Rail has a priceless advantage over other transport modes. It’s one of the few that gives travellers the flexibility to turn up and go. At least that’s the case in much of Europe.

The main train services that require compulsory booking are France’s TGV along with Thalys and Eurostar. In the UK, there is huge growth in rail travel but the freedom to hop on whenever you like is being threatened by a limited amount of rolling stock that simply cannot cope at busy times.

The UK’s Virgin Trains is well known for overcrowding on its Pendolinos at certain times of the day, and the situation is made worse by the fare structure. For example, a flexible off-peak return from Manchester to London with Virgin Trains costs £77.30 (US$130), while a flexible peak fare costs £308 (US$518).

“The evening peak hour is like a cliff edge for us,” says a spokesperson for Virgin Trains. “We find the last train at the end of the peak is relatively quiet. But the first off-peak train is very crowded.”

Virgin tells me it had wanted to modify the fares so that there would be less of a step change between peak and off-peak but its request was turned down by the government. Some of Virgin’s problems have been alleviated by running relief services, but the East Coast’s Anglo-Scottish routes, particularly in July and August, suffer greatly with reports of passengers having to stand for their entire journey. And unhappy passengers have taken to Twitter to publicise their plight.

Don’t turn up at a London terminus and expect to board the next train, irrespective of whether you are bound for far-away Edinburgh or nearby Brighton.

Jon Worth, EU affairs expert, travels regularly by train throughout Europe and says he’s totally against compulsory booking. “The problem on the railways is an awful lack of capacity,” he says. “Try to board a peak-hour TGV out of Paris and you’ll find an absurd situation where passengers find it impossible to board the next train.”

How has this come about? It’s because unlike older trains (which allowed operators to increase or decrease the number of carriages), modern, sophisticated train sets have a fixed length. They are also very expensive and with money being tight, train operators buy as few of them as possible.

It is true that Eurostar, for example, provides a limited number of fold-down vestibule seats for passengers who must travel urgently. But customers who turn up hoping to get away on the next train, pay for the privilege. They must buy a full-fare ticket costing hundreds of pounds, and if then stuck in a vestibule seat, won’t be able to work or eat properly.

Even when passengers do book in advance, there’s no guarantee of a seat. Modern reservation displays fitted to individual train seats do fail (a quarter of the trips I take with the UK’s East Midlands Trains have malfunctioning displays) as Worth discovered one Sunday morning last September when travelling to Copenhagen on Deutsche Bahn’s (DB) ICE train. He tweeted: “Standing room only on the ICE from Hamburg to Copenhagen. All seat res signs not working = chaos.”

On a recent Thalys journey between Brussels and Amsterdam, regular Forum contributor MarcusUK also reported seating problems. He wrote: “Staff appeared unhelpful and rude and the whole train appeared chaotic. Mostly business people, many [passengers] were not sitting in their allocated seats, meaning a domino effect with irate and very unhappy people walking around for up to 30 minutes [waiting] to be allocated a seat.”

Worth believes that two European rail systems have the best solution. “Both DB and OBB [Austrian Federal Railways] have got it just right,” he says. “Their booking sites warn you which trains have high demand and [when it’s advisable to] reserve.” Perhaps other train companies will consider adopting a similar system.

Ironing out the bumps 

Although Eurostar frequently runs between London, Paris and Brussels, through-travel trips beyond these cities are unavailable (apart from a handful of seasonal services).

Train operating companies (TOC) wishing to cross borders face all sorts of issues ranging from different technical standards to incompatible booking systems. And if this wasn’t enough, the UK Border Agency insists that all passengers travelling by rail to the UK be cleared at their departure station.

While Eurostar can master the different systems in the UK, the Channel Tunnel, Belgium and France, it cannot cope with those systems that apply in the Netherlands or Germany. Through-train services will happen at some stage, thanks to the arrival of newer, more sophisticated train sets, but their start date continues to be postponed because the new trains need extensive testing.

Eurostar hopes to launch London-Amsterdam in December 2016, but Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB) can give no start date at all. So the news that Eurostar has teamed up with DB to offer through fares between London and numerous points in Germany via Brussels is to be welcomed.

