The quest for a single European rail app

Arie Bleijenberg — November 30, 2023

How can Europe simplify the life of its rail travelers?

Last October T&E held its board meeting in Madrid. I decided to travel by train. The Deutsche Bahn route planner that I always use for international trains, showed that I could make the trip from The Netherlands to Madrid in one day. Great! However, I could not buy a ticket from Rotterdam to Madrid anywhere, and it took me a full eight hours to book sixteen separate tickets, including those for seat reservations. Again and again, I needed to fill out all sorts of information.

Advised by a travel agent specialised in international rail, I purchased an Interrail Card. While booking, I learned that I still needed to buy expensive seat reservations, that train operator OUIGO did not participate in Interrail and that seat reservations for Spanish Renfe can only be made at a ticket office in a train station in Spain. The Renfe website advised me to book a full ticket if I wanted to be sure to catch the train I needed. I did it for one connection. For another I took the risk, waited more than half an hour in line for the ticket office and therefore missed my connection. Overall, I have no idea whether buying an Interrail Card saved or cost me money, let alone time.

This is just my personal story concerning one trip. Many others experienced similar problems and most people do not even bother to consider the train instead of a plane. The key problem of European rail is that there is no such thing as European rail. The European Court of Auditors expressed this aptly in their report titled “A European high-speed rail network: not a reality but an ineffective patchwork.” Rail companies – just as other firms – prioritise their own interests over the common good. Conflicting interests prevent them from cooperating in providing good services to the international traveller.

A first step towards better European rail services is a single app, instead of each company obliging you to use their own app. This European app should have an independent rail planner, not biased in favour of any operator. Alternatives for the entire route – in my case Rotterdam-Madrid – should be shown including all prices for tickets including seats and its availability. One click should suffice to book the entire trip. All tickets and real time travel updates should show up in this app, and re-routings are arranged when needed. Delays at the final point of destination are compensated. It is this simple.

However, I have little faith in the railway industry to create such a European Rail app. Just like the standard dimensions of containers would never have been decided on if governments hadn’t forced this. So, only the European Union can make this happen. But I am not hopeful for quick action, because the European Commission keeps pushing this back.      

Better service to the European rail traveller is needed and will make more people choose the train. At many routes between European cities, up to 10% of air passengers can be seduced to take the train by improving the existing rail connection. This is, however, only a small contribution to tackling the pollution caused by aviation. As T&E’s study Air2Rail showed, only 2 to 4% of CO2-emissions from European aviation can be avoided by a modal shift from aviation to rail travel. Greening aviation requires blending mandates for green synthetic kerosene, taxes on fossil kerosene and tickets, allowing only zero-carbon flights on short distances and corporate policies on business trips. See my assessment of nine policies to decarbonize aviation. These policies will get some people to choose the train as well.

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