The battle lines are being drawn. Modern travellers are increasingly aware of the effect their travel has on the environment, and the industry is rushing to reassure them that all that can be done is being done. Last week Sir Richard Branson announced a new initiative to try and cut aviation emissions of CO2, and now Eurostar has joined the fray.
Independent research conducted by the train company has concluded it remains easily the greenest way to travel between London, Paris and Brussels. When it comes to greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions, the research suggests that passengers who fly to either city generate 10 times more CO2 emissions than travellers who take the train.
The research, conducted by a consortium of Paul Watkiss Associates and AEA Technology Environment, shows that each passenger on a return flight between Heathrow and CDG generates 122 kg of CO2 compared with 11 kg by train. The figures for London-Brussels were 160 and 18 kg respectively.
Says Richard Brown, Eurostar's CEO, "The research shows that travelling by Eurostar is less environmentally damaging than flying by a factor of ten. A Eurostar passenger generates enough CO2 to fill a Mini, while an airline passenger generates enough to fill a double-decker bus. Business passengers and leisure travellers are increasingly demanding factual information about the environmental impact of their travel plans and what they can do to reduce emissions of gases which are causing climate change."
What complicates the picture slightly is that Eurostar runs on electricity and, like all modern high-speed trains (Italy's Pendolino, France's TGV, Germany's ICE), it consumes a large amount of energy to both achieve its high speeds and power its air-conditioning and other systems. Generating this electricity in turn creates CO2, but what saves Eurostar is cleaner French electricity, electricity that is mostly generated by nuclear power rather than dirty UK electricity which is mostly generated by fossil fuels.
Eurostar operates over British track (and thus consumes UK power) for some 110 km of the 490 km distance between London and Paris. The research allowed a 50/50 UK/French power split for the 50 km Channel Tunnel section with French power being used for the final 330 km or so to Paris. As a result, this pushed down the CO2 emissions even further.
The report also acknowledges that Eurostar will become slightly less green from 2007 since use of the high-speed link between St Pancras and Ebsfleet (still under construction) will increase energy consumption.
But not everyone is travelling from London. Hundreds of thousands of travellers fly to Paris and Brussels from the regions, so should they feel guilty? Perhaps not.
Tagging on a rail connection from the regions to London by diesel train from the West Country or Pendolino from the Midlands wouldn't be so green, and as the crow flies the distance by air is much less than travelling overland by train would be. For example, the number of extra km by air to Paris from Exeter rather than London is 119, compared to 277 by rail, while from Birmingham the figures are 150 and 182 (plus a cross London transfer) respectively.
In addition, flights on these routes push out less C02 per mile either because they are operated by more environmentally friendly aircraft (such as Flybe's Dash 8-400 turbo-props from Exeter) or because regional airports are less congested and/or planes spend less time in climb and descent.
Eurostar should be applauded for bringing the subject to the forefront of our minds, but when examining the claims in this area, be aware that comparing the green credentials of one mode of transportation with another isn't as simple as you might think.
For more information go to eurostar.com.
Report by Alex McWhirter