Timetable Chaos for Rail Travel in Europe: A Step Backwards

Lifestyle & TravelTravel ♦ Published: August 22, 2023; 08:53 ♦ (Vindobona)

The idea of cross-border rail travel across Europe sounds tempting, but the reality is often different. Despite the expansion of night trains, the situation for rail travelers in 2023 has not improved as hoped.

Anyone wanting to travel through Europe by train will still face hurdles in 2023. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / NÖLB Mh / CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

While traveling from big city to big city has become easier, the hurdles for other connections are still high. It is not uncommon for connections not to be bookable, and some trains are not displayed at all. Experts speak of a step backward compared to twenty years ago according to the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA). The EU promises to remedy the situation, but a workable solution still seems a long way off.

Whether you want to travel to France, Spain, Romania, or Croatia, rail booking systems are quickly reaching their limits. Even well-known ticket platforms such as Trainline and Omio are overwhelmed by many connections, reports ORF. In many cases, the only option is time-consuming research on independent websites or even studying paper timetables to get an overview of the possible routes.

During an interview with the head of ERA, Josef Doppelbauer, he pointed out to ORF that the general approach in Europe is to first "let the stakeholders find a solution themselves." Only then could one prescribe uniform tickets via regulation. In any case, he confirmed that cross-border tickets are one of the "most unpleasant problems from the customer's point of view," but progress has been lacking so far.

Booking is cumbersome, and there are few guarantees that connections will work as planned. Complaints are often only possible through tickets. Even the Interrail Pass, which might be of interest to rail travelers, offers little protection, according to ERA. The necessary train reservations are often more complicated to acquire than the actual tickets.

This situation seems anything but contemporary in 2023. The EU has been trying to bring about improvements here for some time. But the problems start with the travel planning itself. The British EU policy expert and member of the German Green Party, Jon Worth, emphasizes that it is not just about ticket sales, but above all about planning the trip, as reported by ORF. Only when this has been completed can the ticket purchase take place? But when it comes to the basics - timetable data, of all things - Europe is moving backward, he says.

Marginalization of railroad travel?

Twenty years ago, the pages of ÖBB and Deutsche Bahn could show connections as far away as Turkey and Syria. But today, that is no longer possible. However, this is not due to the railroad companies, but to the International Union of Railways (UIC), which manages the timetable data, reports ORF. Member states often no longer maintain data in this system, which means that some trains simply cannot be found.

In addition to this problem, access to the MERITS database system, which is operated by UIC, is cost-intensive. According to the UIC site, regularly updated timetable data costs 50,000 euros a year. There are alternative sources of data, such as from the rail companies themselves, but even these are often incomplete.

Another lack of incentive to maintain data is that rail companies have little to gain from making their data available to other platforms. When tickets are sold through other platforms, the sales department comes away empty-handed.

The EU is trying to improve the situation but has so far achieved little in concrete terms. The initiative for "multimodal digital mobility services" should simplify travel planning across modes of transport, but there has been little progress so far. While rail companies are strongly represented in Brussels, passenger representatives have little influence.

For the upswing in rail travel to continue, such problems must be solved. Especially given the increasing popularity of rail travel, as seen, for example, in ÖBB's heavily expanded night trains and DB's international long-distance services, as ORF reports. However, finding a uniform solution for cross-border tickets by 2025 seems unlikely given the current situation.

European Commission