In truth, Eurostar has sold tickets to Germany in the past, but passengers changed to Thalys services at Brussels for Cologne and the fares were uncompetitive. The new DB tie-up allows passengers to book right through to a range of cities across Germany at much more attractive prices.

In early February, it was possible to book online to Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich. A further six cities are bookable via Eurostar’s call centre – Berlin, Bremen, Duisburg, Essen, Hamburg and Hannover.

Passengers take the Eurostar to Brussels and then board any onward high-speed ICE train from there into Germany, changing where necessary. “Free seating” (where you sit where you like on the train of your choice) is only offered on the ICE service.

The confusing bit is the fact that when passengers select, say, London-Frankfurt, the display shows a reservation for London-Brussels but the price quoted is to Frankfurt. Travellers must then click a separate link to determine train schedules between Brussels and Germany.

Adequate connecting time must be allowed, bearing in mind that when passengers return from Germany, they must clear two immigration checks (for Belgium and the UK) at Brussels Midi, plus a further security check.

Fares are competitive with airline tariffs but much will depend on when you book and travel. In some cases, the Eurostar/DB rail option will cost more than flying. It means that in the case of London-Frankfurt, the rail fare will be about £200 (US$340) return, with first class priced upwards of £300 (US$500).

One also wonders why it has taken Eurostar so long to come up with such a simple ticketing solution. Rail author Christian Wolmar (@christianwolmar) tweets: “This has only taken [Eurostar] nearly 20 years to sort out.”

Kate Andrews, co-founder of online rail agent loco2.com, says: “These links have been a long time coming but it’s a pity that no seat reservations are possible for the ICE as it can get busy.

“Given a choice, the vast majority of our customers will opt for an ICE seat reservation. People may wish to sit together, or our UK customers might think [rightly or wrongly] that it’s standing-room only.”

She adds: “Price-wise, and assuming the availability is there, one of our London-Spezials [a promotional fare marketed by DB from London to Germany] is not really much more expensive.”

Why can’t Eurostar offer seat selection on ICE trains? Well, things might change in future, but the SNCF (French Railways) booking system used by Eurostar (the majority shareholder of which is SNCF) cannot “talk” with the rival DB system. DB’s London-Spezial can provide a seat booking on both Eurostar and the ICE because it uses the DB system.

As mentioned before, seat reservations are compulsory for Eurostar, Thalys and TGV high-speed trains (which are managed by SNCF), but this rule does not apply to Germany’s ICE.

See what I mean about international rail being complicated? Still, Eurostar has come up with an interesting solution, albeit something that should have happened when it launched in 1994.


Up to speed

Fans of high-speed rail had their horizons widened at the end of last year. December 15 saw the inauguration of through high-speed TGV services linking Paris with Barcelona. These cut the trip to six hours 25 minutes and halved the original “classic route” travel time.

It is true that high-speed trains were already running on the new line, but because of various technical issues between the Franco-Spanish rail systems, through service had been delayed for many months.

Until December, passengers had to take a French TGV from Paris Lyon to Figueres Vilafant, on the border between France and Spain, where they then switched to a Spanish high-speed train. Not only was the procedure inconvenient but it also meant that overall journey time was extended.

At present there are two daily TGVs linking Paris Gare de Lyon with Barcelona Sants, but the frequency has now risen to four trains a day. If you are in the UK, you may leave St Pancras International with Eurostar just after 0915, which means you will have 80 minutes to make the connection in Paris (from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon) in time for the 1407 TGV, which arrives at Barcelona Sants at 2040.

However, Mark Smith, founder of rail fans’ website seat61.com, suggests that travellers take the earlier 0755 Eurostar from St Pancras and enjoy a leisurely lunch at Gare de Lyon’s Train Bleu restaurant.

From Barcelona Sants, the 0920 train would arrive into London at 1830 after, once again, an 80-minute connection in Paris. The other TGVs depart Paris Gare de Lyon at 0715 to arrive at Barcelona Sants at 1340, returning at 1620 to arrive in Paris at 2245. From March 31, additional services are expected to depart Paris at 1007 and 1607, to arrive into Barcelona at 1632 and 2241. They return at 0615 and 1329, to reach Paris at 1245 and 1953.  Duplex (double-deck) TGVs operate the route and it’s recommended that passengers book a seat on the upper deck for the best views.

