When train and plane go hand in hand

Posted: 3 December 2008 | Giuseppe Rizzo, Reference Officer for passenger air/rail intermodality, DGTREN | No comments yet

Changing transport mode during a trip can be a stressful experience due to the change of interface and the need for the passenger to ‘take action’. Where should I head? What if I miss my connection? How do I get there? What about my luggage? But changing mode of transport is also what we do by definition, even many times, during our door to door (air) journey from our doorstep to the final destination.

Changing transport mode during a trip can be a stressful experience due to the change of interface and the need for the passenger to ‘take action’. Where should I head? What if I miss my connection? How do I get there? What about my luggage? But changing mode of transport is also what we do by definition, even many times, during our door to door (air) journey from our doorstep to the final destination.

Intermodality is the art of making such change of mode of transport as smooth and convenient as possible, but why should the European Commission bother about putting together two or more different transport modes?

In its White Paper on Transport1 the European Commission affirms that “there is considerable scope for improvements to make travelling conditions easier and facilitate modal transfers, which are still highly problematic.

Far too often passengers are put off using different modes of transport for a single journey. They have problems obtaining information and ordering tickets when the journey involves several transport companies or different means of transport. Transferring from one mode to another can be complicated by inadequate infrastructure.”

In particular, the need for a better intermodality between the air and rail transport modes has since been reiterated in many official documents, the last one being the Commission Communication ‘An action plan for airport capacity, efficiency and safety in Europe.’2

No infrastructure? No intermodality!

Usually, when asking somebody to guess the number of EU airports linked to rail services, the answer is something in the order of between five and ten. In reality, about 54 EU airports are linked to some kind of rail service, from light rail to high speed. Adding Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, geographical Europe has as many airport rail connections as the rest of the world!3

The first European Commission actions in favour of passenger air/rail intermodality have concerned the infrastructure aspect. The Trans-European Networks for Transport (usually known as TEN-T) are the EC specific financial instruments dedicated to transport infrastructure. Since the introduction of TEN-T in 1995, 84 airport projects (studies or works) have been supported, of which about one third concerned intermodal infrastructure specifically or indirectly.

Beneficiaries include; Brussels, Copenhagen, Malmö, Paris, Lyon, Berlin BBI, Cologne, Leipzig, Munich, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Rome FCO, Stockholm, London LCY, Birmingham, London STN, Glasgow, etc. Manchester for instance has benefited from TEN-T support for four different development phases of its Ground Transport Interchange, aka ‘The Station’ between 1998 and 2007. Nowadays, the average grant for a single airport project ranges from between one and four million euros. Interested airports can apply each year, when the TEN-T annual call is launched, usually around April.

From infrastructures to services

Now that the TEN-T budget has grown to over eight billion euros for the period 2007-2013, a specific Executive Agency has been created in order to manage all the hundreds of TEN-T projects5, from Intelligent Transport Systems to Air Traffic Management (SESAR), from (Air)Ports to ERTMS6, and of course rail and road. Having freed some internal human resources, the Commission can now, inter alia, give more attention to the other pillar of intermodality – service.

In reality there are three types of air/rail intermodality; the airport express service, the regional/commuter train service and the high speed/high quality rail service. Each of them has a different market, different competitors and a different relationship to the rest of the stakeholders.

Airport express services have a positive impact on airport accessibility (road congestion) and on the environmental sustainability of airport operation. Regional and medium haul trains, on top of those aspects, also help the airport and therefore the air carriers to widen the catchment area. High Speed Trains (HST) encompass all the above and furthermore can have a substitution effect vis-à-vis short haul flights and act as a feeder for longer haul flights. It is important that such services are available ‘at the airport’, because HST services departing from the main railway station downtown are considered a direct competitor and not an integrator of air transport.

Distributional or operational?

The ‘non infrastructure’ part of passenger air/rail intermodality is probably the most difficult to solve. Issues cover both distributional and operational aspects.

‘Distributional issues’ are for instance, the lack of integration of rail services in the Global Distribution Systems (GDS/CRS). In fact, in order to develop the sales of air/rail products, the rail part of such products have to be accessible to GDS and combinable with air products; this implies that GDS ‘understand’ messages coming from the ‘rail world’, their language/syntax and their data. Unfortunately, rail IT systems are often not even interoperable between themselves in the various Member States, much less when it comes to air transport standards.

The objective is to limit development costs globally (i.e. all concerned parties included) as much as possible. The solution should meet that objective, but it entails a constraint that is a proportioning factor: location codes used by GDS (and air industry in general) are IATA three character codes, but the number of IATA location codes that are still available is limited, not more than a few thousand for all needs.

Operational issues concern such aspects as coordinating air/rail schedules, linking air and rail inventory systems in order to allow the dynamic booking of places, or standardisation of the intermodal product throughout the EU.

Some stakeholders suggest that in order to promote air/rail intermodality the most urgent action is to give much better travel information to the passengers. As a matter of fact, it is extremely rare that a travel agent will propose an intermodal journey to you, combining train and air. This happens because the two transport modes live in separate worlds, or at least used to. A limited number of rail services are starting to be displayed together with flights. For example, Eurostar is now offering its services like an airline (including e-tickets) combinable with flights.

Some countries or organisations offer websites which provide unbiased intermodal travel information. An example comes from the Czech Republic7 and two more from Germany (Fahren und Fliegen, i.e. Ride & Fly)8 and Verkehrsmittelvergleich (literally: comparison of transport modes).9 There are even commercial ones like the Swiss Routerank.10

Legal aspects of intermodality can be frightening at times, keeping in mind that operators aim at higher (not lower) incomes from the introduction of intermodality: if the train is late, how to treat the passenger who has missed his/her flight? There are also fiscal problems: VAT is, for the moment, applicable to the purchase of rail services by an airline and a cross border train transport is not exempt from VAT, while a flight ticket is.

