Airspace Shutdown Should Prompt Rethink On Pan European Rail Ticket System

04 May

The European Union was founded upon the principal that there should be freedom of movement for people and goods through member states. On the back of this direction if you decide to fly between EU City-A and EU City-B you can expect to be sold a ticket for that journey even at the airport. It comes then as a surprise to find that travel between two European cities by rail can be difficult, or impossible to arrange, either online or even at the station. To compound this issue, plans were dropped recently to set up a pan European rail ticketing system as the provision of such a service was deemed to be too complicated and expensive. However, the hole in service provision that this leaves open was highlighted to me during the recent volcanic ash cloud problem that resulted in European airspace being shutdown with spontaneous rail travel across borders proving to be a challenge to say the least.

Back in the UK for personal reasons, my flight back to Amsterdam from Gatwick was cancelled on the Thursday due to the ash cloud. I was told the next available flight was Saturday, but that was too late for me so I decided to cancel it and rearrange land based travel.

The Eurostar website, under pressure from the traffic, couldn’t process my request for a London St. Pancras to Amsterdam trip for the Friday. I then tried alternative sites at NS Hispeed and Rail Europe but neither dealt with my request. I then tried the ferries thinking that national travel to the channel ports would be simple to sort out but only P&O take foot passengers between Dover and France and their website was down. I then went back to Eurostar and tried different searches. Brussels and Paris were all booked too. Lille? Yes! I managed to bag a seat on a morning train. I then looked up connections from Lille to Amsterdam.

The next morning St Pancras was hectic. I soon realised why I had managed to get a ticket. TIP! The London to Disneyland Paris Eurostar train stops at Ashford and Lille, it then goes straight to Disneyland (Marne la Vallee). As Eurostar don’t appear to count Marne La Vallee as a Paris station, the train didn’t appear as an option on Paris based search requests and as a result more seats were available to book.

At Lille Europe I tried to book the ticket to Amsterdam but the travel office queue was prohibitively long so I went to a ticket machine. Amsterdam Centraal was not a listed destination so I tried to type it into the station finder of the SNCF machine. A-M-S-T-E-R…at which point the screen went blank as there were no destinations left to buy tickets for. I gave up and walked to Lille Flanders station. Again the queue was too long for me to wait in and make my connection so I went to a variety of ticket vending machines each time looking for Amsterdam and each time typing in the station into the destination finder. Each time with no success.

Once again, as with my Eurostar search, I then looked for a city on my route which was closer to my origin in the hopes it would be available, and also given Lille’s proximity to Belgium. Antwerpen came up and I booked a ticket. I had 2 connections to make at Tournai and Brussel. As if to indicate the scale of the problem to both train operator and passenger, the ticket machine then spat out 3 tickets, one for each leg of the journey.

At Brussel Midi/Zuid I thought I would use my connection time to book the Antwerp to Amsterdam leg, but the queue at the ticket office was even longer than at Lille so I headed for the Antwerpen train. As I reached the platform the number one issue posed by a lack of through ticketing could not be made more clearly, the final destination of my train to Antwerpen was Amsterdam Centraal. I was faced with the prospect of having to get off in Antwerpen to buy a ticket and wait an hour for the next Amsterdam service. However as I got off the train in Antwerpen I passed the guard who advised me that she could issue tickets on the train. Problem solved!


During the airspace shutdown there would have been thousands of people experiencing rail travel for the first time many over unfamiliar routes and connections. This would have been an ideal opportunity for train companies both private and nationalised to capitalise on the situation and promote seamless integration and freedom of movement. Unfortunately (and leaving the effects of overwhelming website traffic aside) the fact that I was not able to buy a through ticket between two major European destinations such as Lille and Amsterdam would have been an experience that many other passengers will now be familiar with.

To me, who operates the train, what colour it is and the on board service provision, are only secondary priorities. Access to the service, its efficiency and safety are primary factors. The spontaneous nature of personal matters and business travel also mean that ticket price may not, within reason, be a primary factor either. But if it’s not possible to book a through ticket for your journey train operators render the accessibility to the service null and void and the cost of that journey a moot point.

This isn’t the only time I have had this problem. In February I checked trains from Amsterdam to Firenze. I got the timings ok, but no one would sell me a ticket. Flights were readily available, even with connections. If the airlines can manage, so must rail if it expects to compete. Indeed the motivation to do so should be even greater given the ratio of stations to airports, as rail can pluck this business from the airlines before it gets to the airport. Airports are never the start or end of a journey so a walk-up and online pan-European ticketing system must be able to deal with any journey from two European stations as that is the nature of travel. Even if that means the system queries more than one database and presents the passenger with what may be a comparatively high fare. Merely providing the ticket means you provide a choice and a service opportunity. After all, we all know how expensive budget airlines can be for last minute journeys.

As passengers, we are, knowledge, patience and time permitting, able to cobble together cross border journeys, and as my experience shows, get walk-up tickets for individual legs of the trip. However it required prior knowledge of how the railways operate and a good grasp of geography. Without this I would have been left with a feeling that despite delays, next time it would be easier and just as efficient to wait for the next flight. For the railways of Europe to truly realise their potential, equalising this efficiency is part of the challenge and it must be overcome.

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