The Fourth Integrated Progress Report of the Ministerial Platform on International Rail Passenger Transport (IRP) was published in time for the meeting of the EU Transport Council in June, where it was presented by the Austrian and Dutch delegations.

The IRP was set up four years ago. It was tasked with a common agenda aimed at fostering and supporting the improvement of cross-border railway passenger transport in cooperation with the relevant stakeholders. The Platform comprises EU Member States, together with Norway and Switzerland, the UK joining as an observer in 2022. It is advised by a Sector Mirror Group with participants ranging from third party retailers to specialists both from incumbent and new entrant railway undertakings. This Group is chaired jointly by Alberto Mazzola, the Executive Director of CER, and Christopher Irwin from EPF. It also involves representatives of the European Commission, European Union Agency for Railways, OTIF, and EU-Rail.

Participants – both those representing governments and those from the sector – are united in their recognition that the status quo is not an option for passenger rail. They are committed to a vision of an interconnected and competitive network of rail passenger services capable of underpinning the continent’s economic, social, and environmental sustainability. To this end they have identified four inter-related principles as essential:

  • Enabling rail to become the preferred mode of cross-border passenger transport in Europe;
  • Providing high-quality and resilient rail infrastructure and capacity;
  • Making railways more competitive vis-à-vis air and road transport;
  • Investing in national and cross-border railways.

This year’s report underlines the insufficient priority given by the sector and those authorities who help finance it to improving customer experience of cross-border travel. As the report reminds Ministers, “positive customer experience depends on far more than the actual journey: it starts with the planning and ends only when the post-trip arrangements are completed, in case they are needed”.

It highlights the potential for significant improvement in the sharing of real-time data, thereby giving substance to the spirit and letter of much of the EU’s relevant acquis published throughout the last decade. The Report emphasises that common standards are needed for ticket distribution with all stakeholders having equal access. Also underlined is the importance, particularly in the light of recent legal cases involving railway undertakings in certain Member States, of passengers having access to information and commercial conditions on all reasonable journey options, integrated information on timetables and fares (together with other information likely to affect consumer choice such as reservation possibilities, catering provision, class of travel offered, etc.), and provision for comparing all reasonable options, including multi-modal products and those marketed by third parties.

The report avoids taking sides on the vexed issue of standards. It acknowledges UIC’s release in 2020 of the so-called Open Sales & Distribution Model and its gradual implementation by a minority of railway undertakings on the one hand and NeTEx, an alternative format, developed as a CEN standard in 2014 and established as a requirement in the MMTIS regulations in 2017. The Report notes that RUs typically want freedom to exercise maximum commercial flexibility. Passengers, understandably, require the ability to purchase through-tickets at transparently competitive prices having been informed comprehensively about all the reasonable journey options. Policy analysts are aware that the great majority of passenger journeys are made using PSO-regulated services. Some argue that the extent to which RUs are allowed to exercise unfettered commercial freedom should reflect this, others placing greater emphasis on the value of innovation in an unregulated market.

The Platform acknowledges that many potential passengers are deterred from using rail for international travel – even when they have found ways of accessing the information necessary to plan a cross-border journey – because they fear the effects of disruption and delay on the validity of the tickets they hold. It says that passengers need the assurance of consistent support that will enable them to reach their destination at the earliest appropriate opportunity and at no extra cost when their journey is disrupted, whichever the operators involved, wherever the country they are in, and whatever the relevant tickets held for the journey. Recent amendments to the CIT’s Agreement on Journey Continuation are seen as providing a start for a guarantee of this sort despite continuing limitations on inter-available ticketing between operators. It will be interesting to see if the new European Commission is willing to tackle these issues on behalf of the Platform and Europe’s potential cross-border rail passengers before next year’s Transport Council.