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Train or plane? How innovation is giving rail the edge in the battle for passenger spend.

Posted on Jan 22, 2014

plane-train"Each time China Railway Corp accelerates a line’s speed, airlines have to accordingly increase their discounts to maintain passengers”

Recent developments in China and Italy have brought into sharp focus the growing strength of rail versus air travel in the battle for passenger spend. The announcement from experts at the end of 2013 that Chinese airlines will need to change their strategies and improve services to survive the competition brought by the rapid expansion of the high-speed railway network. Whilst in Italy, Irish budget carrier RyanAir has conceded defeat to the train in its attempt to operate a viable air service between Milan and Rome and have cancelled their service between the two cities from the end of March.

Since the start of the consumer air boom in the 1960s, rail has appeared to lag behind in everything from speed and comfort through to the booking process and catering but now with the growth of innovative design, enhanced on-board experience and of course high-speed, rail has now narrowed the gap and in some places, not least China and Italy, overtaken its old foe, air travel.

In a recent interview with Libor Lochman, Executive Director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), the leading European railway association, SmartRail World asked him how can rail operators challenge airlines to grow market share of cross-European modes of transport; “new ticketing developments have and will continue to increase the attractiveness of rail, by making it easier for passengers to use rail transportation. But other parameters also come into play, such as speed, reliability, extensiveness of the network, the ability to offer door-to-door links using the intermodal solutions, and comfort, to name but a few. All of these parameters are important differentiating factors in a competitive environment.”

With the unprecedented growth by the China Railway Corp, the national railway operator, has since 2008 built 6,000 miles of track, much of it elevated, and invested in 1,000 high-speed trains. The network is currently almost double the combined length of Europe and Japan's total railway networks. "Surveys show that at least 30 percent of regular passengers of airlines will be attracted to railways once a high-speed line is opened. Each time China Railway Corp accelerates a line's speed, airlines have to accordingly increase their discounts to maintain passengers" said Li Xiaojin, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China in talking to the the China Daily in December 2013.

Whilst in Italy the recently announced retreat of RyanAir from offering a Milan to Rome service is perhaps unsurprising as Italy is unique in Europe in having not just one, but two high-speed train operators using modern high-speed trains to serve the same route.

Speed and the growth of high-speed rail is a major factor in rail challenging air as the principle transport provider on particular routes. But a further development is the launch of new and easy ways to book tickets, particularly across a number of operators, a type of cohesive and intuitive service has long been offered within the airline industry, but been lacking within rail until now (think booking long-haul flights using two or more separate operators but only paying the one fee). Once such company offering this is Loco2, a London based start-up We spoke to company co-founder Kate Andrews, about where the idea for Loco2 originated; It began with a frustration with the lack of resources available online for travellers seeking alternatives to short-haul flights….we soon realised that even seemingly simple journeys by train were surprisingly difficult to book, with anything but the most simple journey requiring multiple websites and often prior knowledge of routes and trains. Since then our mission has been to make booking a train in Europe as easy as booking a flight.”

An enhanced on-board experience is also another growing strength for the rail versus air in the battle for the passengers spend. With Wi-Fi now being a major factor in both work and entertainment, the ability for rail to offer this as standard versus more limited, complex and expensive delivery on-board airplanes. This is not lost on many operators who market this communications capability and for the providers. We talk to Mats Karlsson, Head of Innovation at passenger Wi-Fi pioneers Icomera; “Studies have shown that offering free Wi-Fi boosts passenger numbers in excess of the cost of deploying the technology. It’s clear that Wi-Fi is a passenger benefit, and an advantage that rail travel has over rival forms of transport, for example automobiles and aeroplanes and should be marketed accordingly.”


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And finally we come to design, which in recent years has seen a renewed focus for both the exterior and interior of trains. To use a recent example of exciting best practice in this sector we visit UK based designed, Priestmangoode, who have laid out the designs for the 'Mercury' a highly distinctive, ultra aerodynamic train that will reach 225mph should it be commissioned. What's more the interior has received just as much care and attention too coming complete with an interior combining open-plan comfort with privacy, plus a children's area and opportunities for families or business groups to be able to book special glass cabins that effectively update the compartments seen on bygone trains. The growing popularity of train travel, and the accessibility and relative decline in cost of new materials for production makes the next few years of train design particularly exciting.

So in drawing all these threads together we can see that in certain sectors rail has chipped away at some of the advantages that air had over it and in certain countries is making a big difference. However, this is not to say that air doesn’t have some major advantages still – a quick look at some of the timings and costs of travel in Europe delivered by airlines over rail still make it the favourable option.

To conclude though, we hear again from Libor Lochman who points towards a spirit of collaboration between the two transport modes; “Rail operators and airlines are not only competitors; they can and should be strong partners. Rail has a tremendous role to play as feeder for long distance flights, increasingly replacing short-haul flights. Recognising this potential, a growing number of bi-lateral collaborations between rail operators and airlines are taking place, both at national and pan-European level. Here, intermodality in the field of distribution and ticketing offers clear opportunities to both air and rail. The emergence of e-ticketing, of new forms of commercial partnerships, and new distribution models are facilitating the enhancement of existing collaborations and the emergence of new ones.”


Topics: CER, Interviews, IT and WiFi, Passenger Information Systems, Icomera

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SmartRail World Staff
SmartRail World Staff