Opinion

Dear Commission, stick to your word and legislate on better ticketing

Carlos Calvo Ambel — September 29, 2023

The EU is stalling in its quest to improve cross-border European rail

As a good policy freak, I call Brussels home. However, I was born and raised in Seville (Southern Spain), where family and friends still live, and where there are double the number of sunshine hours than in the EU bubble. On average, I head south three times a year. Being well aware of aviation’s climate impact, I aim for these trips to be as sustainable as possible. That automatically excludes flying. 

You can get from Brussels to Seville in one day by high-speed train. It is long, but I can work on the train. Brussels-Paris-Barcelona-Madrid-Seville is my most common route. But railway companies don’t make it easy. I need to book four individual tickets, on four different websites. They are put on sale at different times of the year, which further complicates things. To avoid paying a fortune, you need to buy them on the first day they are sold. I have a spreadsheet where I log every time I buy a ticket, when they will next go on sale… I am committed, but this is a real pain. I have a hard time convincing friends to follow my lead. 

The EU Commission claims that it wants a modal shift to rail. But the clock is ticking. The end of the EU parliamentary term is approaching, but we are still waiting for the Commission to publish its proposal to improve cross-border European train travel. 

The EU’s Multimodal Digital Mobility Services Regulation (MDMS), which seeks to create one single ticket for European train travel, is still languishing on the platform. The freshly released agenda of the college of commission up to the end of November does not mention MDMS.  There is now a high risk that the current Commission will never propose the Regulation. For a Commission committed to modal shift, its track record is rather poor.

Despite its complicated name, the MDMS is meant to simplify our lives. The MDMS aims to put an end to the burdensome multiple and cross-border ticket bookings, like for my Brussels-Seville trek. Today, consumers are choosing to fly because rail journeys are often not showing on travel booking sites, and it always seems to be the easier option. 

But one simple trick could change this. Having all the tickets in one booking would improve passengers’ experience. Delays and cancellations would be announced faster and rerouting and reimbursement would be made easier. Ultimately, by giving the possibility to combine all different modes and tariffs, digital platforms will allow travellers to save money.  Maybe I’ll have more of my Spanish friends board the train with me next time…

Why is progress so slow? The European rail sector has been regulated by a set of railway packages since 2001, with the fourth one aimed at opening national markets to competition. Markets are slowly welcoming foreign rail operators but the EU still doesn’t regulate the sale of tickets, leading to rail monopolists refusing to share complete information with booking platforms. As a consequence, consumers are deprived of useful travel information. 

So, why are rail operators fighting against the regulation? Rail incumbents fear they will lose revenues from the distribution of tickets and that it will put new rail entrants in the spotlight. However, historic operators themselves have a lot to gain from opening up the sales of tickets. It will increase the attractivity of rail, helping them to fill their trains. Particularly so for incumbents who have recently entered new markets such as SNCF in Spain and Trenitalia in France. They arrive in monopolistic markets and need to have their tickets available on all platforms to gain market shares. 

But the rail market is starting to change. Both in Spain and Germany, the rail incumbents (Renfe and DB) are in court after being sued for unfair ticketing practices. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped them from lobbying to water-down the ambition of MDMS. As a result, Transport Commissioner Valean delayed the publication, making it impossible to be adopted before the end of the parliamentary term. She has tried to push for a less ambitious proposal which would not allow independent booking platforms to sell the tickets of rail incumbents but just show the connection.

When and if the Proposal is published, we will know how successful the lobbying of rail incumbents was. If the Commission is really serious about easing access to rail, it will gain a lot by stepping up the ambition on this file, just like it did against major telecoms companies to end the roaming charges. Improving the booking of rail and bus tickets at national and EU level will ease the life of citizens.

But it is not too late. The Commission should not miss this window of opportunity to show that EU institutions work for people. I don’t want my friends to think I am crazy for taking the train to Seville, I want rail to become the new normal. 

Dear Commission, stick to your word, and legislate on better ticketing