As environmental concerns loom large, shorter flights are being called into question and passengers encouraged to take the train instead.

When Lufthansa started running its ‘Donald Duck’ train between Dusseldorf and Frankfurt 30 years ago, Germany’s national airline couldn’t have imagined how it would develop. One of the first high-speed trains, nicknamed for its distinctive yellow and white paint job, its original purpose was to offer airline customers an alternative connection.

Today Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn (DB) have become world leaders in developing rail-air connections (though many other airlines’ customers can also use DB’s rail-air services). In 2022, Deutsche Bahn joined Star Alliance, the only rail operator to be an alliance member.

Rail-air has now evolved from a special train for airline passengers to customers taking regular scheduled services. Multimodal transport solutions are becoming increasingly vital to reduce pressure on airport capacity and provide more sustainable options.

On the right track

The benefits are also increasing. Travellers can now buy a combined rail and flight ticket, which gives them protection from missed connections throughout the journey. Other benefits include the potential for earning extra miles (for Star members), while first and business class passengers can travel first class with DB and use the DB lounge at Frankfurt airport.

However, rail-air connections are not all created equal. Munich for example, Lufthansa’s second hub, is not linked to the mainline network, hence no proper rail-air connection is offered. Customers taking the train to Munich must first arrive at the Central station (Hauptbahnhof) then take the S-Bahn to the airport, which takes around 40 minutes. Better mainline access is planned, but it will take several years.

Fellow Lufthansa Group members, Austrian and Swiss, are also involved in rail-air. Their hubs at Vienna, Zurich and Geneva all have mainline access and both airlines operate rail-air in conjunction with national rail operators. It’s the same with Air France and SNCF, along with KLM and Thalys. These airlines’ hubs are linked to mainline rail. Air France and SNCF are well-advanced with TGVs running from regional points direct to Charles De Gaulle airport.

KLM has been a bit more of a laggard, but in March it launched rail-air between Brussels and Schiphol. Indeed, for some years Schiphol and KLM have been encouraging travellers to arrive by surface transport rather than take a short feeder flight. However, this is easier said than done as many of these short flights serve the UK. At one time it was hoped Eurostar would call at Schiphol, but that hasn’t been possible for reasons including border security, the need for separate terminals and so on.

Signal failure

Despite the benefits of air-rail on paper, it’s not that simple. Airlines preach sustainability but also value their most lucrative customer, the business traveller, so continue to operate short feeder flights from cities that produce lots of business travel. Here I refer to Air France, which continues to fly multiple times a day between Lyon and Paris CDG even though there’s a direct TGV taking just two hours and four minutes, and despite the recent French legislation to stop such flights.

What about KLM? While it has rail-air links with Thalys, it continues to ply Brussels-Amsterdam which, at just over 100 miles, may be Europe’s shortest international route. KLM’s operation of this flight has been condemned by the Netherlands’ Government and the EU on environmental grounds.

But KLM persists because it gains many customers from Brussels who opt to travel via Amsterdam, as the Belgian capital is not well served by long-haul flights. Brussels-based multinationals are also often closer to the airport than a downtown rail station.

Moreover, airlines do not like to rely on a third party to bring them their customers in case of disruption over which they might have no control.

Rail-air may not be welcomed by travellers, either. When Business Traveller has published online news reports, it has generated negative feedback. Readers have cited concerns such as luggage handling and long walking distances between transport services. Another reason why airlines continue to operate domestic feeders, even in Germany, is it can be easier to use a local airport to through-check luggage.

However, with sustainability concerns along with ever-busier airports, rail-air services offer numerous benefits, so we’ll likely see further development of these networks.