As discussed in our blog last month, the global rail industry is being transformed by the development of high speed rail networks. Over the next couple of years this transformation is only set to continue, as China aims to expand its high speed rail network to 13,000km by 2012 and has injected 700 billion yuan (US$ 106 billion) towards that aim, and as in Western Europe alone sees passenger traffic on high speed rail increase to 368 million by 2020. The effect of this transformation is that rail no longer has a purely domestic focus. At a time of such fundamental change it is essential that rail companies seize this unprecedented opportunity and firmly establish a place for rail as a global transport system.
Interline agreements with airlines are emerging as one of most effective means of doing this. Air-rail intermodality would mean that a journey comprising of both air and rail modes could be searched for on one site, booked on one ticket and experienced as one seamless travel experience. It offers the rail industry a myriad of benefits and opportunities. By distributing and interlining through a global distribution system, a rail company can raise their brand profile outside their home market and achieve international reach without having to individually sign up multiple travel agencies abroad – making it an extremely cost-efficient way of reaching new geographical markets.
Interlining with airlines also provides rail companies with a route to international passengers that they otherwise may never have reached. For example, if a European or American rail company was to interline with an Asian airline they would have access to new customers originating far outside their own national borders. Cathay Pacific is currently doing this with SNCF and KLM with Dutch Rail.
It is now not the technology that is preventing air-rail intermodality becoming a global reality. Indeed, airlines have been operating on a global distribution system for years. What is needed now is a commitment from all airlines and rail companies to cooperate. This is not only in order to establish these interline agreements but to agree on an industry wide standard for how these agreements will operate.
Currently, for example, there is no standard for who takes responsibility in an intermodal journey for a passenger’s luggage – is it the airline or the rail company? Nor is there a standard for who handles the booking or deals with complaints. The airline industry have established a minimum time of one hour to connect between flights and something similar needs to be determined for connections between a flight and a high speed train. Passengers will not trust an intermodal journey until such basic standards are established and operated uniformly.
Finally, investment in infrastructure is desperately needed to make air-rail intermodality viable. High speed rail services either need to connect directly to international airports or effective transit systems between airport and station must be established to make transfers as seamless and efficient as possible. Earlier this year the European Commission’s Transport 2050 roadmap to a Single European Transport Area announced an aim to create “a fully integrated transport network which links the different modes and allows for a profound shift in transport patterns for passengers”. Air-rail intermodality represents a significant step towards realising this vision, but if it is to become a reality work needs to begin now.