Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
People are willing to forego some comfort and convenience if the price is right.
A round trip by rail from Berlin to Hamburg for less than $40. That’s the irresistible offer being made by Germany’s Interregio Express trains. Plying the 180 miles between Germany’s two largest cities, these daily trains have proved so popular with the budget-conscious that Interregio has just announced plans to double its service to two trains a day. Small in themselves, these plans are part of a steadily gathering European fight to get budget travelers off the road and onto the rails. Another German company, MSM, will soon lay on similarly cheap trains from Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, to Berlin and Hamburg. Both companies are riding in the slipstream created by France’s Ouigo, which offers superfast travel from the Paris region to southern France at bargain rates. These efforts also reveal a story that wistful North American admiration for the European network often leaves untold: long distance rail travel in Europe may be great, but it’s increasingly for the well-off.
The continent’s various rail services are still broadly excellent in many ways, of course. Fast, clean and frequent, trains in most European countries still do a good job of getting you where you want to quickly and comfortably. And if Europeans of many stripes sometimes grumble about delays, complicated fare plans or slightly seedy stations, they’d probably be shocked back into gratitude by spending a mere 15 minutes in somewhere like the shabby bunker that is New York’s Penn Station.
When you compare prices, however, the smile cracks a bit. In the U.K., a one-way rail ticket from London to Edinburgh for mid November would, when bought on the country’s main rail booking site, set you back £150 ($250). Even though there are some saver deals to cut this rate, it compares pretty badly to the £35 ($58) currently being asked for a British Airways flight or just £15 ($25) for the long bus journey. German rail offers a much better, but still not unbeatable deal. Also booking for November, it’s currently possible to get the standard Munich-to-Berlin rail fare of €130 ($173) down to €59 ($78), albeit with tight restrictions. The current November airfare quote of €81 ($108) still gives this a run for its money when you take into account that it cuts a 6 hour journey to just 70 minutes. The €18 ($24) bus, meanwhile, isn’t radically slower than the train at just under 8 hours.
Given the high pollution levels that air and road travel creates, this lack of clear advantage to train travel matters. Europe’s cities might not sprawl quite as loosely as North America’s, but its highways are nonetheless often packed to jamming point—the result being that even in green-conscious Germany, the road network still creates its own hovering layer of noxious perma-fug.
The new breed of cut-price train services could play their own small part in combating this, breaking down as they do the dichotomy between expensive trains and cheap planes or buses. They not only get more people onto trains, they also undercut the impression that rail travel can never be cheap—an impression that stops some clicking on railway booking sites in the first place.
In doing so, they’re learning two key lessons from Europe’s budget airline industry, which has boomed in the past 20 years. For a start, Ouigo and Interregio understand that people are prepared to forego some comfort and/or convenience if the price is right. Airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair use far-flung airports to keep prices down, a fact many people don’t seem to mind as long as there’s a bus link when they land. Formerly obscure airports or onetime airfields like Bergerac (France) and Billund (Denmark) have become busy international hubs. As a sign of the times, British airport public-address announcers are even getting better at pronouncing the z-filled names of smaller Polish cities with which many U.K. airports are now connected daily. (Before you mock them, how would you say Rzeszów?)
France’s Ouigo has picked up on this. To take one of its trains to Lyon, Marseille, or Montpelier, you need to schlep out to suburban Marne la Valleé, an inconvenience many consider worth it for rates as low as €10 from the Paris region to Marseille, covering 400 miles in just over 3 hours. Likewise, you’ll find less room to stretch your legs in a Ouigo train than in a regular TGV.
Germany’s Interregio Express meanwhile, has taken a different route, keeping prices low not by compromising on comfort or easy-access stations, but on journey time. While they uses the standard termini and carriage types (in their case, roomy double-decker trains), they keep their prices low by classifying their services as local, stopping services. The Berlin-to-Hamburg service stops at backwater beauties like Lüneburg, making its three-hour journey time only slightly faster than the bus. While this won’t help the service woo, say, the business market, the fact that people pack its current service daily shows that its meeting an appetite for comfortable budget travel that buses can’t satisfy.
Another airline lesson that train carriers are picking up on is a more ambivalent one. To attract people looking for cheaper travel, simply appearing to be cheap is often enough to feed your market. Ireland’s Ryanair makes a point of advertising its abruptness and Spartan conditions, feeding the media trumped-up stories such as threats to charge for airborne restroom visits. This is really a twisted advertising campaign for the airlines’ affordability—encouraging people to reason that if it’s awful, it must be cheap—while the ominous warnings of discomfort seem tolerable for the short duration of standard European hops. Book one of these tickets just a few days before flying, however, and you’ll find these flights are not always cheap as their publicity suggests.
Budget rail’s affordability might have the same effect. No one rubs their hands with glee hearing of Ouigo’s stingy legroom, or Interregio’s leisurely visits to the German boondocks. But in reminding customers that train travel can be a good value, these services might also help guide people towards the pricier, fancier trains they provide an alternative to.