For many years and almost as many Brussels political cycles, the modal shift of passenger transport from air to rail has been a political priority for the European institutions. It’s easy to see why when comparing the Co2 emissions of both modes. For example, a Brussels-Berlin one-way trip by train will add about 24 kg of CO2 to your carbon footprint, while a flight will cause about 117 kg of additional emissions. The glaring problem here is that little modal shift has actually been achieved over the last decade.
One major reason why is that comparing and booking long-distance rail tickets continues to be a tedious and untransparent process. This stands in contrast to air travel, where a wide range of platforms and other comparison tools have made booking easy and user-friendly. Independent distributors and the platforms they operate could bring better services to the rail market, by connecting offers from many different railways, enabling comparison and price transparency, providing multiple language and payment options. However, they are hindered by a range of barriers, including unfair commercial terms from incumbent railways, lack of data sharing and an imperfect standards framework.
The unfortunate truth is that these barriers are (for the most part) the result of large railways’ commercial choice to limit independent distribution. Companies like Deutsche Bahn or SNCF today are quasi-monopolies in their domestic markets, both in the operation of trains and the sale of tickets. Independent distributors compete with their own distribution arms and would allow for a fair comparison with up-and-coming players like Flixtrain or Italo.
1. The barriers
The most important problem preventing many platforms from selling and comparing rail tickets are unfair commercial terms. Because the big railways have such strong market positions, they become unavoidable partners for these platforms. This means railways are free to dictate the terms of any distribution agreement, to the point where distributors struggle to make any money selling rail. Another barrier is that platforms do not always receive the required data to both have all the necessary information on fares and inventory available, but also to keep their customers informed of any disruptions or delays. Lastly, there is a mess of half-implemented and incompatible private and public standards on rail distribution, making integration and distribution costly.
The outcome of these barriers is that many platforms are not able to operate in the rail market and even those that continue to operate are being held back by the actions of the railways.
2. The solution
We think the answer to these problems is evident: adequate regulation at the European level. The current state of affairs represents a concrete market failure, which not only hurts consumers, but also the environment. eu travel tech has developed a set of policy recommendations, which address the barriers to independent rail distribution by ensuring platforms can sell rail tickets fairly, have access to the required content and data and have a solid standards framework as a technical backbone.
Taken together, these four recommendations (below), rigorously enforced, can help the EU meet significant ambitions on the environment, by enabling integrated ticketing. Removing barriers can deliver a consumer-friendly, competitive, modern and growing rail distribution system:
- Ensuring fair reasonable and anti-discriminatory (FRAND) commercial terms
- Ensuring access to all rail content (including offers and fares) for all distribution channels also based on FRAND conditions
- Mandating sharing of dynamic rail data
- Creating a clear and cost-effective rail distribution standards framework
The railways themselves have promised many times to alleviate these issues through self-regulation, but very little has come of their efforts. With the European Commission’s plans to propose a Regulation on Multimodal Digital Mobility Services at the end of the year, it’s time for policymakers to get real on rail ticketing, in the interest of European passengers and the environment.
Please read eu travel tech’s rail policy brief for further details.