Cars, buses and trains outdo planes for short journeys

With the increase in the number and frequency of Vande Bharat trains, care should be taken to spread facilities for their maintenance and repair across the land
With the increase in the number and frequency of Vande Bharat trains, care should be taken to spread facilities for their maintenance and repair across the land


  • Travelling by road is faster and less harmful to the environment — not to mention cheaper — than many short-haul flights

Faster trains and better roads that cut travel time are eating into the market for short-haul flights, says a news report. This is welcome for a number of reasons.

First, short haul flights may not be time-saving at all if you include the time it takes to reach the airport in most cities. The ‘short’ in short-haul flights is defined by a comparison of the cumulative time it takes to travel by air and by road or train. This includes not just the journey time between the point of departure and the point of arrival, but also the time it takes to reach the departure terminal (for plane, train or bus) from your home or office, the time it takes to board your plane, train or bus, disembark at the destination, and find your way to yous final destination. If you travel by car, leaving the city and reaching your final destination can be simpler as you may not have to enter the crowded city centre.

Such comparisons of the time taken from start to finish would render many short-haul flights unattractive in comparison to travel by road or rail, even for those for whom cost is not a consideration.

Second, the total cost is likely higher in most cases, given the real-world economics of running airlines. Those who factor in the cost, too, would be willing to make a trade-off between the additional time taken by surface transport and the premium built into airfares. Right now, airfares reflect the paucity of planes in Indian fleets, with about 75 planes being grounded for assorted reasons. The paucity of planes and the short supply of pilots make flights more expensive than they ought to be. This artificially jacks up the cost-competitiveness of surface transport. This means the relative appeal of surface transport may be transient.

Even then, it would make sense to expand surface travel capacity by pricing fares correctly and investing surpluses garnered from train and bus tickets.

Finally, the hidden and unobvious costs of flying are higher. The global warming externality of air travel is not priced into airfares right now. If that were done, the incentive to expand surface transport would grow stronger. India is determined to reduce the emission-intensity of its economic activity sharply. Road and rail transport are conceptually simpler to clean up than aviation and shipping. Trains can be moved solely by electric power, and so can cars and buses. Green hydrogen that generates electricity in fuel cells to power cars and buses is another possibility.

Neither planes nor ships can carry electric batteries large enough to keep them going for the long distances they are intended for without significantly eating into the payload capacity. Until synthetic fuels, including biofuels, go mainstream or some other technological breakthrough rescues aviation and shipping from reliance on fossil fuels, the more we substitute planes and ships with road transport, the better off the climate would be.

There are several things the government can do to boost the ongoing substitution of aviation by surface transport. Improving the quality of roads, and minimizing traffic stops on major roads with flyovers and turnpikes are two ways of achieving this. Installing charging infrastructure along road networks for increasingly common electric vehicles is another.

There could be more creative solutions as well. Take two places that could be traversed by an overnight train journey. If the train affords comfortable sleep and the disembarking station offers clean and convenient facilities for passengers to freshen up, surface travel will become even more competitive vis-a-vis air travel. The traveller can complete his business during the day and return home on the next overnight train.

The idea should not be to discourage air travel. India is a land of great distances, not only between states, but also within states. The option of travelling by air should be made available by building more – and more efficient – airports, running regional flights and by building more regional hubs.

Even as aviation facilities and aviation opportunities expand, the goal should be to optimize resource use in transportation by letting different modes of transport compete in terms of time and cost.

With the increase in the number and frequency of Vande Bharat trains, care should be taken to spread facilities for their maintenance and repair across the land, wherever they travel. Track maintenance and quality of signalling are also crucial to reassuring people of the safety of train travel.

Optimise safety, comfort and costs for all modes of travel, and travellers will optimise the use of their resources.

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