What Crunching the Numbers on European HSR Taught Us About Travel Planning

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By Olivier Benoit,  Vice President

Does European high speed rail get people to their destinations on time, and can it really compete with low-cost airlines for business and leisure travel? Those are the questions Advito helped the European Court of Auditors (ECA) to answer. Here’s what we found:

High Speed Rail – The Context

The EU has subsidized high speed rail travel for a number of years, but the ECA wanted to check that those subsidies and that network still made sense. Their key question was: “Are EU co-funded High Speed Rail lines well planned, cost-efficient, and providing sustainable results and EU added value?”

Advito’s Jeroen Hurkmans, Principal & Vice President for the EMEA/APAC regions, put the issue into perspective:

“Governments in Europe want to steer travelers towards trains. It’s a more environmentally friendly way of traveling. But in order to do so, it needs to be competitive from a price perspective, and it needs to be competitive from a time perspective.”

But finding the answer would need access to data from the different national rail companies, and the ECA didn’t have that access.

That’s where Advito came in. They hired us to check the timing, prices, and connections on air and rail routes in several countries throughout the year.

Our brief included:

  • Finding the lowest rate possible for buying tickets on a given day at a time that made sense for the purpose
  • Seeing how many connections there were between stations on a given day
  • Noting the duration of trips

The point of the exercise was to compare costs and effectiveness of high speed trains, conventional trains, and air travel for business and leisure travelers on nine domestic routes in Spain, Germany, Italy, and France.

Once we’d completed the data collection, we drew some preliminary conclusions and passed these over to the ECA.

Reporting on High Speed Rail

The data Advito collected became a key part of a 103-page ECA report titled “A European high-speed rail network: not a reality but an ineffective patchwork”.

Our findings included:

  • Business travel prices tend to fluctuate more than leisure travel prices, with a difference of €48.1 between the highest and lowest business travel rate, compared with €42.4 for leisure travel.
  • Fluctuations vary depending on the timing of the advance booking period.
  • For air travel, it is cheapest to book tickets three months in advance (except for June). This is not always the case for HSR or conventional rail.
  • For travel in late July and August, air travel prices increase, while rail fares generally decrease

These findings fed into the Court’s final report, which concluded:

Our contributions allowed the Court to make useful recommendations to improve high speed rail operations for passengers on the European continent, with regard to e-ticketing, punctuality data and customer service satisfaction.

The ECA were also delighted with the reach of this report, which generated hundreds of online articles and thousands of social media posts. They said: “This is, in terms of media coverage and online articles published alongside, by far the most important report published by the European Court of Auditors in 2018.”

Other Lessons from the Research Data

“We are proud of having contributed to help providing a citizen’s view to the Court on the use of high speed rail in Europe,” said Jeroen Hurkmans, but there were also other lessons from the research exercise.

While he admitted that from a pricing perspective, “It’s hard to compete with the low cost carriers in Europe,” he said travel planners still need to take high speed rail travel into account for business travel, because there are some routes where it does make sense.

He added: “In some cases trains are definitely a viable alternative, and this needs to be on people’s radar. They need to work with their TMC on how best to integrate these types of trips into their systems”. Advito’s traveler engagement service is one option.

For best results, though, there needs to be a change to business rail traveler behavior. In most cases, business travelers going by rail book their own tickets at the station or online. This isn’t ideal, said Jeroen Hurkmans. He suggested: “In order to be a realistic option for business travel, rail needs to be integrated into the systems, easily bookable, easily traceable, so that you know where your travelers are when they’re on company business.”

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To find out more on high speed rail and how it can benefit your business travel program, contact us today!

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