What will 2023 bring for international European passenger rail?
Improving rail ticketing, more investments in high-speed rail, and better capacity allocation. That is what the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) hopes to see in the next year. What is CER currently working towards? Executive Director Alberto Mazzola and Senior Policy Adviser Passenger Blaž Pongračič talk about it in this interview with RailTech.
A topic that has been in the spotlight especially recently is cross-border rail ticketing, and how it can be improved to get more passengers to choose the train over a flight. CER published a Ticketing Roadmap in September 2021, of which Blaž Pongračič was a coordinator in its development. “We saw the need to set out a vision, and now we are working with our members to implement it”, says Pongračič.
The roadmap set out to have the first milestones in 2025, which are more up to date timetables, being able to buy train tickets at least 6 and up to 12 months in advance, more up to date tariff exchange, and enabling through-tickets for trains without reservations through the Open Sales Distribution Model (OSDM).
OSDM is rail sector specification enabling interoperable ticket sales for trains and other modes of transport, jointly developed by members of the International Union of Railways UIC and ticket vendors with the members of EU Travel Tech and the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association. The OSDM Application Programming Interface and documents are open source and freely available to all parties interested.
Easier to sell and buy tickets
OSDM is not only a standard way of distribution, but also a solution, Pongračič explains. “Everybody who will have a system based on OSDM and commercial agreements to sell tickets with a rail operator or ticket vendor, has a uniform way of merging tickets. Currently, a distributor has to connect to all the separate railway operators, to DB or SNCF systems, for example. With OSDM there will be one connector, which will simplify the process and decrease the costs for both parties. This makes it easier to sell rail tickets, both technologically and commercially”, explains Pongračič.
All of the CER members are committed to implement and use OSDM, says CER Chief Executive Alberto Mazzola. “As it is an open and free standard, everybody who wants to join can join. For example, travel technology company for airlines Amadeus and ticket vendor Trainline are not CER members, but are involved in developments of OSDM.”
“We look forward to the upcoming development in the coming years”, says Pongračič. “Some companies have introduced or are developing software based on the OSDM model. Currently, Sweden is the first country to introduce a system based on OSDM in the whole country.”
Even though the model is there and technology providers have built systems based on it, the implementation is currently minimal. The sooner it is contributed as a European standard, the better, says Mazzola. “This is important because such recognition allows more railway companies to invest in it. When the recognition takes longer, there will be delay in investments in systems based on OSDM.” The expectation is that OSDM will be implemented as a standard in the telematic TAP TSI (Technical Specification for Interoperability relating to Telematics Applications of the European Union Agency for Railways ERA) will be approved in 2023, most likely before the middle of the year.
When it would become a standard, a system is needed to manage the data, such as ticket prices and timetables, says Mazzola. “We are going step by step with delivery of the roadmap, there will be no ‘big-bang’ but gradual improvements.” Another step will be to improve intermodal ticketing, including combining it with airline ticketing. “We are now working on the first phase. UIC is working together with airline association IATA, and have set the deadline to have this integrated between railways and airlines by 2030.”
Compared to the scale of investments in rail infrastructure the investment needed to implement OSDM are ‘miniscule’, says Pongračič, but changing the distribution system does cost money. “The maintenance of the OSDM has some costs, which are currently shared, but the costs are low for any railway undertaking.”
Mazzola: Some financial support to implement it would be positive, as not every operator has the same level of financial capabilities. To have the deployment more or less at the same time, some financial support would be useful, otherwise some railway operators will be later with the implementation.”
Improving rail ticketing is important, but cross-border rail is not just tickets. Ticketing without appropriate rail services makes no sense, just like trains without infrastructure, underlines Mazzola. “We have a holistic view, there are many points when somebody decides whether to take the train or a plane. People look at service, price, and comfort. As rail, we generally win below 6 hours for tourists, and for business travel if the journey is under 4 hours.”
Need for more high-speed rail
Advocating more high-speed rail, CER calculated what the travel times could be between 68 pairs of European capitals if they were connected by high-speed rail with an average speed of 200 kilometres per hour. Many connections would then be under four hours, such as Berlin – Luxembourg, or Warsaw – Prague. “Infrastructure is the key to get there, and secondly you need adapted rolling stock that is interoperable across Europe”, says Mazzola. Also more capacity is necessary, as 5 percent of the rails in the EU is congested. “We are pushing for more high-speed infrastructure, which will also free up capacity for freight.”
As a next step, CER is contributing to a study with a consultancy to evaluate the costs and benefits of such a European high-speed network between all EU capitals and major cities, which will likely be published in January 2023. Most railway stakeholders are involved, such as Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking, Unife, and ALLRAIL.
