Booking an international train journey fails 10 times more often than a flight, why is it more difficult?

Image: Victor Li, Unsplash

“We all know that booking international rail tickets can be quite difficult, but how big is the problem?” That was the question that Thomas Preslmayr and students of the Austrian St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences set out to answer with an empirical study. And the result was striking: the rate of failed bookings for trains was 10 times higher than for flights, out of 304 bookings. At RailTech Europe, Preslmayr will give a presentation about the study.

To find out more about the ease (or difficulty) of booking an international trip in Europe via train versus via airplane, an empirical study was launched in Austria. Part of a master programme at St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences, the study was carried out in collaboration with the students in one of Thomas Preslmayr’s courses at the Department of Rail Technology and Mobility.

A total of 76 participants were given the task to each book tickets for two different routes, both via rail and via air. In advance, 46 travel destinations between European cities were defined. Out of the 152 bookings for rail, 102 were successful, meaning a fail rate of 33 percent. For booking flights, 143 out of 152 were successful, and only 5 were technically not possible, equal to 3 percent of bookings. This meant that the rate of failed bookings for rail was 10 times higher than for flights.

Difficult when changing trains

“Booking direct trains from one’s home country to neighbouring countries is quite easy. Booking a journey was found to be especially difficult when it was needed to change trains or when the test persons didn’t find out which booking platform to use. Thus, even from Warsaw to Prague, two capitals from neighbouring countries, none of the test persons assigned to the route managed to book a train journey”, says Preslmayr.

There is a big difference in the booking process between rail and air travel, with booking platforms less common in rail. There are some such as Trainline, RailEurope and Omio, but these do not cover everything, as not all operators share all the necessary data. “In our study, around two-thirds of bookings could be covered by a platform, but also one-third were not possible to be booked using a platform”.

The scope of the relatively small study focussed on Austria with Austrian participants, and is therefore not representative for booking international tickets for Europe as a whole. Each destination was covered by three bookings. However, it does already offer some insight into the extent of the booking difficulty for trains.

No directions were given on how the trip could be booked. “The goal was to see how people would behave and book it if they were just planning a trip at home. If it was getting too complicated, they were advised to stop trying when they normally would”, says Preslmayr.

To reserve or not to reserve

There are different types of underlying problems that make it difficult to book a journey with multiple railway operators, some technical, but also legal, strategic and economic, Preslmayr explains. “One of the key problems is that there are integrated reservation tickets (IRT) that need to be reserved, and there are non-integrated reservation tickets (NRT), which do not require reservation.”

Most long-distance trains in for example Italy, Spain or France, as well as international trains like Thalys are integrated, while most regular intercity and regional trains are non-integrated. “In the background, it’s hard to combine these tickets because they have different systems. A solution for this already exists however, the UIC Open Sales and Distribution Model (OSDM), which brings the two types together.”

“Booking a train journey from Vienna to Rome in one go wasn’t possible last year because of non-integrated tickets in Austria and integrated ones in Italy to Rome. Trying it today it works, because the solution is now implemented. So, progress is visible”, says Preslmayr.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) cannot impose the OSDM on rail operators however, so it is not yet implemented everywhere. “For some countries, for example in Eastern Europe, the lack of implementation is also a question of financing, because operators often have older booking systems and the implementation is expensive”, Preslmayr explains.

The best technical solutions can’t solve everything

The reality is also that not everything can be fixed by technical solutions. “When buying a train ticket from Germany to Poland two months in advance, it won’t work because in Poland pre-sale starts 30 days before the day of travel. The best technical solutions cannot solve that”, says Preslmayr. More harmonisation in ticketing practices is therefore needed in Europe.

“Countries or operators also have different requirements”, he explains. “In Italy for example, when booking long-distance train tickets for a group of six, you need to fill out all contact information of the whole group, which is quite tedious.”

The interest and priority for improving connecting train tickets for international passengers also differs per European country. “A country like Austria, having a central position in Europe and many international cross-border rail travellers, has more priority for this. Cross-border rail travellers here have a greater importance than for example in Spain, which is less interconnected and also has less international rail travellers.”

The hurdle of the complications in ticketing is one of the reasons that substantial market share for rail is lost to the airline industry. “International train journeys are getting more popular, but now too many people get lost in the booking process. At the RailTech Europe conference we will give an outlook on the potential increase in international passenger numbers, given ticketing processes are working”, Preslmayr concludes.

Thomas Preslmayr is a speaker on the third day of the RailTech Europe conference on 23 June, which is all about international long-distance trains and how to improve their conditions. View the programme at the website.

Author: Esther Geerts


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