Putting all stakeholders around the table

But what are the main issues nowadays for air/rail intermodality stakeholders?

For airports the good news is the enlargement of the catchment area and the better use of slots, when high quality train services take the place of short haul flights. This allows for substitution of some short haul flights with longer haul flights, which means a more effective use of each slot. For instance, between 1998 and 2004 the number of passengers on the Frankfurt-Cologne route choosing air transport diminished by two thirds.11

Decreasing car access to the airport has both positive and negative aspects. On one side, pollution levels are lower12 and road/accessibility congestion diminishes. Commercially speaking, precious revenues from car parking fees are at stake. Furthermore, intermodal infrastructures can be very expensive.

For rail operators, particularly in the case of high speed lines, stopping at one more station has a cost, particularly if passenger numbers are low. Now the answer could be that there would be more passengers if the train frequencies were higher. Hardly a passenger would choose to connect with a train knowing that, in case he/she misses that connection, the next train to his/her destination will be in four hours! Therefore in certain cases the result may be a negative spiral (less trains = less passengers = less trains) or at least a status quo, like at Lyon airport. However, once a certain critical mass is reached, intermodality becomes a success story.

At Frankfurt Airport railway stations (note the plural), the number of daily trains was 46 in 1998 and ten years later has grown to 175. This refers just to long distance trains, while there are also 213 daily regional trains.13

Moreover, concerning the train layout, operators are generally reluctant to fit general purpose trains with facilities like large luggage racks, which diminish the number of seats available for sale, expensive IT systems for passenger information on flights etc. considering that the airport is just one of the numerous stations on the trains’ total journey. This also applies to the coordination of schedules. The situation is of course different for a good number of airport express operators, whose main market is the link between downtown and the airport rail station.

In many (but obviously not all) cases, rail operators tend to still think ‘domestic’ and ‘state company’ and they do not immediately see a positive answer to the WIIFM question (What’s In It For Me?). On the contrary, the successes of HST against short haul air transport let some rail operators feel fit to compete openly with air transport, not taking into consideration the possibility of synergies at the more global level. However, certain operators like the German DB have found their market niche and are operating rail services with flight numbers, in code share with a series of airlines.
For airlines, trains can in some cases be seen as a competitor of the short haul flight. Not all airlines see the trend to switch from short haul flights to trains with a favourable eye, especially regional airlines. But larger airlines can avail themselves of rail services in order to feed their flights. For instance, a third country airline only landing in the capital city can offer its clients tickets to many destinations via the rail service.

Some Low Cost Carriers, who are masters in creating revenues from anything, have found a low cost solution for intermodal ticketing: they sell airport express tickets on board the aircraft, before landing. Airport express operators are happy to pay a small fee to the air carrier in exchange for a ‘confirmed’ passenger.

In any case, airlines are well aware of the efficiency of HST on the short haul in Europe. So much so that Air France is now seriously planning to directly operate AF branded high speed trains. Unfortunately, such new services are not meant to feed flights, but will be directly competing with the incumbent rail operator on the same kind of services.

Global Distribution Systems are of course happy to add as many railway lines as possible to their database. However, as already mentioned, there are many kinds of technical problems. Railways find it too expensive to use GDS, considering that in most cases the same fee applies to a short train hop in second class as an intercontinental business class flight.

Concerning the display of train services on the GDS screens, when the criterion is journey duration, rail services are clearly penalised. If declared flight time is, say, 45 minutes, the corresponding high speed rail journey will be something like two to three hours and will therefore be displayed many ‘screens’ later.

It is well known that the vast majority of sales are made from travel options displayed on the first two screens. Now, if the total ‘door to door’ travel time including check-in, security at airport etc, was taken into consideration, things would be quite different.

In order to allow more competition at GDS level, a new regulation will very soon modify the rules applicable to Computer Reservation Systems (CRS). GDS however, see their role weakened by the fast growth of direct sales of air tickets from air carriers’ own web sites.

Looking for win-win solutions

From 4 July to 30 September 2008, the European Commission launched a public consultation paper on the development of Integrated Ticketing for Air and Rail Transport. This covers, for the first phase at least, the High Speed Train services. In particular, nine questions were addressed to stakeholders. They concerned the feasibility and content of eventual voluntary agreements, the definition of the best management structure for such an agreement, and the identification of the main obstacles to air/rail intermodality.

Forty-eight answers have been received within the deadline and more are still arriving. Answers (sent not only by the air and rail operators, but also by citizens, local administrators, tour operators, universities etc) are available online.14 Received suggestions and comments will serve to help the Commission prepare the next steps of the Passenger Air/Rail Intermodality policy.


  1. White Paper: European Transport Policy for 2010: time to decide. Brussels, 14.9.2001. . The White Paper has been updated in 2006.
  2. COM(2006) 819 final of 24.1.2007
  3. Source:
  4. The call for proposals is published in:
  5. agency/index_en.htm
  6. European Rail Traffic Management System.
  8. medienservice/fahren_und_fliegen.html
  11. Source: Fraport.
  12. Pollution levels are sometimes a limiting factor to the extension of airport infrastructures (new runways etc.). Also congestion has a negative commercial impact through higher overall transport costs and delayed, stressed passengers who will miss their flight or at least spend less time in the airport shopping areas.
  13. Source: Fraport.
  14. consultations/index_en.htm

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