Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, April 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
Will short-haul business travellers really turn to rail instead of taking a flight? Dave Richardson looks at the challenges for Europe's overland networks
The long-awaited go-ahead for HS2, the high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, has re-ignited the debate over whether eco-friendly rail can ever replace gas-guzzling short-haul flights – especially if the line is extended to Scotland.
Even though the initial Birmingham link won’t become a reality until at least 2026, the debate is already high on the agenda for many corporates. Eurostar dominates the city-to-city market from London to Paris and Brussels, and beyond these cities lies an ever-increasing network of high-speed routes. France, Germany, Spain and Italy lead the way, with Britain lagging far behind.
It is now more than 17 years since Eurostar, and the Channel Tunnel, linked us to continental Europe for the first time. Since then Eurostar enjoyed a monopoly – until the European Commission passed legislation introducing competition in the rail industry. Germany’s national railway Deutsche Bahn (DB) has emerged as the only would-be competitor so far but, rather than compete on the Paris routes, it plans to establish direct services from London to Frankfurt via Brussels and Cologne, as well as to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, in 2015.
The company had previously hoped to get the service up and running by 2013, but technical problems in developing a new generation of inter-city express (ICE) trains to operate through the Channel Tunnel, with its exacting safety and evacuation standards, has delayed the schedule.
Eurostar also has plans to extend services to other countries, and it already operates summer-only services to Avignon in southern France, and to the French Alps during the ski season. It has 10 new-generation trains on order for delivery in 2014, which can operate across borders to other countries. No destinations have been announced, but Rotterdam/Amsterdam and Geneva are considered possibilities. Equally, the new trains could be used to boost services to Paris, where some trains are already at full capacity.
The question is, will these options attract the business traveller? It is generally considered that with a journey time of up to three hours, the train beats the plane on city centre-to-city centre journeys. That is why East Coast Trains now has a 62 per cent share of the London-Newcastle market (average journey time three hours), compared to a smaller but growing share of 22 per cent on London-Edinburgh (four hours 30 minutes).
Projected journey times are under four hours from London to Cologne, around four hours to Amsterdam, and five hours to Frankfurt. It is already possible to reach Cologne in about four hours 30 minutes with one simple change in Brussels, so DB’s ICE trains are bound to increase the business market.
Add in productivity on the move – an unbroken journey with wifi access throughout – and you could have a persuasive case, but only on a limited number of journeys from London. Although HS2 will include a link to the existing HS1 route from London to the Channel Tunnel, it will still take around three hours from Birmingham to Paris.
The travel manager of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Will Hasler, says a maximum three-hour journey time is key in switching from air to rail. He says: “We are talking to DB about the new routes, but four hours are a lot more difficult to sell than three hours. If you do a round trip to Scotland by train then that is nine hours, and it is often cheaper to fly.”
Capita Business Travel's strategic business development manager, Raj Sachdave, says there is increasing demand for rail travel further into Europe, especially when an overnight stop is made in London or Brussels. There is also increasing demand for rail travel within Germany when business travellers arrive by air, with Frankfurt airport being on the ICE network.
“It’s certainly disappointing that ICE trains from London have been delayed until 2015 or 2016, but Eurostar’s plans are not affected,” says Sachdave. “Rail makes sense at major air-rail transport hubs such as Frankfurt.”
Whether or not rail makes business sense beyond Paris and Brussels, a major issue is ease of booking. Pressure is now increasing on Europe’s mainly state-owned rail operators to create an integrated, Europe-wide reservations system such as the airlines have had for more than 30 years, and the European Commission is leading a project to make this become a reality. The global distribution systems (GDSs), and other online systems, would then be able to fully integrate rail with air, hotel and car rental bookings to give business travellers a full range of options, but so far it is only Eurostar that appears on the same display as airlines.
Amadeus has commissioned a report – Back on Track – by academic Professor James Woudhuysen, calling on rail operators to abandon their legacy systems for the common good. This would allow rail both to compete and co-operate more fully with airlines, making a single ticket for a multi-modal journey a reality.
Thomas Drexler, director of Amadeus Rail, says: “When it comes to major developments in passenger transport, the next decade looks set to be the decade of rail. However, one area threatening to hold back progress is technology. We hope that this report will promote new thinking and stimulate discussion about how best to capitalise on the abundant opportunities present in the rail sector over the next few years.”
The head of marketing for Amadeus Rail, Phillip Martin, says developments are ongoing in advance of any move to new technology by Europe’s railways. A “click-and-book” booking system has been launched for France's national state-owned railway company SNCF, fully integrated with back office functions. But this remains a stand-alone system rather than integrating rail and air.