The new route is not just about Paris-Barcelona. One can change trains in Barcelona Sants and continue by Renfe (the Spanish national railway) high-speed train to Madrid in about three hours. Travellers may prefer to overnight in Barcelona to make the trip more manageable.

Other high-speed Franco-Spanish links were also inaugurated in December. These avoid Paris, being aimed at regional travellers. High-speed rail now connects Barcelona with Toulouse in three hours, Barcelona with Lyon in four hours 53 minutes, and Madrid to Marseille in just over seven hours.

From March 31, the rail firms intend to operate a through service linking Barcelona with Geneva, but timings have not yet been finalised.

What about making a booking? As Business Traveller has reported in the past, international rail ticketing remains behind the times. Logically, it should be possible to book London-Paris-Barcelona simply by contacting Eurostar, but Eurostar doesn’t sell tickets to any Spanish destinations. This means that one needs to book through an agent such as loco2.com or uk.voyages-sncf.com. The former has the advantage that you can include domestic UK rail travel to and from St Pancras and still benefit from CIV (Convention Internationale pour le Transport des Voyageurs) rules should the connection to or from London fail.

What are the drawbacks? Although high-speed rail makes daytime travel easier, the reverse is true for overnight services. It’s gradually making sleeper trains redundant. Sadly, the Franco-Spanish Elipsos services that use the slower classic lines have been withdrawn.


Know your rights

When it comes to passenger rights, TOCs in the UK need to pull their socks up in terms of compensating customers for late-running trains. Under the current Delay Repay scheme, 50 per cent of the ticket price is refunded for delays of between 30 and 59 minutes. The fare is fully refunded for delays of 60 minutes and more.

That seems generous but, in fact, it doesn’t come out of the TOCs’ pockets – they simply claim the money back from Network Rail, a statutory corporation that runs, maintains and develops UK’s rail tracks. Still, many claims are never made because passengers find the system too complex or are unaware it even exists. Unlike EU airlines, our TOCs are under no obligation to inform passengers of their rights.

That is backed up by a recent Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) report, which concluded that only one in 10 passengers bothered to make a claim. One in four were unsure of how to claim, while one in 20 wouldn’t claim because the payout would be in the form of vouchers and not cash.

Vouchers are tricky to redeem for online bookings so it means having to visit a ticket office, which can be a hassle when booking Advance offers, as offices may restrict the hours they will sell such fares.

When it comes to paying up, some TOCs are more proactive than others. Contrast the current paper timetables issued by the UK’s East Coast and East Midlands Trains. One contains Delay Repay information, the other does not.

East Coast is the most helpful. Contributors to our online forum (businesstraveller.com/discussion) report that staff meet late-running services at London King’s Cross to hand passengers Delay Repay forms. Figures for 2012 published last year in the Evening Standard show East Coast paid £6.83 million (US$11.5 million) in Delay Repay refunds – over four times more than each of the other listed TOCs.

Interviewed in February on BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours, rail expert Tony Miles explained some of the complexity. He said: “Not all TOCs abide by the more generous Delay Repay scheme. Some remain signed up to the older scheme, which dates back to privatisation and is not particularly generous.

“There can be confusion where routes are served by more than one TOC. A passenger making two different journeys with different TOCs could find that two sets of rules apply. Oxford-Reading would be an example.”

The fact that UK trains do not have compulsory reservations can complicate the issue further. It’s fine if you have booked an Advance ticket, which requires a compulsory booking, because the TOC can track your train. But if you’re using an open-dated ticket then you must take care to note the journey details.

Miles said passengers had 28 days to submit a claim and that for passengers using open tickets, “it might speed up the claim if you can get a staff member to note the train and delay details on the ticket”.

Another issue is exit barriers that swallow up tickets. In theory, when trains are delayed staff are supposed to leave the ticket barriers open, but this doesn’t always happen. No ticket, no claim.

Remember, too, that rail tickets – unlike their airline counterparts – must be treated like cash. (Open-dated rail tickets carry no name so can be used by anyone.) When you submit a claim, they should be sent recorded.

Claiming rail compensation remains problematic. This ORR chart will help to unravel what you can and cannot claim for.