View from Brussels: EU teases useful train tickets
Image credit: European Commission
Rail travel promises so much, from decongested roads and climate-guilt-free travel to a peaceful place to get some work done while moving. But its evolution has been held back by a number of issues. One of those may soon be solved by the EU.
Train travel is becoming more popular. At the very least, people are hoping it will become more popular so that they can leave the car at home – or not have to buy one in the first place – or forgo the stressful trip to the airport.
Some train companies are starting to read the room and upgrade their travel offer accordingly. Austrian railways recently unveiled the next generation of sleeper trains it is going to operate, complete with wireless charging and single-use pods for shy millennials.
But a true rail renaissance that displaces unnecessary short-haul flights and removes vehicles from already clogged roads is undermined by a number of issues. One of those is ticketing.
National rail companies all have their own way of selling tickets and most are not interoperable with one another, meaning that booking international rail journeys can only be efficiently navigated by those in the know.
Whether it is operators failing to schedule timetables so that connections can be made or, in the case of Spanish firm Renfe, allowing a website bug to change the journey times to the same timezone as the user’s IP address, prospective train riders are constantly frustrated.
Third party platforms exist, such as trainline.com, but the idea of single- or through-ticketing – which would potentially include other forms of transport – ideally means that operators themselves collaborate to offer the best itineraries and deals.
Plane tickets can be – all too easily, according to green groups – bought via these kinds of platforms, which has driven down prices and created a market where passengers can get from one side of the continent to the other for very little money at all.
EU climate targets and transport strategies, which are still struggling to rein in a sector where greenhouse gas emissions refuse to go down, really require people to ditch cars and planes for trains sooner rather than later.
Changes may well be coming, after EU climate head-honcho Frans Timmermans said he is “sick of it” and pledged that his staff will work on designing merged ticketing systems. If not, there is a possibility that they will have to use one designed by the EU itself.
It appears to have been no idle boast or slip of the tongue from Timmermans either.
The head of the European Commission’s land transport department, Kristian Schmidt, revealed that the EU executive branch is currently working on rules that would oblige companies to join up to a single ticketing system.
Mark Smith, a train travel expert who runs the popular website seat61.com, called the development “the best news I’ve heard this year for European rail. It could make such a difference.”
Brussels has a mixed track record on rail policies. The hugely popular Interrail experience is synonymous with the EU but its ‘European Year of Rail’ in 2021 was considered to be a total flop.
There are a lot of hurdles to overcome before seamless international journeys are the norm. Vested interests on the part of big incumbents like France’s SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn have created the less than ideal system that is currently in place.
Hope springs eternal though, and after Germany’s huge success in offering the immensely popular €9 transport ticket earlier this year, it appears that there is a lot of political capital to be made from giving people an affordable way to get around.
It will require governments to get tough with their state-owned companies and make good on the big climate promises they have made in recent years, many of which have failed to materialise.
As with so many other things in life currently, long-awaited reform may be sparked by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the energy price spikes that it has triggered.
Governments are still looking for ways to deal with inflation and cost of living crises that threaten to send so many people below the breadline. Changes to transport policy may well be an easy fix.
Ticketing systems might sound like a niche issue far removed from lofty subjects like geopolitics and oil markets but if people can access and afford cheap rail tickets, it could trigger a whole host of other important benefits.
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