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Does the double threat of cheaper high-speed rail and sustainability awareness pose a serious risk to the popularity of the Barcelona-Madrid air shuttle?

  • Could France’s implemention of a ban on short-haul domestic flights, effective immediately, as part of a commitment to reduce carbon emissions set a precedent for other countries?
  • Ahead of Phocuswright Europe, which will be held in Barcelona in June, Mabrian and Phocuswright have produced a joint study on the potential impact of implementing this measure in Spain, including a case study of the Barcelona-Madrid air shuttle.
  • Data shows that air passengers generate over double the carbon footprint to cover the exact same route when compared to going by high-speed rail.

Just 630 kilometres separate Barcelona and Madrid, a distance that high-speed trains can travel in just 2.5 hours. However in the past 12 months, there have been 5,744 flights between the two cities, offering a total of 1.17 million seats. While the connectivity of the air shuttle is expected to grow by 10% in 2023 compared to 2022, it remains 22% below the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

According to a report by Ecopassenger.org and UIF, high-speed trains emit around 17.2 kg of CO2 per passenger and journey, which can be further reduced to 9.6 kg per passenger and journey when using renewable energy sources. According to the most recent Mabrian data, this represents less than half of the carbon footprint associated with air travel. Specifically, the average carbon footprint per passenger on the BCN-MAD air route is 40 kg of CO2.

According to calculations by Mabrian, the total CO2 emissions generated by the air shuttle service in the past 12 months would amount to approximately 54,000 tones. This figure represents a 132% increase in emissions over the 27,000 tonnes that high-speed trains would emit with the same number of passengers.

On average, there are 21 high-speed train routes and 16 air connections operating daily between Barcelona and Madrid. Currently, four train companies (AVE, AVLO, OUIGO, and IRYO) and three airlines (Iberia, Vueling, and Air Europa) provide regular services on these routes.

When comparing prices, it is worth noting that the average ticket price for a high-speed train journey between Barcelona and Madrid is around €86 (according to Trenes.com), while the average airfare for the shuttle service was approximately €89 per trip in the past 12 months. Thus, the prices between the two modes of transport are quite similar.

In terms of time, it is essential to consider that the air shuttle service may have an advantage over the train due to its faster travel. However, it is important to reinforce the benefits of trains as well. Trains generally offer the convenience of departing from within cities, whereas airports are often located outside urban areas, resulting in additional energy consumption and transportation costs. In terms of total plane travel time, the total travel time from Barcelona to Madrid is 3.5 hours, in contrast, high-speed trains complete the journey in 2.5 hours.

Furthermore, when examining the trends in seat capacity in the years leading up to the pandemic, it is evident that the air shuttle service faced increasing competition from high-speed trains. The train operators have been expanding their offerings and attracting more passengers, posing a threat to the sustainability and future viability of the air shuttle between Barcelona and Madrid.

According to a recent study by Phocuswright – whose annual Phocuswright Europe event will take place in June in Barcelona – this situation could be due to more competition in Spanish rail, since it was liberalised in December 2020. The first new entrant, Ouigo (SNCF), initiated service in May 2021 via the Madrid-Barcelona route, while the Italian joint venture Iryo (Trenitalia) began service in November 2022 on the same route. In 2023, both operators will gradually expand their services to other high-speed routes, such as Madrid-Valencia and Madrid-Seville-Málaga. However, the new competition is already impacting rail prices. According to a recent Trainline survey, prices have dropped 43% on the now highly competitive Madrid-Barcelona route, while the volume of tickets sold quadrupled between May 2021–22 compared to the period between April 2019­–20.

“The French government’s regulation is a very significant precedent in Europe for reconsidering the efficiency of short-haul air travel. In the short term, Spain’s extensive high-speed rail infrastructure can help simulate such restrictions. Now, we must determine whether rail capacity could expand sufficiently to meet the total demand for these trips. This calculation must also account for the impact of the rise of remote working, which is already reducing business travel on these routes.”

Carlos Cendra, Sales and Marketing Director at Mabrian

“There’s a growing share of consumers that are eager to act on sustainable travel when making trip-related decisions. How to get to a destination, which travel products to choose and what to eat are all considered through the lens of their environmental impact. According to Phocuswright’s research report Sustainability in European Travel 2021, more than two in three travelers in all countries are likely to fly less to reduce their carbon footprint. In Spain, more than one in three intend to use rail more frequently for future trips.”

Eugene Ko, director of marketing and communications, Phocuswright

Phocuswright Europe, taking place at Barceló Sants Hotel in Barcelona, 12-14 June, brings the most influential travel industry executives together for inspiration, insights and connection.  

The program, based off the 2023 theme of Travellers. Titans. Trailblazers., focuses on the optimism from the newest innovations, shifting demand that bring opportunities and the advantage of size, incumbency and trust.  

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