GERMANY’s experiment with a 9-euro monthly regional ticket in June, July and August has proven a huge success. Around 38 million 9-euro tickets were sold by the first week of August, according to the Association of Transport Companies (VDV). This is in addition to the 10 million season ticket holders who automatically received the ticket each month.

The success has led to calls for a permanent successor with an announcement expected this autumn. Germany is not alone in enabling big government intervention to open-up rail to passengers. Spain is offering three months of free travel on Renfe’s suburban and conventional medium-distance services from this month. Austria’s Klimaticket, which offers unlimited access to rail across the country, is now used by more than 170,000 people. Luxembourg arguably pioneered the strategy by making all public transport journeys free in 2020.

While the popularity of the 9-euro ticket, which is estimated to have cost the German federal government more than €2.5bn, has provided a welcome boost to German passenger sector as it continues its Covid-19 recovery, the initiative has also exposed two major challenges: the ability to effectively communicate with passengers free to use any regional train they wish and the condition and capability of German rail infrastructure to carry greater numbers of people and trains.

The strain on German Rail (DB) is evident in its declining punctuality in the first half of 2022 with long-distance punctuality falling as low as 57% in June. As passengers have returned, DB has struggled. Bavarian Railway Company (BEG) also reports declining punctuality - 82.8% for regional and suburban services in June compared with the average of 92.4% between January and May.

While stations crowded with 9-euro ticket users have contributed to the delays, infrastructure failures and disruption caused by renewal work are cited as the primary cause. Mofair, the association of private passenger operators, says German rail infrastructure is in a “disastrous state” while BEG is equally scathing in its assessment.

Improving cross-industry collaboration should create a climate for open data sharing, even between industrial competitors.

DB CEO Dr Richard Lutz says the problems with reliability and quality are due to a lack of capacity and outdated systems. The railway is attempting to address an infrastructure upgrade backlog and is spending a record €13.6bn in 2022 to repair 1800km of track, renew 140 bridges and modernise 2000 switches. It has also announced plans for a high-performance network to address capacity constraints on the most congested lines.

DB is on a long path to delivering the infrastructure its customers demand. It will take many years and many billions of euros. Yet this provides little comfort to today’s passengers simply trying to get to their destination in reasonable time.

My colleague David Burroughs shares his experiences of recent trips that did not go so well. Long delays were compounded by a lack of information about alternative connections. He is not alone. Too often this is a daily experience across Europe, as activist Mr Jon Worth has exposed in his project to cross every European border by rail this summer.

Burroughs’ point is that the technology and wherewithal to avoid these situations is readily available; we see it enthusiastically displayed at pretty much every rail industry event we attend. It will certainly be the same at this month’s InnoTrans exhibition. Unfortunately, the failure to adopt these technologies effectively is reinforcing rail’s often poor public perception.

But could the tide be about to turn? Two articles in this month’s edition highlight a change in strategy that could herald some big changes for the industry.

Europe’s Rail, the continent’s second joint research undertaking, will begin work in January. But as executive director, Mr Carlo Borghini, reveals, work is already starting on a critical component of the initiative: the System Pillar.

A consortium of 12 bodies was selected to implement the System Pillar in July with the goal of defining the functional system architecture for the railway in Europe and to accelerate and better organise its evolution. In practice this means clarifying the conception and development of new technologies with the goal of accelerating adoption by the market.

This is by no means an easy task, but with around 80% of Europe’s operators, infrastructure managers, suppliers and the research community around the table, Borghini believes the building blocks are in place.

Improving cross-industry collaboration should create a climate for open data sharing, even between industrial competitors, says Siemens Mobility CEO, Mr Michael Peter.

Peter argues that digitalisation of rail has not been matched by standardising how data is collected and used. The result is the deployment of proprietary systems that work in isolation rather than as part of a larger ecosystem, to the detriment of the railway’s overall efficiency.

Siemens is seeking to reverse this scenario by taking the unprecedented step of making its data available for use by any management system, even those of its competitors. Peter admits that this is a gamble, but argues that open data should drive innovation, and he is counting on the supplier’s technological knowledge and expertise to offer it a competitive advantage. His hope is that the rest of the industry follows suit for the wider benefit of the railway.

As SCI Verkehr’s latest assessment of the world rail supply market shows, the industry has much to be optimistic about despite the challenges posed by recent geopolitical events.

Substantial government funding for universal ticketing programmes that encourage people to use the train over their cars to combat climate change is another reason to be upbeat. But it is only going to work if the infrastructure and the level of service is up to scratch. If not, the risk is that governments and passengers go elsewhere.

Closer collaboration appears to be the industry’s chosen tonic. But the sector will need to show progress and soon if it is to ward off this threat.