On a recent post I highlighted the current problem in buying tickets for rail journeys that cross European borders. This problem became very apparent to thousands of travellers during the Volcanic Ash airspace shutdown where they assumed being able to buy a ticket from European City ‘A’ to City ‘B’ would be simple and straightforward. In short it can be neither if indeed it’s possible at all. The reason for this is nothing more than a lack of ticket system integration. European railway databases remain unaligned and ill-equipped to match up and compile prices of journeys and systems are often unable to provide timings, let alone a price.
Multi legged journeys where you have to change trains and journeys requiring multiple border crossings are the worst culprits. A journey from The Netherlands to Switzerland is a good example. There is a daily direct service from Amsterdam to Basel and tickets are available online at NSHispeed, but if you need to go to Interlaken, you have to make a separate purchase as no through ticket is available. Separate purchases spell bad news for rail companies as the hassle factor, lack of information and different systems easily puts off travellers from buying tickets.
There is one company however that offers a service which sheds some light on how the situation can be efficiently and effectively overcome and ironically it’s a ferry company.
Last week I used the excellent “DutchFlyer” service from StenaLine. This service allows you to travel from any National Express East Anglia station in the UK, including London Liverpool Street, to Harwich International where you transfer to the StenaLine ferry. There you take the 6.5 hour crossing to Hoek van Holland. Once disembarked, your ticket allows you to travel anywhere in The Netherlands from the adjacent NS station. The price of the ticket can be as little as £29. This is hugely competitive when you compare it to air services between London and Amsterdam which start at around £50, plus the inevitable airline extras (!) and the cost of getting to/from the airports.
The big advantage of this ticket and the shining beacon to other rail operators is purely its availability. The fact that the one ticket allows you to travel from ANY East Anglian station to ANY Dutch station promotes a flexible, simple, and efficient system which removes complications (and thus loss of revenue) through multiple bookings with multiple operators. Thus immediately it becomes more accessible as an option, more purchasable as a traveller and more REVENUE GENERATING for an operator.
StenaLine have obviously done their share of negotiating with the rail companies to offer this service, but as a transport provider this is only right if you want to exploit a market. It should not be the traveller’s task to consult and negotiate a variety of transit operator systems just to get a ticket, regardless of the price. This most definitely doesn’t happen with airlines. The current situation on Europe’s railways only results in a loss of market share for the operators, and the solution is simpler than is currently being discussed, so let me offer some alternatives.
Solution 1 – A Simple Combined Total System
Any traveller wishing to get from A-to-B should need to purchase no more than 1 ticket. To compare the market, last minute tickets on low cost airlines can equal that of a full service carrier, and business travellers still buy them and low cost airlines still make money. This I say is proof that if railway operators were to offer tickets that were no more than the simple sum-total of instant walk-up tickets that cover each journey segment, that ticket would still get purchased. EU rail operators need to join forces and produce a system which interrogates databases for simple widely available and non restricted walk up tickets, which combine each leg of the journey (Amsterdam => Basel, Basel => Interlaken) and price the ticket at the sum total. People will still buy!
Solution 2 – Flexible Non-Specific Destination Tickets
As we see from the StenaLine example, an option would be to obtain a “Travel Pass” style ticket without a specific destination. In issuing the ticket the operator would instead grant access to a rail network or pre-specified zone for a limited amount of time, similar to the InterRail Pass. The advantages for travellers would be the flexibility and simplicity of the one ticket. For rail operators, who would avoid the need to calculate endless individual prices and permutations of start and end points, this would mean simpler negotiation of wholesale prices between them to support the ticket. Such systems already exist as Eurostar tickets from London to Brussels allow travellers to continue on to “Any Belgian Station” within 24 hours of the train arriving.
Other service add-ons such as premiums for high-speed trains and seat reservations can be paid for as simple supplements as they are today with an InterRail pass so they should present no barrier. Indeed Deutsche Bahn issues the Schönes Weekend Ticket which promotes group travel on non Intercity trains again without the need to specify a destination, so getting a solution for this problem will open up further markets.
Either way with the current market conditions and with the technology at our disposal, it is crazy that the only company offering a rail inclusive ticket from Norwich to Eindhoven is a ferry company!