Rail or plane: who benefits from the corona crisis?
Deutsche Bahn hopes that it will be able to take passengers from the airlines after the pandemic. But the low-cost airlines are ready for a discount battle.
Traveling abroad by train is sometimes like going back in time. Time flies painfully slowly in the Eurocity from Zurich to Munich. The train creeps towards its destination at an average speed of 66 km / h. In St.Margrethen, Memmingen or Buchloe, a handful of passengers get on each. A diesel locomotive is attached to Lindau. The train needs almost five hours to cover the 300 km route.
Such scenes will soon be a thing of the past. From the end of 2021, the Eurocity will cover the route in just three and a half hours. New trains offer more seats. There is WiFi and on-site service in 1st class on board. The trains run up to seven times a day in each direction.
Austria dusted off the night trains
This modernization is exemplary for international rail passenger transport. After the number of passengers stagnated or even declined for many years, the train goes on the offensive. It is supported by a louder climate movement, the arguments of which the railway cleverly incorporates into its marketing.
In addition, there are extensions and investments: With the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnels, travel times to Italy are significantly reduced and more and larger TGV trains run on the routes to France. The latest generation ICE trains are used in Germany. The Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) have brought night trains across Europe out of their hibernation. They are aimed at a young audience for whom simple online booking is more important than romantic railways.
The efforts have so far paid off. SBB’s transport performance in international passenger transport rose by seven percent in 2019. There was a decline in the previous year. Now the international trains are facing a break. Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, there are no Eurocitys, night trains or ICEs. Nobody knows how long travel restrictions will still apply. And the ordeal is just around the corner: will train traffic recover after the crisis? Are the passengers coming back or are they increasingly relying on low-cost airlines?
Expansion of train connections paused
For now, expansion plans for new international connections should be put on hold. An SBB spokesman answered evasively to a corresponding question: “The ongoing effects of the lockdown are taken into account,” he says with a view to the future offer. The ÖBB assume that “it will certainly take some time before the passenger numbers rise to the level before the crisis.” When that would be the case is not yet foreseeable. At Deutsche Bahn, a spokesman does not even want to make a vague forecast: “It is simply impossible”.
Timo Ohnmacht is a traffic sociologist at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences. He is certain that the crisis will be overcome. He suspects that the demand for trips abroad will even increase in the short term after the crisis. A precise forecast is not possible. “However, it is known from time series analyzes that crises such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, natural disasters or regional instabilities and wars were only temporary.” After a crisis, tourist activities returned to normal levels.
“The crisis is an opportunity for the railways”
Fainting says that we will be mobile to the same extent in the future, but with different demands on providers and passengers. «Hygiene is required more. This includes contactless payment or fabric covers for the headrest. » The crisis could be an opportunity for Deutsche Bahn: “People’s behavior has now adapted. The question is how to get demand going again with attractive offers. The railways have the opportunity to reposition themselves. » Railway representatives also hope that the crisis will play into their cards. SBB board chairwoman Monika Ribar said last week: “The need to travel across the border will not go away. This will increasingly happen in Europe by train. »
So far, Swiss have used the plane far more frequently than the train when traveling with overnight stays: in 2018, 31.5 percent of the plane was the main mode of transport, and only 17.1 percent of the train. Trains have a good chance of competing with destinations that can be reached in up to four hours by car. Traffic expert Ohnmacht is now advocating that the airlines should not be given government aid in the current situation. “It would be desirable for the market to regulate this without government financial support. That would also benefit the climate. » Airlines calculated too little and their tickets were too cheap, “which is why they start to falter even with the smallest drop in demand.”
Discount battle after the crisis?
But the competition from the air hardly disappears. On the one hand, it is agreed that the state will help airlines – in Switzerland, for example, with loans for Swiss, Edelweiss and Easyjet Switzerland. On the other hand, low-cost carriers, i.e. low-cost airlines such as Easyjet, Ryanair or Wizz Air, are particularly well capitalized. Easyjet announced on Thursday that it would raise cash to nearly € 4 billion. The airline could survive nine months without even flying.
According to an analysis by Bernstein Research, Wizz would have cash to survive a three-year freeze, Ryanair would run out of money after two years. This puts them in a much better position than the major network airlines such as Lufthansa with Swiss, Air France-KLM or IAG with British Airways and Iberia.
Low-cost airlines are likely to boost demand with combat prices after the crisis. Your low cost base helps. Easyjet has already published the winter flight schedule. The airline flies from Zurich to London for CHF 34, and charges CHF 20 for the flight from Basel to Berlin. By train, this connection costs at least three times. Against such prices, not only the railways are powerless, but also Swiss and Co.
Demand dampened for years to come
Christian Laesser, Professor of Tourism and Service Management at the University of St.Gallen, believes that low-cost airlines have an advantage. “They operate individual flights from one point to another. Such an operation can be started up faster than that of a network airline like Swiss. » With this, the resumption of a long-haul flight is only possible if feeder flights also work on the short-haul flight.
Laesser doesn’t believe in a quick recovery. He says the crisis and its effects will dampen the demand for mobility for years, both by rail and by air. “Business trips could be reduced considerably for a long time to come,” he says. “Many companies are now implementing cost-cutting programs.” A cooling had already emerged before the crisis. Private individuals would also put the brakes on: “The fact that you no longer want to spend so much money on activities such as holidays or leisure will continue for a while.”
«It’s easier to keep your distance on the train»
In addition, the crisis disproportionately affects younger people. “They suffer most from short-time work and layoffs.” However, this group has nourished growth in low-cost airlines and train travel in the past. The train has a slight advantage, says Laesser: «It is much easier to keep longer distances on the train. Ultimately, rail could benefit from this in competition. »
The industry concerned does not see a rapid recovery either. A Swiss spokeswoman says, for example: “In our estimation, it will take years before global air travel demand returns to pre-crisis levels.”
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