Travelling soon ? Two wings bad, four wheels bad, steel wheels good.

As broached in a previous article, Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief the conflicting aims of enacting physical distancing and using public mass transit.

However, when it comes to distancing oneself from fellow travelers, some travel options are clearly and truly worse than others. And research shows that the best night trains easily outshine the competition.

At the bottom of the physical distancing league lies the airplane

Flying is costly, but airfares want to be cheap. As a result, airlines rely on packing people as tightly as possible in flying tubes, with as few empty seats as possible and as little distance between each passenger as can be tolerated.

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What is hard to fathom is the degree of packing that we had already been accepting in the name of cheap prices : the densities that are achieved on short-haul aircraft can exceed those of an urban metro. The Lille VAL, for instance, has a design capacity of 4 people per square meter (6 at peak), affording each passenger 0.8 cubic meters of onboard space.That is 10 % more space than on an short-haul Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.

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Sources : airplane manufacturers, airlines, author’s calculations. Note : aisles are included but non-seating areas (galleys and entryways) are excluded.

In narrow-body planes, a 1-meter physical distance between passengers is an economic impossibility, even if full use were made of the 2.1 to 2.5-meter ceiling height that most planes provide. This is something Michael O’Leary realizes only too well :

The middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway.

Abrupt, perhaps, but quite lucid…

Ridesharing and long-distance coaches are almost as bad as flying when it comes to social distancing

Looking at road transportation options, beginning with rideshare services such as Blablacar, brings little comfort.

The reason : a full car is not much roomier than a full plane. What’s more, for a given distance, one will be spending a lot more time in it to boot. What one does have, however, is a tiny level of extra control over who one is sharing with (note : Blablacar currently limits each driver to a single passenger).

Long-distance coaches, like the ubiquitous Flixbus, give their passengers a bit more volume thanks to higher cabin ceilings, but they are also slower than cars so will force someone taking them sit in close proximity to strangers for even longer.

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Sources : manufacturers, author’s calculations.

Trains are surprisingly effective at providing mobile space. Night trains are among the very best.

Calculations show that trains, of all the long-distance transit modes, turn out to be the best at providing personal space to their passengers. The spread of open-plan designs means that that space is not really « privatized », but rail does hit a sweet spot in balancing speed, affordability and roominess.

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Sources : Heros Rail, SNCF, archive material including Wagon-Lits, author’s calculations.

And, at the very top of the rail leagues lie many night trains.

In terms of space per passenger, nothing in regular service in Europe today can equal the famous pre-war Orient Express LX carriages. These carriages gave each of their passengers an astounding amount of volume, at the cost of a low passenger count per rail carriage, and thus high prices (luxurious service levels didn’t help).

Orient Express cut-out

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Without resorting to these extremes of trips in the hundreds of euros, some 1990s-vintage double-decker night carriages can still be found on a few ÖBB trains from Zürich.

They offer an impressive 5+ cubic meters per passenger, almost 7 times the space per person of a short-haul plane seat. But the price, while usually higher than a flight, remains affordable to many.

If night trains are to become popular again, these types of carriages, with maximum interior space and the possibility to give each person their privacy, should definitely be investigated.

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What next ? Getting travel from faster to better.

Done properly, trains can provide a level of biosecurity in travel unthinkable in current airplanes be they short- or long-haul, or in road-based transportation.

People have, for good reason, grown more aware of the hazards of proximity in the past few months. If that feeling lasts, then the role of trains can only grow, regardless of the other benefits they provide.

However, there is a trade-off to better protection, in terms of longer travel times caused by lower speeds. The success of safer travel formulas will thus depend on a shift in people’s priorities from faster to better.

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