Background

Eurail celebrates 50th anniversary: the evolution of the Interrail pass

Created in 1972 in the wake of the hippie movement, the Interrail pass celebrates its 50th anniversary this March. Initially aimed at young people, the pass for train travel across Europe is increasingly popular, across generations.

Taking the train as if you were closing your eyes: this was the principle behind the card launched on 1 March 1972. The Interrail pass made it possible to buy tickets all over Europe without having to go to a ticket office or speak the local language.

Originally, Interrail a unique offer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Union of Railways UIC (which therefore celebrates its 100th anniversary next October). Young people up to the age of 21 could travel in 21 countries for a month. Around 100,000 Interrail passes were sold. On the strength of this success and in view of the many requests, the UIC decided to make the offer permanent each year.

However, this principle was only possible through the signing of a revenue-sharing agreement between the participating national railway companies.

Evolution

In 1976, the age limit for Interrail beneficiaries was raised to 23 years, with prices already revised upwards. Morocco joined the club, expanding the reach beyond the borders of Europe. Poland and the East-Germany of the time, the GDR, withdrew on the other hand, which both had participated from the first years.

In 1978, posters from the time show that Interrail was available for up to 26 year olds. Is it the rise of university studies? Hard to say, but the young backpacker was already no longer associated with the hippie movement. The focus was more on discovering other cultures.

In 1985, Turkey was added to the destinations that were possible with the pass, again with a price increase. Nearly 300,000 cards a year were sold in Europe. Some ferry companies also joined the group. Often one step ahead in their social policy, the Scandinavian countries launched a more expensive “senior” adult offer in 1989.

A booklet in handwriting

Originally, the Interrail pass was a booklet with free boxes in which each journey was written, from the smallest to the largest, every day. This sometimes led to misunderstandings with train attendants, when it was illegible or badly written.

Only residents of European countries could buy a pass, the country of residence being excluded from the arrangement. Moreover, the Interrail pass only gave you the right to basic second-class travel.

In some express trains, a “comfort” supplement had to be paid, as on the Talgo in Spain or the Intercity in some countries, often leading to misunderstandings by people who did not speak the local language. On night trains, sleeping car and berth supplements were also required. However, many night trains had seating cars. Trans Europ Express trains, which are first class only, were excluded, as were some sleeper trains. Later in France, restrictions appeared with the arrival of the TGV.

A necessary revision of the concept

In the early 1990s, almost 400,000 cards were sold in a Europe stripped of its iron curtain. But questions were raised by certain networks.

The Italians, in particular, complained that they were not receiving enough revenue from the card “whereas we receive all of northern Europe on our trains mainly during the two summer months, which has a cost”. The principle of revenue distribution was based on the mileage of each country’s network. This was different from Ireland or Finland, for example, which received revenue for very few Interrail flows.

In Switzerland, some secondary companies had everything to lose by accepting the Interrail pass, as trains there were as expensive as the country itself. The allocation formula therefore had to reflect the costs and standard of living of each country.

One country

On 1 April 2007, the offer was extended by the Interrail One Country Pass (OCP) with prices that were significantly increased. Rather than the whole of Europe, a single country of choice can be chosen. Multiple OCPs can be combined to cover the desired travel area.

The “One Country Pass” offers more freedom by choosing 3, 4, 6 or 8 days of freely chosen travel during a month and in a country. The formula seems to have gained momentum as three times as many Interrail passes were sold in 2018 compared to 2005. In 2020, Estonia and Latvia joined the Interrail/Eurail group, and a mobile pass was introduced to offer paperless travel, which was used by 94 percent of travellers in 2021.

Carlo Boselli, general manager of Eurail, will speak at the conference RailTech Europe 2022. On the third day, the topic is international long-distance train connections, for more information, visit the website

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Author: Frédéric de Kemmeter

Frédéric de Kemmeter is signalling technician and railway policy observer.

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