There is no doubt that Sir Richard Branson is completely right when he suggests British people should stop taking domestic flights as a way of reducing the environmental damage caused by increased air travel.

The billionaire behind the Virgin empire highlights the London-Manchester air route as a prime example of a regular and popular flight that should be scrapped in favour of alternative modes of transport (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,1980301,00.html).

And what are those alternatives? Well there’s road, of course, either in your own car or by bus and coach.

Then there’s rail – such as Virgin’s Cross-City and West Coast services. Hang on, isn’t there a little conflict of interest there?

Plus the timing is questionable at best, coming a few days after yet another tranche of inflation-busting fare increases on the rail network.

Don’t take the cheap option folks and go by air, dig much deeper into those pockets and fork out for a train ticket instead.

There’s also the fact that this is the same Virgin which is also expanding its long-haul air routes.

It is a brave attempt by Sir Richard to raise what, without doubt, is a crucially important feature of a wider environmental debate. He makes his suggestion in the Friends of the Earth’s (http://www.foe.co.uk) magazine, Earthmatters, where he also talks about the £1.6bn Virgin is investing in “greener fuels”.

But he also opens himself up to accusations of adopting a “do as I say, don’t do as I do” attitude. It is an unfair criticism, but it is also one he won’t escape from because of the fact that he presides over such a successful and expanding airline business and also controls one of the biggest rail companies in the UK.

There’s also questions about the quality, punctuality and level of service provided by Virgin Trains – personally, I’d almost always prefer to go with the slower but clean, comfortable and efficient Chiltern route from Birmingham to London rather than Virgin’s services from New Street to Euston.

It is unfortunate, Sir Richard is the type of high-profile business leader required to kick-start an informed and coherent debate on travel and the environment.

There is merit in what he says. But there is also little hope of escaping from who he is and why any comments could be interpreted as being more than a little self-serving.

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