The good news is that rail is widely considered as an alternative for planes and cars. The European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers are all in favour of rail. In 2021 the European Year of Rail took place, unfortunately in the middle of Covid-19. Not only the European institutions see the need for more rail travel, many national and local governments share this point of view. The reasons are the prevention of air pollution, noise, the need for less CO2 and in particular in cities the congestion which is created by too many cars.

To get passengers out of their cars and planes into trains more should be done than the uttering of encouraging words by politicians. Rail has to become more attractive.

One of the complex issues is international ticketing. It is very easy to obtain a ticket for a plane. Most airlines have websites that are easily accessible. Websites exist that offer an overview of the various alternative airlines and prices on the same route. This is not the case in the railway industry. It can be difficult to buy a train ticket involving more than one railway company. It is for instance in most countries easy to buy a Eurostar ticket to London, but you must be a specialist to buy a ticket for a destination in the UK beyond London.

The difficulty to obtain an international ticket is now generally recognised as an obstacle to get passengers in cross-border trains.

A recent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on the differences in prices and travel time between Amsterdam and various cities 500 kilometre away mentioned this again. It is not a technical problem but a lack of will of the older state-owned railway companies, who do not want to open their “own” market. The good news is that the European Commission has proposed legislation to force the public transport companies to cooperate on this issue. That might be necessary because the railway companies do not seem to be able to solve this on their own without political pressure.

The European umbrella organisation of the railway companies CER has at published a roadmap with the following goal:

“Our long-term vision (2030): The passengers will have a seamless user experience when searching, selecting and buying their railways services, including first and last mile transport. They shall have access to simple, reliable and comprehensive online information regarding timetables, prices, dependable real-time information and ticket purchasing for (rail) transport services, both domestic (urban, regional, long-distance) and international. Tickets issued by different railways and ticket vendors will be easily accepted throughout Europe. In an event of travel disruption, passengers will be able to easily attain information on how to continue their journey as well as their passenger rights.”

It is doubtful if the passengers and the politicians have the patience to wait till 2030.

The bigger danger for the railway industry is that the passengers will continue to prefer planes and cars if the sale of tickets is not made a lot easier very soon. And politicians might get impatient as well and give up rail as a viable alternative. Why should they invest in an industry which does not attract more consumers?

Arriën Kruyt
Member of the Board of EPF