Integrated international travel – the challenge ahead
A ticket to ride (to the border)
The advent of budget airlines in the 1990s was a disaster for international rail travel in Europe. Suddenly it was possible to book a single ticket and travel almost anywhere quickly and cheaply. But the love affair with cheap flights brought with it congestion in the skies and at airports, and the steady tightening of security together with increasing environmental awareness and the development of the high-speed rail network means the balance has begun to shift once more in rail’s favour.
With fast, clean, and comfortable modern high-speed trains linking many of Europe’s major centres, rail is now a highly-attractive alternative on many routes. But while the air passenger generally has one ticket and one airline, the international rail traveller often faces the bewildering complexities and inconsistencies of interfacing with several different operators before and during their journey.
Many train trips begin on the internet and there are few better places to start than The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com). The website is run by Mark Smith a career railwayman who worked for British Rail before joining the Department for Transport managing the team that regulates fares and ticketing. Smith has travelled the world by train and combined with his industry experience this gives him a unique insight into the intricacies of planning an international train journey.
Ticketing is a key element of the passenger experience and for international rail travellers it can often pose challenges. “Each operator has their own website, so planning multi-leg journey often becomes a nightmare,” he explains. “For example if you book Amsterdam – Zürich on the DB website it shows the full international fare, but if you break the same journey across national websites you can get national discounts. The French system can’t mix and match fare types and prices. Outside Britain, France and Belgium, the Eurostar website only allows you to book to a very limited range of destinations.”
Furthermore, different websites often produce different results. “London – Amsterdam is one of the busiest air routes in Europe, but the journey time by rail is competitive so it should be easy to take the train,” says Smith. “Often the Eurostar website shows fares of over £200 when a £69 return to Brussels is often available on the same train, and you can book a separate ticket for the Brussels – Amsterdam leg for as little as £21.”
Competition versus cooperation
Smith believes that contrary to the goals of policymakers, the gradual liberalisation of Europe’s railways has exacerbated the complications of international rail travel by pitting operators against each other. “There has been a push for competition by the EU, so operators are weary of working together when in reality this is the one thing international passengers really need them to do,” he says.
Another issue is the booking horizon, which is sometimes squeezed down to less than 30 days. “You have a ludicrous situation where the EU mandates that timetable changes must be implemented two weeks before the Christmas break,” says Smith. “This means passengers who want to go by train are forced to fly, while railways are throwing away millions of Euros.”
Smith argues operators must find ways of working together to simplify international travel in order to unlock the network benefits of rail and drive a modal shift from air transport. “Operators need to understand the value of interconnecting journeys,” he says. “They need to give each other connectivity to each other’s distribution systems and make information more readily available for international passengers. There’s no reason why we can’t have international systems linking local systems.”
Onboard communication services – the differentiator between rail and air
For business travellers, and increasingly leisure travellers, the ability to use devices onboard is an increasingly-big attraction of rail, particularly now some operators are using these devices to provide real-time journey information.
The rapid increase in devices such as laptops and smartphones in circulation highlight the advantage of rail over air, and the ability to use these devices on the train is an increasingly-important differentiator between the two modes. “Railways are discovering that productivity is an issue for travellers, and rail has an advantage in this area because they can spend travel time productively,” he says. “Five hours uninterrupted working on a train is better than an hour on a flight with perhaps a few minutes on the laptop waiting at the airport. For business travellers, and increasingly leisure travellers, the ability to use devices onboard is an increasingly-big attraction of rail, particularly now some operators are using these devices to provide real-time journey information.”
However, Smith warns technology is only useful to passengers if operators ensure high-quality information provision, particularly on international journeys. “Real time information is often patchy and fragmented,” he says. “If you are travelling in Germany, for instance, you can go to the DB website before you set off and the information is up-to-date and good quality, but if you are travelling across several countries with multiple operators, things become more difficult. For instance, I recently travelled from London to Istanbul. The only way you can get information about the whole trip is to visit the website of each railway, in this case that’s six or seven different sites. Many of them are not regularly updated – there was a bridge replacement in Turkey which meant a bus replacement was running on part of the route, but this wasn’t mentioned anywhere.”
While technological advances offer new possibilities for passengers in terms of ticketing, access to stations, and onboard connectivity, Smith stresses the importance of careful implementation and thoughtful product development. “My only concern is that sometimes technology makes it harder to travel beyond borders, for instance national smartcards or mobile phone tickets generally cater for domestic users,” he says. “There is a danger that technology might make it harder for passengers to use public transport flexibly and operators need to be mindful of this when implementing new systems.”
With this in mind, finding common ground in public policy and business practices is essential if operators from different countries are to succeed at introducing technologies that will benefit train travel on international routes. Only then will the potential advantages that technology can bring be realised, to the benefit of both passenger experience and ridership as more people switch from budget airlines to cross-border rail services.
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