The great modal shift: can a new EU law move people from planes to trains?
Dave Keating explores a new EU proposal that aims to level the playing field between aviation and rail ticketing.
As European travellers book transport for their summer holidays, they may not be aware that they are making their journeys more complicated, and more carbon-intensive than they need to be. When they search for transport options to get to their destination, the results are only showing them flights, not trains.
So, if they live in Barcelona and need to take a flight from Madrid, they will likely book two connecting flights if they are unaware there is a train with drastically lower carbon emissions that can get them to Madrid in three hours. Or if they need to travel to Brussels via Paris, the search engine will tell them to take two flights even though there is a direct train that takes passengers from Paris to Brussels in 90 minutes.
So why aren’t trains showing up on search engines? There are several reasons. Train operators like Renfe, SNCF, Deutsche Bahn and Thalys do not share their journey and price information with search sites because they don’t want competitors to have the data.
Partnerships between airlines and train operators are few and far between, with only Air France/KLM and Austrian Airlines partnering with trains to offer combined tickets. That makes a big difference to traveller confidence: if they book the train separately they will have no help or compensation from the airline if their train is delayed and they miss their flight.
The issue isn’t just connecting flights. Travellers using search engines may be booking flights from Amsterdam to Paris, Madrid to Malaga or Milan to Rome without realising there are direct trains that would get them there faster when airport logistics are factored in.
Ignorance is not bliss
The European Commission is planning to propose a new EU law in September that would make it easier for online booking providers to become true Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS) providers, showing travellers all air, rail, road and sea options and encouraging operators to link up for combined tickets.
“The European Green Deal is also about making sustainable travel accessible and affordable for all, and indeed for us one of the keys there is you want passengers to mix and match these travel options together including the sustainable ones like rail,” explained Daniel Mes, a member of Timmermans’ Cabinet, at an event in Brussels in July.
“There are many obstacles now that hold people back from booking these sustainable multimodal journeys. [For one,] they can’t find the connections easily because they don’t even see them when they go on websites or platforms,” he said.
“This proposal coming in autumn is really meant, in Timmermans’ Cabinet’s view, to be a game-changer to tackle all of these issues and set a framework for companies to work together to make this experience of multimodal booking far better.”
EU Travel Tech, an association of travel services companies such as Skyscanner, Booking.com, Trainline and Amadeus, says enabling train results to show up on search engines could make a big difference. As an example, the group searched for transport between Dresden and Krakow, for which there is no direct plane or train connection.
If a traveller looks up how to make the journey under the status quo, they will be told to take two connecting flights via Munich at a cost of €256 ($279) and emitting 154kg of CO₂ over a five-and-a-half-hour journey.
If the EU MDMS forces data-sharing, they would be shown the option of instead taking a train to Berlin and catching a flight to Krakow from there, costing €48.90 and emitting 65kg CO₂ over a five-hour journey.
Disagreement on the EU's multimodal ticketing approach
The Commission’s original plan for the proposal was to mandate platforms’ access to transport operators’ data, ensure a level of contractual playing field for incumbent transport operators and new market entrants, and create a clear enforcement system with the power to penalise.
However, word came in June that the ambition was being downgraded, with the focus shifting towards only giving passengers access to ticketing data by “re-linking” to transport operators’ websites, rather than being able to see prices and make purchases on third-party sites.
A group of travel technology companies and NGOs – including the European Passengers' Federation, EU Travel Tech, the European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Associations and European consumers group BEUC – wrote to the Commission in June outlining their concerns.
Solely redirecting customers to several different portals is an insufficient solution.
“Solely redirecting customers to several different portals is an insufficient solution with low added-value, alarmingly close to the status quo which is unanimously considered as unsatisfying,” they wrote.
“This approach would mean that the anti-competitive practices of dominant operators which prevent integrated booking via independent distribution channels, aiming at limiting comparison and combination across operators and modes, will not be addressed. This is despite the pile of ongoing ticketing cases against state-owned incumbents.”
According to Commission sources, the change in approach has come from Commissioner Valean, who has been sympathetic to the concerns of train operators and worried that the original plan for the proposal would pit market players against one another, which might make the situation worse by inhibiting cooperation and raising prices.
In a position paper submitted earlier this year, the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) argued that forcing rail operators to turn over data to search engines and booking sites would be counter-productive.
“Railway undertakings need entrepreneurial freedom while developing their businesses,” they wrote. “This includes the freedom to engage in commercial agreements with ticket vendors and other transport operators to develop and improve their services.”
The CER argues that not allowing the freedom to choose when and with whom to collaborate could result in increased ticket costs that would only benefit third-party digital platforms.
“Transport operators run services with very small profit margins but bearing full operational cost, while ticket vendors focus only on a single sales channel with high margins and limited costs for their services,” it wrote. Forcing collaboration, would cause the emergence of only "one or two online MDMS platforms, owned by well-funded tech giants outside Europe, which would automatically become gatekeepers”.
The railways have been developing their own CER Ticketing Roadmap, which they say is “set to address the issues that hinder rail ticketing and make it more competitive with other modes of transport and easily combinable with other modes of transport”. The road map aims to make rail ticketing fully interoperable with other modes of transport by 2030.
However, Vice-President Timmermans is pushing for the Commission to stick to the original plan and not do a re-linking-only approach.
“There are many, many, many consumers out there for whom [buying separate tickets via re-linking] is too complicated, and then they don’t bother,” Mes from Timmermans’ Cabinet said. “What these consumers want is to go on one website, see all the options and prices, and click one button to book.
“From our Cabinet’s perspective, we want to have a game-changer proposal, and for that, all the options need to be on the table,” he added. “I am aware there are signals out there that the Commission will gravitate towards only this re-linking of the websites, this self-assembly model, as the preferred option. I can say today that is not the case. All options are still on the table.”
Timmermans said all options were sent to the Commission’s regulatory scrutiny board on 19 July to assess their costs and benefits, with the results expected in early September.
“For anybody who is willing to resell a ticket, like a platform operator, they need access to crucial data to make that work – the fares, the discounts that can be offered, real-time information about delays and arrival platforms – and that essential data is not currently being shared sufficiently,” he continued.
“What is also important is the commercial dealing that goes on in the backroom, because before a reseller platform sells you a ticket they have a commercial agreement with the transport company for what type of fee they get for this service of selling you the ticket, and that is also an important part of the puzzle that we are looking into.”
That is music to the ears of the third-party sellers. The problem is that Vice-President Timmermans is most likely leaving the Commission in the autumn to become the candidate for prime minister of the Dutch Greens and Labour Party – depending on whether he is selected in September as expected.
What is also important is the commercial dealing that goes on in the backroom.
This leaves uncertainty over whether his views, and those of his Cabinet, will still hold sway. Much may depend on how the timing of his departure and the timing of the proposal intersect.
For its part, EU Travel Tech believes that a proposal that does not change the status quo will not deliver the climate and consumer benefits that were intended.
“Our experience over the past years has shown clearly that regulation is required to achieve meaningful progress in easing ticketing and increasing consumer transparency,” it wrote in a response to the CER’s position paper.
“We don’t think MDMS will lead to increasing ticket prices. Independent distributors will help reach new customers and expand the reach of all carriers, including smaller ones and those launching in new countries. The whole rail transport market and carriers' income will grow, which means carriers have no reason to raise prices.”