After having been stuck again this morning due to lack of collaboration between EU rail firms, I started to wonder: can liberalisation of EU rail actually ever work? And, were it to ever work, what are the prerequisites to making it work? The blog entry tries to at least pose the questions that would need to be answered.

First, what form of liberalisation is going to be adopted? There are essentially two forms – competitive tendering (as used for UK franchises and for German regional services for example), and on rail competition (where different firms run on the same track – like RegioJet competing with CD between Prague and Ostrava, or DB and Thalys running trains on Brussels-Köln). Each of these has various pros and cons.

Second, is the rail system essentially a point-to-point business, or a cohesive network? Here I mean should each of the components of my trip today – Brugge-Bruxelles, Bruxelles-Köln and Köln-Berlin be viewed separately, or this all be viewed as one journey? The answer to that for the customer ought to be that it is one journey, but rail firms would rather see each as a separate component.

Third, what about information? If a trip involves multiple operators, how do they share information between them? In December I ended up getting stuck because SNCB had not communicated a Deutsche Bahn timetable change to me. Within Germany, Deutsche Bahn can tell me the live running information about its own trains, but not those run by other operators. How do you solve this? Through a combined EU-wide information system?

Fourth, attribution of blame if something goes wrong – how can this be organised? Today my delay was due to SNCB, but if this has a knock-on effect on other operators (Thalys, Deutsche Bahn) they have no way to recover the costs from SNCB. So the customer loses, as firms therefore prevent passengers getting on other firms’ trains.

Related to the fourth point is a fifth: should passengers have a general right to get on the next train, regardless of operator? At the moment the Railteam companies operate their hop on next train system, but if the train you are on is not in the system, tough luck. Could a rule to allow you to hop on the next slow train work – i.e. if your TGV or ICE is delayed, you can always take a IC or RegionalExpress? Related to that is should passengers be allowed to reduce their rights if tickets are cheaper? The OUIGO service, run by SNCF, does not allow you to take a regular SNCF TGV if the OUIGO breaks down – is that right?

Sixth, if rail services are to be organised by a multitude of small operators, what happens when there are technical issues or breakdowns? Former state operators had excess rolling stock to deal with shortages and issues, but small, private operators do not. Sweden’s liberalised railway has a pool of rolling stock operators can call on to deal with those issues, but – for example – the Czechs do not. Do you need that to ensure the reliability of the system?

Seventh – related to the second point above – what ticket information should be made available to third parties? If there is a multitude of competing operators, that leads to passenger confusion. Sites like Skyscanner solve that for airlines, and and Loco2 are trying to solve that for rail – but the picture is far from perfect as not all operators make all data available to third parties, and even those – like DB – that do make some data available, do not make data about all trains available.

So then, that’s the little list of issues to solve. Will the EU, and its Member States, be ready to go that far to make a liberalised railway work? And to foot the costs of doing so? I rather doubt it…


  1. Anonymous

    “Within Germany, Deutsche Bahn can tell me the live running information about its own trains, but not those run by other operators.”

    In Sweden, live information about trains is provided by Trafikverket, the owner of most of the Swedish tracks. The information covers all trains running in Sweden, and if you are unhappy with Trafikverket’s own website, then you can use Trafikverket’s public API to create your own website, such as these ones: – Shows trains on a map. Uncheck “visa persontåg” to hide passenger trains, or uncheck “visa godståg” to hide freight trains.
    http://avgå – Shows information about a train or about a station. – Shows information about stations, using station codes instead of station names. – Shows information about stations, about a specific train or about all trains within a specific area, using station codes instead of station names.

    Is it up to individual train companies to provide this information in Germany, without the public being able to provide competing websites? I know that the Finnish track owner also provides a public API for things like this, but I don’t know how it works in other countries.

  2. Renato Rodrigues

    Hi Jon,

    I think just recently the DB Netz system started to display live information about trains from other TOC. Thalys and EC seem to be available now.

    I don’t know if you know Shift2Rail but it is a very large EU project (c. 0.9 Bn€) to address many issues relating with interoperability and harmonisation in cross-border rail traffic. If and when some of these innovations are deployed, I think it can be a real game changer, there are other smaller projects addressing other issues. All in all I think the railways reckon that some strong competition is coming from other modes and are trying to react. Maybe the railways are not so good at communicating what is going on. I am working for DB Netz in some Shift2Rail activities, thus knowing what is going on.


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