“We are working with the EC on its plans for a pan-European system, and although this is a slow process, we are seeing progress,” he adds. “Once rail becomes much more visible through distribution channels, people will book it more.”
Martin Danzl, rail distribution manager for Sabre Travel Network, says: “More railways will in future choose to compete alongside airlines, and Spain and Italy are prime examples of railways already taking market share away from airlines. Over the course of the next 18 months more railways will be competing head-to-head with airlines on GDSs.”
Travelport will soon announce an agreement with an Italian rail operator for just such a display. Klaus Kreher, director of business development for rail, cruise and ferry, says: “The high-speed networks of France, Germany and Benelux are currently bookable through Travelport’s Galileo Railmaster system, a stand-alone solution. The intention is ultimately to combine these into one display, as we are doing with our new Italian partner. Through tickets on Eurostar beyond Paris/Brussels are not currently available.”
At present, travel management companies, or corporates directly, usually use a specialist online ticket provider for their European needs. The big names include French-owned Rail Europe, and International Rail, which also serves long-haul markets such as Japan and South Korea.
International Rail expects to double corporate business during 2012. Product director Enrico Soresini says: “Companies are looking for an overall solution such as ours, rather than going to one company for one rail network and another company for another. A flight on a low-cost airline may be cheaper, but convenience and carbon saving also come into it.
“It will be good to see competition from London. Eurostar has had the same trains for 17 years and is very late revamping them for a better onboard experience.”
Eurostar’s first refurbished trains will be introduced in 2013 and will feature wifi, already offered by major European operators and by Virgin Trains and East Coast Trains in the UK.
Nick Mercer, Eurostar commercial director, says: “We are investing £700 million in our fleet over the next three years and upgrading our business lounges in Paris and Brussels. Our refurbished and new trains bring improved comfort, and access to high-speed broadband internet and infotainment solutions. We will continue to innovate to remain the first choice for business travel from the UK to Europe.”
France has the largest network of high-speed routes, operated by TGV trains. Most radiate from Paris, requiring a change of terminal from Paris Nord where Eurostar trains arrive, but some connections with Eurostar can also be made at Lille. Fares quoted by Rail Europe from London to both Lyon and Bordeaux start at £109 standard class return, or £229 with Standard Premier seats on Eurostar and first class seats on TGV. The journey time from London to Lyon starts at around five hours and from London to Bordeaux at around seven hours.
Brussels is a better connecting point for onward travel, with trains operating from the same arrival station as Eurostar (Brussels Midi). You can travel onward to Germany using Thalys or DB ICE trains, while Thalys also serves Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, and many stations in Belgium and northern France, including the Paris-Brussels corridor. Fares quoted by International Rail are from £148 return standard class or £324 first class from London to Amsterdam, via Brussels, taking around five hours.
You probably won’t travel all the way to Italy by rail, but within the country high-speed networks now link the major cities from Milan in the north (including Malpensa airport) to Rome. A new high-speed operator called NTV, using the brand name Italo, plans to start operating this year in competition with state-run Trenitalia. Rail Europe quotes one-way fares from Rome to Milan (best journey time three hours) at £63.50 in standard class or £89 in first class.
In Spain, the original AVE high-speed route from Madrid to Seville opened in 1992, but a burst of construction over the last few years has seen links opened, including Madrid to Barcelona and Madrid to Valencia. A high-speed link from Perpignan in France has been established across the French/Spanish border and will reach Barcelona within a couple of years. International Rail quotes from £51 standard class or £77 first-class for Madrid-Barcelona, with a best journey time of two hours 45 minutes.
SPEEDING AHEAD FOR 2026
HS2 – linking London with Birmingham in its first phase, with extensions to Manchester and Leeds in phase two – will cost an £32.7 billion but generate at least £47bn for the economy over a 60-year period, according to government estimates.
The first phase will be completed by 2026, with a journey time between London and Birmingham of 45 minutes, compared to around one hour 25 minutes at present. Trains can also run directly to Europe via a link with the existing route to the Channel Tunnel. The second phase, operational by 2033, will allow passengers to reach Manchester in one hour eight minutes from London (a saving of about one hour). The 250 mph trains will also serve Leeds via stations in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, and a link to Heathrow will be completed at the same time.
Journey times will be cut to many other cities, as trains continue over existing tracks. These include Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, although the Scottish Parliament is pressing for a high-speed line throughout to London.
This article was first published in ABTN's sister title Buying Business Travel, the award-winning magazine for company travel & meetings buyers and arrangers.
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