Setting investment priorities to rail
The main issues holding back the growth of rail are currently the lack of infrastructure investments, and possibilities for investment in rolling stock. Especially in niche markets such as night trains, which are gaining traction again. As for why people are not taking the train more, there are improvements needed to get a more competitive price for rail compared to other modes of transport, next to improved ease of booking a cross-border ticket.
Mazzola: “There is not enough investment in rail, the targets that the European Commission has set of doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and tripling it by 2050 cannot be achieved with current investment in infrastructure. We estimated that with improving digitisation, including ERTMS, and capacity management can increase traffic on the infrastructure of today by around 25 percent. To double it however, much more investment is needed. Czech Republic and Poland are investing in new high-speed lines, and there will be some improvements made to high-speed rail infrastructure in Germany, Spain, France and Italy, but a lot more is needed in terms of infrastructure investments.” The EU can certainly do more in this regard, says Mazzola, especially with the need to reach the Green Deal target.
A main point of what needs to be set right is the prioritisation of infrastructure investment, states Mazzola. For a long time, it has been the practice that with infrastructure investments roads have been prioritised, both on a national level and from EU funds, and this is sometimes still the case. Only from the Connecting Europe Facility fund (CEF), more money went to rail. “This needs to be corrected”, says Mazzola.
Of the European Cohesion fund, in the past decades the majority of the money went to roads. Looking at the example of Poland, from 2007 to 2013 30 percent went to rail and 70 percent to road. Between 2014 and 2020, 40 percent went to rail and 60 to road, and in this period, passenger traffic via rail in fact doubled. “If you invest, you get results. Now we are expecting it will finally be the reverse, where 55 percent of the fund will go to rail and 45 to road.” And when the EU invests more in rail, national investments will follow, believes Mazzola. “Priority definition is very important.”
Looking to 2023
Another important topic for the European railway sector is the lack of staff. “There is a need to renew many of the staff working in railways in the coming years”, says Mazzola. CER is in discussion for the Women in Rail initiative it made with trade unions. “This was implemented in 2022, and by the end of next year we will look at the first results. So far, 83% of CER staff in the EU are covered in the agreement.”
The binding agreement will see improvements of the working place in the rail sector from the female perspective, making it more attractive for women to start working in the rail sector, as well as improving conditions for women already working in rail. It involves for example providing sufficient and appropriate sanitary facilities for stationary and mobile personnel on trains, or health and safety conditions at the workplace as well as a better work-life-balance to help retain women within the sector. It also ensures equal pay, such as through the development of gender-neutral classification systems. The railway companies that adopted the agreement committed to carrying out the actions of the Agreement within 24 months of signing, which took place in November 2021. Ideally, 100 percent of its members are to join, says Mazzola. In addition to EU railways that have adopted it however, currently also Switzerland, Norway and North Macedonia have done so, which are not in the European Union.
Another important point in 2023 will be digitalisation, which goes hand in hand with the upcoming European Year of Skills. This has the goal of highlighting and addressing the need for improving the right skills of the workforce, especially in light of the green and digital transitions. Upcoming change is also the revision of the Directive on the certification of train drivers, which was announced in 2022. An evaluation that showed that there is significant margin for simplification and further improving the effectiveness of the Directive. The revision will focus on outdated provisions, ambiguous language and possible scope adjustments.
CER also supports the Timetable Redesign (TTR). This involves how capacity on the tracks is located and changing the rules for timetables. “The Commission will make a proposal, and we hope that it will not take another five years to discuss it, but a lot quicker. Many countries are doing and planning a lot of maintenance work on the tracks, which reduce capacity. There is a need for a system to accommodate between passenger operators, freight operators and infrastructure works”, says Mazzola. This system should allow to optimise and make the most use of the existing capacity.
Complementing this, like digital capacity management, a digital system which all infrastructure managers will be able to use. The European TTR programme for Smart Capacity Management is up and running, but for its implementation funding and resources (both national and international) are essential, it was stated by CER and other stakeholders in a joint vision adopted in 2021. Also, EU and national governments need to finance Digital Capacity Management implementation with European and national funds. A total amount of 675 million euros is estimated for infrastructure managers and railway undertakings for the necessary IT developments.
Urgency of the energy crisis
An urgent issue that also other sectors face is the rising energy price, and in one year time this will still be an issue, sees Mazzola. “In the market there is expectation that the price could be higher in one year than it is today. Railway companies are signing contracts for electricity for next year and see very high prices.”
For rail as a sustainable mode of transport, this is especially an issue, as higher costs could lead to financial difficulties for operators and resulting higher prices for rail without support, which could draw passengers and freight shippers away from the train. “Running an electric locomotive is more expensive than a freight locomotive on diesel, and steel producers using electricity for greener production are penalised compared to manufacturers using coal. This is the number 1 railway issue at this moment and is perversing the Green Deal, which needs to be addressed.”
This article is featured in the RailTech Year-End Special of 2022. Download the full magazine here