Abellio takeover can improve Euro rail travel

THE news that train operator Abellio will take over the running of the lucrative ScotRail franchise in 2015 sent shockwaves through the UK rail industry.

Transport Minister Keith Brown and Abellio CEO Jeff Hoogesteger at the announcement. Picture: Greg Macvean

While controversial, the award of what is the Scottish Government’s biggest contract to a subsidiary of Holland’s nationalised railway service does present an opportunity for a European company to experience how rail services run in the UK. This could be a positive step towards developing better co-ordination between the continent’s rail operators who, at present, lack a joined-up approach. As a corporate travel specialist, often called upon to manage client logistics for trips involving a number of destinations across Europe, this is a hugely frustrating issue.

Here in the UK, a traveller can easily book a rail ticket from Thurso to Brighton despite the fact this involves three separate train operating companies: one ticket, one price and one set of conditions. Unfortunately, this is not always possible across Europe where historic and cultural barriers still exist between national train companies. France’s SNCF, Belgium Rail, Deutsche Bahn and the others do not operate under a unified system. While it is possible to travel with one rail operator on an intercity basis across borders, with the exception of the Europe-wide InterRail pass there is no common fare and ticketing system that unites the multiple train companies. It is therefore very difficult to make a multi-leg journey on a single ticket.

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Part of the problem is that many of the rail companies seem reluctant to divide revenue as would be required to run a unified rail service across Europe. They need to follow the example set by international airlines which overcame similar issues long ago when their industry trade body, the International Air Transport Association, invested in a one-stop ticketing system. The result was the creation of the Bank Settlement Plan, an industry-accepted method of distributing multi-carrier ticket payments between companies.

While firms including the UK’s trainline.com are looking at a possible solution, this is a huge and complex task and it could take years before travellers can expect any form of a solution. Let’s hope Abellio’s immersion into the Scottish rail market will aid progress towards this outcome.

• Andrew Newton is head of corporate travel at Colpitts World Travel