September 01, 2017

Combined journeys: the future of cross-border rail travel?

Written by  Nick Brooks
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Nick Brooks, head of EU affairs with digital rail travel specialist Trainline, makes the case for introducing “missed connection protection” within the European Union to prevent passengers from buying a second ticket on a connecting service if their first train operated by a different railway is delayed.

PASSENGER rail travel is currently experiencing a renaissance in many parts of Europe. The European Union (EU) and national governments are investing in new cross-border routes, both for long-distance and local services, and there is more competition on our railways, for example in Austria between open-access operator Westbahn and incumbent Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB).

Nick BrooksFrom a sales and ticketing perspective, the rise of the internet and digital platforms allows for greater transparency across operators and the ability to purchase tickets more easily. All in all, the EU is heading towards a Single European Rail Area (Sera).

This contrasts with the European passenger rail offering of 30 or more years ago, when it consisted of fragmented national networks, each with one operator. Cross-border rail services were more limited and rail ticket sales served one network, provided by one operator.

But today, in Sera, no single rail operator serves all of Europe. And, similar to aviation, independent rail ticket retailers such as Trainline use innovative technology to increase the attractiveness of cross-border rail bookings.

Retailers do this in a number of ways. First, by enhancing the customer experience. Smart features, such as quick and easy bookings made on a mobile phone, provide a user experience that makes a very appealing value proposition to the customer.

Secondly, independent rail retailers are impartial: we give travellers an overview of the different offers available on the same route. For example: in Italy, Trainline compares the offerings in terms of price and travel time of both high-speed operators, Trenitalia and Italo, on the routes where they compete.

Thirdly, and particularly relevant for rail bookings across Europe, we combine separate tickets based on separate rail transport contracts into optimised, one-way bookings that offer cheaper fares and/or faster journeys between any two stations in Europe. We call these combined journeys. They are made possible through API interfaces with the various reservations systems, and Trainline has already connected with 86 European operators.

A number of benefits arise from such combined journeys. For the passenger, they represent a single, seamless, cross-border booking experience where the total price and travel times are shown and are payable in one transaction.

Sometimes combined journeys are the only way to make a rail booking across a European border. After all, operators mostly only sell their own tickets for travel on their own trains, which do not go beyond a certain point.

There are also benefits for the rail sector as a whole. The more offers that are available, the easier it will be to attract customers to rail. Enhancing the customer experience will grow the market, benefiting all operators, large and small. Combined journeys enable new entrants to become part of a one-way booking together with an established carrier, reducing a major barrier to entry. We believe that, as long as through-ticketing remains limited, combined journeys are the future of rail bookings across Europe.

However, one big challenge remains. For the rail experience to be truly seamless, work needs to be done to update current EU passenger rights, which were written before combined journeys were technically possible.

Delayed

Separate tickets mean separate rail transport contracts. So if the train being used for the first part of the journey is delayed, and the passenger misses their connecting train provided by another operator using a different ticket or transport contract, the passenger is not protected and might be forced to buy a new ticket for a later train, with an on-the-day fare, leaving them out of pocket.

Rail is the only transport mode where such a disjointed system remains in place and this needs to change. In our view, a simple, customer-orientated solution is necessary.

With combined journeys - just like with a through-ticket - the customer’s main priority upon booking is the confidence that they will reach their final destination.

Voluntary arrangements to ensure this, which include some but not all operators, will not work as this will lead to a two-tier system in Europe that is difficult for passengers to understand.

Therefore, in the upcoming EU passenger rights review, we call on stakeholders to introduce missed connection protection across all European rail operators (both incumbents and new entrants), allowing passengers to continue on the following train without extra cost. This should be regardless of whether passengers booked a through-ticket (one ticket contract) or a combined journey (several ticket contracts) that adheres to reasonable connection times between trains.

All in all, combined journeys offer everyone a huge advantage as they bring together Europe’s fragmented rail reservation systems.

The EU rail passenger rights review represents a very timely opportunity to address this issue. It should enshrine missed connection protection for combined journeys. It is crucial that passengers have the confidence that, if they make such a booking, they will reach their final destination without incurring extra costs along the way.

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