a proposal on the table — the North American Rail Project — to run electric trains at 200 mph from New York City to Boston in 100 minutes. Estimated cost: $105 billion. Estimated construction time: 20 years.

The most interesting thing about the French debate is that they can actually have it at all since the TGV infrastructure is in place, built over the last 30 years. They have a choice, and it is not such a tough one to make. In North America, we can only dream of such things.