Continental rail passes: what can we learn from the twists and turns of Eurail?

Adele Berti 5 November 2019 (Last Updated October 15th, 2019 11:16)

In August this year, Britain’s Rail Delivery Group announced it would no longer sell Eurail passes in favour of its own BritRail. However, subsequent heavy criticism from the industry led it to revoke its decision the next day. But was it wrong to say the two passes were confusing, and who gets to decide which passes offer what to whom?

Continental rail passes: what can we learn from the twists and turns of Eurail?
In August this year, British operators saw no benefit in issuing Eurail passes and decided to stop selling them in favour of Britain’s own BritRail passes. Credit: George Hodan.

Rail passes are enjoying increasing popularity in Europe, largely thanks to growing climate change concerns and the resulting shift from air transport to trains, a trend heralded by Sweden’s so-called ‘flight-shame movement’.

These factors are encouraging more and more tourists – both from within and outside Europe – to use passes which provide benefits, cheaper tickets and easy access to their preferred transport method to visit the continent.

However, in August this year, at the peak of the summer season, one of those passes came under scrutiny in the UK when industry body the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) announced plans to end its membership with Eurail Group, the owner of Interrail and its version for non-European members Eurail.

The decision met with widespread backlash and was soon revoked, though questions on the mechanisms and decisions behind some of Europe’s most high-profile passes were quickly raised.

What led the RDG to change its mind?

It all happened in the space of 24 hectic hours.

In early August, the RDG announced the end of its membership with Eurail Group from January 2020 with a statement from its director of nations and regions, Robert Nisbet. “The rail industry boosts British tourism and, working together, rail companies are offering the best option for tourists with BritRail … which offers 2 for 1 deals on 200 attractions across the country and includes the convenience of mobile tickets,” the statement read.

The decision came after a year-long trial during which, according to the RDG, British operators saw no benefit in issuing Eurail passes. And so they decided to stop selling them in favour of Britain’s own BritRail passes.

“If Britain had stepped out, overseas and European customers would have missed out on being able to travel to Britain as part of a multi-country European trip.”

However, Chris Page, chairman of British advocacy group Railfuture, says there was much more to the move than the RDG wanted to admit. The decision he believes was taken to prevent BRitRail being undercut by a merger of Interrail and Eurail.

“Interrail and Eurail are managed by the same organisation,” he explains. “But Interrail is for European citizens, and Eurail is for people from outside Europe coming to visit in Europe.”

As the two schemes present similar deals – including coverage, pass duration and prices – it soon emerged that the two could be merged into one solution for all. Eurail Group wanted to combine the passes, but that meant that BritRail – which is for citizens from outside the UK, visiting Britain – effectively would get undercut,” continues Page. “But British rail companies make more money out of BritRail than they do through Eurail” – hence the choice to ditch Eurail altogether.

But what the RDG did not expect was for their plan to backfire spectacularly within hours of its announcement.

According to Carlo Boselli, General Manager at Eurail, this was because of the fact that withdrawing from the membership would have meant losing one essential component of Britain’s railways: “Since 2017, Eurostar has been part of the offer, providing the perfect connection between Britain and the continent.

“If Britain had stepped out, overseas and European customers would have missed out on being able to travel to Britain as part of a multi-country European trip, only being able to travel on the continent.”

Adding to this, giving up the Interrail pass would have meant that British passengers wanting to travel to Europe would have needed two separate tickets: one from mainland Europe to the UK and another to use within the UK.

Confusion and a lack of clarity

Confusion. No better word can describe the RDG’s 24 hours of separation from Eurail Group, and indeed the association itself even blamed ‘confusion’ to explain why they walked back on their decision.

“We are ending the trial with Eurail because offering both passes is confusing and rail companies and Visit Britain support BritRail,” read the RDG’s first brief statement.

“As long as you make it clear to passengers what is included and what is not included, it’s no problem.”

But were British operators wrong in saying the two passes were confusing?

“Yes, they very much were,” says Rian van der Borgt, member of the management board at the European Passengers’ Federation.

“There are more countries with their own pass next to Interrail and Eurail, such as Switzerland, Spain, Italy and nobody seems to find that confusing.

“As long as you make it clear to passengers what is included and what is not included, it’s no problem,” he continues, adding that clarity is the only way to help passengers make an informed decision on which pass to choose.

Excluding passengers and governing bodies

However, as Railfuture’s Chris Page explains, at the core of the issue is that passengers themselves were excluded from RDG’s decision. They therefore missed out on the chance to decide just how confusing BritRail and Eurail actually are.

More than anything, he says, “it was a question of money, except that is not necessarily true to say that British rail companies would have got less revenue as a result of keeping Interrail rather than dropping out of it, because it didn’t look at the decision from the point of view of encouraging people to come and visit the UK using rail systems”.

“[Dropping out of the Eurail membership] will make it harder for everyone else to explore the UK.”

This, he adds, showed the lack of strategy from RDG and the companies it represented, which “didn’t look at it from the point of view of encouraging people to come and visit the UK using rail systems.”

Railfuture further points out that the episode is also emblematic of a wider problem affecting the British rail industry, namely the absence of a dedicated direction body for the sector.

A testament to this claim is the UK Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps’ intervention on RDG’s announcement in August.

“Despite this not being related to leaving the EU and even though it doesn’t primarily impact on UK citizens, [dropping out of the Eurail membership] will make it harder for everyone else to explore the UK,” Shapps wrote on twitter. “A counterproductive move in my view and I’m therefore calling on the Rail Delivery Group to reverse their decision.”

An impartial regulative body is needed

According to Railfuture, this highlights the growing need for an impartial body to regulate this industry. As Page puts it, the “The RDG didn’t take a strategic view – it’s a trade association. It had forgotten about the benefits of Interrail for UK citizens,” and so made decisions by looking at the commercial interests of its members and considering only their point of view.

“Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave Interrail.”

Curiously enough, even the RDG’s statement announcing its U-turn on the membership is indicative of the fact that, in the future, decisions must be made unilaterally and through an impartial body.

“Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave Interrail,” said Robert Nisbet in the statement. “Following the strong reaction to news of our departure, we and Eurail, the company which runs Interrail, renewed talks.”