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Off the Plane, On the Train

DW staff / AFP (nda)July 3, 2007

Even as nationwide warning strikes kept German trains in stations, seven European rail operators forged an alliance aimed at increasing competition against airlines by easing cross-border, high-speed train trips.

Destination Europe: The new alliance hopes to make railways more attractive than air travelImage: AP

"The existence of a real European high-speed network, which remains little known, needs to be made known to customers," said SNCF chief executive Guillaume Pepy.

Along with SNCF, the alliance -- dubbed Railteam -- will include Germany's Deutsche Bahn, OeBB of Austria, SNCB of Belgium, NS of the Netherlands, CFF of Switzerland and Eurostar UK of Britain.

Taking their cue from airline networks SkyTeam, Star Alliance and One World, the companies want to make connections easier by improving scheduling and hooking up reservation systems.

However, for the time being, the main innovation will be that if someone misses a connection because of a delay on the first leg of a trip, the passenger will be able to take the next train without having to get a new ticket.

Making rail travel easier

BdT Deutschland Frankreich Verkehr Hochgeschwindigkeitszug Frankfurt Paris
One ticket could see you leave Frankfurt and arrive in LondonImage: AP

From January 2009, passengers will need only one ticket for a cross-border trip with multiple connections, making it possible for example to go from Frankfurt to London passing through Paris on a single ticket.

Eventually, the alliance is to introduce customer fidelity programs that would allow passengers to accumulate points that could be used on the network as is already common in the airline industry.

In order to avoid problems with antitrust regulators, members of the alliance would not agree on prices and would continue to set their own rates on routes currently covered by more than one of them.

Railteam aims to transport 25 million passengers per year as of 2010 from 15 million currently with high-speed rail lines expected to be extended by a third by 2020 to 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles).

While the rail companies themselves will be laughing all the way to the bank, the alliance will also have environmentalists beaming from ear to ear, especially in Germany.

Trains urged to meet environmental challenge

BdT Deutschland Frankreich Verkehr Hochgeschwindigkeitszug Frankfurt Paris
Giving budget airlines the red cardImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Earlier this year, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel encouraged Germans to take the train more often as part of the effort. Gabriel told the German tabloid Bild in April that he planned to further subsidize Germany's extensive railway system to lure travelers away from inexpensive short-haul flights with airlines such as Germanwings or Ryanair.

"We must ensure that train services are able to compete with air travel," Gabriel said, and suggested that train tickets should qualify for a sales tax break that would allow Deutsche Bahn AG to reduce ticket prices for consumers.

"There is no tax on airline fuel, but the rail operator must pay the full value-added tax on the sale of long-distance tickets," Gabriel complained to the Bundestag. "That is unfair and cannot remain that way."

Super-fast rail link leads the way

BdT Deutschland Frankreich Verkehr Hochgeschwindigkeitszug Stuttgart Paris
The TGV-ICE link aims to attract those who would normally flyImage: AP

Much has been made about the environmental cost of operating so many cheap no-frill flights around Europe and the train industry has regularly been told to pull its socks up in terms of offering a competitive alternative.

Only last month, Deutsche Bahn and SNCF opened a new high-speed train link between Paris and Frankfurt which would provide fast connections to Luxembourg and Switzerland and cut the travel time between the French capital and Frankfurt by two-and-a-half hours. The new link was sold as a viable alternative to flying between the two neighboring countries.

The new Railteam alliance may also be another reason to stay on the rails.