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4th Dec 2021

Investigation

Why are cross-country train tickets in EU still so complex?

  • There are 30 countries with their own national railway and ticketing and fare systems and a dozen or so independent train operators with their stand-alone ticketing systems. Buying a cross-border train trip can be a nightmare (Photo: Karl Baron/Flickr)
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When travelling from Copenhagen to Warsaw or Lisbon to Marseille, many people choose the plane over the train. The ticket price is a major factor - and so is the time spent travelling.

But there is another big deterrent for choosing the train: the sheer hassle of piecing together a cross-border trip that involves dealing with several train operators on different websites and in several different languages.

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  • If national train companies don't want to open up their data so that others can compare and sell their tickets, shouldn't they themselves provide this service? This too was up for discussion – and turned down (Photo: ÖBB)

The air plane business – international in nature – has, over time and without EU regulation, opened up the ticket and route data allowing for third party companies like Skyscanner or Momondo to compare fares and sell tickets.

But not the train operators.

This situation could have changed last year, thanks to an EU law that upgrades the common minimum standards for rail passenger rights. But it didn't.

What happened? The European Parliament adopted an amendment of the revised train passenger rights regulation, requiring train companies to "provide non-discriminatory access to all travel information, including real-time operational information on timetables and tariffs data."

Swedish green MEP Jakop Dalunde, the main proponent of this reform, told Investigate Europe, that he felt alone in believing that open ticket data was crucial for increasing European cross-border train travelling.

"But once I talked to different MEPs and explained, almost all of them thought it was good," he says. "Politicians to the left [agreed] because it would make it easier for people to choose the train; people to the right because it meant more competition.

Council resistance

But in the Council of Ministers, the parliament's proposal was a non-starter. Sweden brought up the proposal, but received no support from the other member states, according to a report from government legal expert Alexander Nilsson.

"In the council working group we have pursued that proposal, inspired by Parliament's proposals, and [we] have been alone in doing so," he told the Swedish parliament's European affairs committee.

The final EU law — hammered out in three-party negotiations, the trilogues, between the Parliament, Council and the European Commission — includes an obligation on rail operators to share their data. But not in a non-discriminatory way, free for anyone to use, rather through contracts. Moreover, the requirement doesn't have to be enforced till 2030, if it is "not technically feasible".

Fragmented Europe

There are today 30 countries with their own national railway and ticketing and fare systems and a dozen or so independent train operators with their stand-alone ticketing systems. Buying a cross-border train trip can be a nightmare.

A couple of companies have tried to plug this gap in the market, including Raileurope and Trainline.

But they are unknown to consumers in most countries and they only connect to train operators in some West European countries, explains Mark Smith, known to train enthusiasts from the Man in Seat 61 website.

"So the only place you will get a €19 ticket from Budapest to Zagreb is the Hungarian railways website mavCSOport.hu," he sarcastically explains. "It rolls off everyone's tongue, of course. A household name...not."

Instead, consumers have to turn to niche travel agencies or to train nerds such as Smith, who shares the best routes on his travel website for free.

Passenger rights lost

If national train companies don't want to open up their data so that others can compare and sell their tickets, shouldn't they themselves provide this service? This too was up for discussion – and turned down.

In the revised rail passenger rights regulation, the European Commission proposed a requirement to "make all possible efforts to offer through-tickets, including for journeys across borders and with more than one railway undertaking."

Through-tickets means that a train ticket from, for example, Malmö to Cologne would be considered as one single ticket, although there are Swedish, Danish and German train companies operating different legs of the journey.

Without through-tickets, long distance train travel in Europe often means a considerable economic risk for the passenger.

If a train journey is delayed by an hour, the passenger has the right to get 25 percent of the ticket price back, according to EU rules. But if the delay is shorter than an hour, but means missing the connecting train run by another operator, and if the final delay is over an hour, the passenger gets no compensation.

A number of operators in western Europe apply the principle that passengers using connecting train on the network can get on the next available train. But this is not a generalised right.

While the European Parliament strengthened the obligation to provide through-tickets, the council in its turn watered it down. The final deal meant that train companies only have to provide through-tickets for their fully-owned subsidiaries.

One of the diplomats in the council meeting where this article was discussed, told Investigate Europe that "Germany, France and Spain opposed the proposed unconditional obligation to offer through-tickets."

Big barriers

Railway companies are national in nature and by history. The share of cross-border travelling is small; the income mainly comes from national rail.

But to many train activists, this national thinking and reluctance to cooperate on ticketing and passenger rights is one of the major reasons why cross-border European rail just isn't kicking off.

"These soft issues could actually be solved without building any high-speed tracks, without even running an extra train," says Smith, the 'man in Seat 61'.

José Ramón Bauzá, Spanish MEP who took part in the trilogues as shadow rapporteur for the liberal Renew Europe group in the parliament, says that through-tickets were completely non-negotiable for the council.

In the end, the parliament had to accept the compromise, or risk getting nothing, says Bauzá.

On the open-data, there was little real negotiation in the trilogue, he recalls. The council argued that not all companies had the technical capacity and the Parliament accepted it.

"That point was left a little more unguarded - that is true," says Bauzá.

According to Green MEP Dalunde, there was nobody in the parliament delegation who was really passionate about and focussed on the issue of open ticketing data.

"The focus [in the trilogue] was more on delays and bicycles, which is also very important. But it's not the same make-or-break issue to get European rail travel going," says Dalunde.

Author bio

This article is part of an investigation into the European Railway system by Investigate Europe. Besides EUobserver partners of this publication include: Der Tagesspiegel (Germany), Telex (Hungary), Dagens Nyheter (Sweden), EfSyn (Greece), Público (Portugal), Il Fatto Quotidiano (Italy), InfoLibre (Spain), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), Trends (Belgium), Republik (Switzerland).

Conributors to this research included: Wojciech Cieśla, Ingeborg Eliassen, Juliet Ferguson, Attila Kálmán, Nikolas Leontopoulos, Maria Maggiore, Leïla Miñano, Paulo Pena, Elisa Simantke, Nico Schmidt and Harald Schumann, as well as Lorenzo Buzzoni, Ana Ćurić, Eurydice Bersi (Reporters United), Philipp Albrecht (Republik).

Investigate Europe is supported by its readers via donations, private donors and serveral European foundations.

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