EU intervention for ticketing? These are the different views
The EU wants to improve ticketing for multimodal services, and is working on new regulation. For some, this is long-overdue progress, others question its necessity and draw attention to issues to avoid. RailTech attended a discussion hosted by MEP Maria Grapini at the European Parliament in Brussels last week, organised by the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), here’s how different parties stand.
“Today we have very little true multimodal digital mobility services available”, says Charlotte Nørlund-Matthiessen, Policy Advisor for the Cabinet of Transport under Commissioner Adina Vălean. “Multimodality is a new landscape, with so much potential”, she stresses. That is why the European Commission is working on new legislation for Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS), which should improve booking of tickets across different modes, such as rail, bus, air and maritime transport.
Representing the Commission’s view in the discussion, the Policy Advisor highlights that their main angle is to look at where there currently is market failure, when it comes to ticketing. “We found in our impact assessment that there is in fact market failure, namely when it comes to sharing of data”, says Nørlund-Matthiessen.
Sector developments or legislation?
Alberto Mazzola, director of CER, starts off his contribution saying in his view, the glass is already half full when it comes to ticketing. Referring to a 2018 study of Eurobarometer, the polling instrument for the EU Commission and Parliament, 75 percent of participants said to be satisfied with ease of buying tickets for rail. According to him, developments by the sector itself move faster than legislation.
Nørlund-Matthiessen notes that the satisfaction regarding ticketing may be 75 percent for rail in general, but when it comes to multimodal ticketing, which the Commission specifically wants to address, the satisfaction rate of the poll is significantly lower, with 62 percent. It could also be noted that the Eurobarometer concerned rail travel in general, not international rail travel. For domestic travel, ticketing services are without a doubt better than for cross-border travel. Dutch European Parliament Member (MEP) Vera Tax, who attended the discussion to hear the different perspectives, later points out that in her view, even 25 percent of people not satisfied with ticketing services is still a lot, and should be improved.
The (only) other MEP attending the discussion, Dorien Rookmaker, also from the Netherlands, is sceptical about the need for new regulation for ticketing. “An operator could sell more tickets by making them available on more platforms, but if they don’t have overcapacity, there is no incentive, as it gets nothing in return. Apparently it does not pay, because operators are only sharing data in limited amount. This is because the volume of passengers is still low. If the Commission thinks ticketing is important, the focus should be on building more demand, by investing in more high-speed rail. If you create volume, ticketing will follow.”
The issue: access to data
Agustín Reyna, Director of Legal and Economic Affairs at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), does agree with the Commission that there currently is market failure when it comes to ticketing services, and that there is a case for intervention on an EU level. “There is a need to address multimodal and cross-border ticketing, and this is more important than ever if we want people to choose sustainable transport.” The BEUC has many national consumer organisations in Europe as members, and Reyna says they show there are many issues in the current ticketing landscape. “Everybody would agree we are far from ideal situation, booking cross-border is very cumbersome.”
According to Reyna, the main question is what data needs to be available, and under what conditions. “Because rail operators, like in any other industry, can decide under which conditions they share the data, from a pricing perspective but also on the content side. An operator makes the assessment, whether it is better to keep data to themselves, or to give access to that data. In this, the interest of the company will always prevail.”
Sector organisation CER, which counts Europe’s large railway operators among its members, developed a ‘ticketing roadmap’ in 2021, which the goal of creating a seamless ticketing experience. Among the goals 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). This model was developed by the International Union of Railways (UIC) together with ticket vendors. The CER wishes for this to be adopted as a European standard, saying it’s some of its members are currently waiting on this to adopt the model in their ticketing systems, which slows down implementation.
Sharing data is also part of the roadmap, says CER director Mazzola. “We are sharing data on timetables and in terms of costs, with everybody who is participating in OSDM. Any ticket vendor can also join.” “The MDMS initiative must ensure that transport companies and authorities have full access at all times to any data on inquiries and usage received by the sales platforms”, CER says in a statement following the debate.
The international branch of Dutch railways, NS International, is also participating in the discussion. “Theres a world to win and room for improvement regarding some fundamental requirements that make customers choose rail over more polluting modes such as planes and cars”, says Director Heike Luiten. “The ticketing roadmap is not just progress on paper, we have milestones in 2025 and 2030 to really improve the attractiveness of international rail.”
A delegate in the audience from the European Passengers’ Federation (EPF) who is attending the panel discussion, is sceptical of these sector goals, however. “Since 2010 we have heard from the cabinet: “leave it to the sector”. But action is needed. I believe that in 2025, without action from the commission, nothing will change. Technically the possibility is there, but there is no willingness from the sector to make commercial agreements.”
Could a market-dominant ticketing system become a problem?
The discussion also goes into the possible issue of there arising a booking system that becomes dominant in the market, and can thus charge high margin costs from operators, the likes of booking.com for the hotel sector being mentioned. It is the main issue the CER wants to address, putting out a press release titled ‘Rail sector urges policy makers to avoid dominance of digital platforms’.
According to Nørlund-Matthiessen, the Commission will take this into account. “This proposal has the objective to tackle the fear that prices could go up because of the extra margins by third-party ticket vendors. We will avoid this situation, by saying that obligations can be put on a platform when it becomes indispensable.”
Reyna of the consumer organisation says it is “promising” that such a potential safeguard will be introduced, but he also calls for more competition between booking platforms. “If you have competition at the level for booking services, this will also drive prices down, and improve the customer experience.”
NS International director Heike Luiten, responds: “But then you’re aiming at competition on the distributor’s level, and there are by definition commercial parties, who will not be objective.“ She also argues there is a difference between the possibility to find the best offer, “which we are aiming at as well with the ticketing roadmap”, and having competition between distributors.
In the view of Reyna, this will not likely be a major issue. “If the price ends up being cheaper on the rail incumbent’s website, people will just book there. Consumers are not stupid, they will also try to find what is best for them. But they need to have the possibility to check prices, and shop around.”
The scope of the regulation
The Commission earlier outlined three key problems in the document opening the impact assessment. First of all, the difficulty to ensure that incumbent MDMS providers do not adopt anti-competitive practices that deployment of MDMS is not limited by anti-competitive practices:in some cases, multimodal digital services do not integrate other operator’s offers leading to less transparency, less comparability, and fewer choices for users. In some cases the distribution agreements between operators (both public and private)and digital service providers are unbalanced, due to inequality of bargaining power in favour of incumbent operators, the Commission states.
Also, there are “opaque conditions” for combining and re-selling mobility products in land based modes, waterborne and maritime transport. Third, there is a difficulty to ensure that multimodal digital mobility services support transport sustainability objectives: multimodal digital services may not provide sufficient information on the most sustainable short distance travel mode.
“Let’s be frank, it will probably not be a silver bullet, but in the end, what regulation is?”, EU Policy Advisor Nørlund-Matthiessen said honestly in the discussion. This shows the Commission does not pretend that a new regulation will solve everything in itself. The big question remains how exactly the MDMS regulation will handle the issue of access to data, which appears to be the main requirement in making it more easy to find, compare and book tickets for multi-modal and cross-border journeys.