Multimodal Digital Mobility Services: on track or off the rails?
Summer 2023 has seen a continued recovery in holiday air travel since the pandemic. While flight numbers have not quite caught up to 2019, it’s clear the pandemic did not lead to a change in travel habits or in policy speak, a ‘modal shift’.
That modal shift is becoming increasingly important if the transport sector is going to hit its Green Deal target of a 90% reduction in emissions by 2050, compared with 1990. In terms of business and leisure travel, meeting this target requires, amongst other things, more of us to use lower polluting public transport like buses and trains when possible. Trains are a particularly good alternative as according to the European Environment Agency, they emit on average 4.84 times less greenhouse gas emissions than planes.
So what is holding back consumers from jumping on this train?
Cost and convenience make air the preferred choice
However, systemic issues make the shift away from fossil-fuel heavy options hard. Some of this is down to expense. Making trains more affordable is a concern for all of our members, but short haul domestic flights and cross-border journeys are often expensive compared to air travel. According to a recent study by Greenpeace in 70% of the 112 routes analysed in 27 European countries, flights were less expensive than rail. Rail trips on average cost twice as much as flights.
Then there are practical issues of convenience and ease of booking. Making a journey across borders or within a country requires multimodal travel, in other words using and then transferring between different types of transport or different operators who might be based in different countries.
EU wide action needed to make rail travel smoother and easier
With rail travel, especially across borders, it is not so simple. Information on connections or how to find and pay for tickets especially where several different operators are involved can be hard to find.
Tickets are also released for sale at different times, and sometimes only a few months in advance which can make longer term planning tricky.
Analysis by BEUC also described a lack of certainty on the rights a passenger has once they’ve bought a ticket, for example, it’s not always obvious if a ‘through ticket’ which links up to onward connections gives consumers rights to travel on other services if they are delayed.
Comparison sites were also lacking the kind of information travellers might require, for example if a stopover is possible or if they can bring a bike or bulky luggage.
Multimodal Digital Mobility Services Regulation could open up data and solve the ticketing challenge
Many of these challenges stem from the lack of information sharing on ticket prices and conditions between rail operators and booking platforms, which puts the onus on passengers to research and book multiple different tickets.
Current incumbents have also been accused of blocking the sharing of this valuable data. This way, they keep customers and their valuable data on searches and transactions within their own systems.
A new proposal from the European Commission is aiming to make the sustainable choice for transport the easiest ones for travellers, to encourage a modal shift from car and air to rail and bus.
The Multimodal Digital Mobility Services Regulation (MDMS) from DG MOVE was originally proposed to tackle the array of issues, including information availability that make multimodal, domestic and cross border train travel so burdensome. BEUC established their position on this in March of this year, setting out ambitious asks for the regulation.
However, just a few months later in June, a diverse coalition of ticket intermediaries services, rail operators, environmental NGOs, passenger and consumer groups including BEUC sounded the alarm via a joint letter warning of key measures being watered down. They doubt the proposal as it stands will be enough to create the radical change needed.
Possibility of streamlined travel less likely in latest MDMS version
Critical to the regulation’s success is the ability for a passenger to make a single booking that can cover different transport offers available across different modes and operators.
The signatories see this as the only way to unleash the potential of multimodal digital mobility is to enable much more competition and choice, by opening up fare and ticketing data sharing for third-party booking services.
Instead, the latest version replaces full integration with an option to enable passengers to access ticket data and then be returned or ‘re-linked’ to the transport operator’s website. In practice, this would mean redirecting consumers back to different operator websites once they had found information in a single place.
As well as the obvious clunky and inconvenient customer journey, this would do nothing to shake up the dominant operators and unlock a more fluid, competitive and choice-driven independent ticketing market.
Another joint letter from transport campaigners and green groups called out the revised regulation for watering down changes that would boost simpler train travel between countries. The latest version only required rail operators with a share of over 50 per cent in their respective domestic market to permit the sale of domestic tickets on other platforms – effectively excluding cross-border journeys from MDMS requirements.
The impact of MDMS on local and domestic public transport travel
Of course, it’s not only journeys across borders that need attention. Multi-modal travel needs to be made easier for more common, shorter journeys too. At the moment, the friction between different modes of travel makes choosing the sustainable travel option less appealing.
For example, blending a bike share with a bus journey to cover the last mile of a journey is not widely available or easy to integrate. Having a multimodal system at the urban level, and eventually sub-urban or even more further afield could eventually ease the reliance on private vehicles.
Whether or not urban transportation schemes are covered by the current MDMS, any future developments at this level are likely to follow a similar regulatory framework and so getting the data sharing rules and protocols right now will be critical.
Keep the original ambitious aim of MDMS on track
Multimodal travel must be given the best possible chance to change transport habits for good. To make it an attractive and easy to use option, first and foremost, the EU needs to oblige operators to open up their ticketing and booking systems and data to third-parties. Anything less than this will be a headache for consumers and will stall the travel revolution so urgently needed to meet net zero targets.
Open access to this data will serve as a foundation for a streamlined system. Once that’s happened, much more can be done to make sure that system is consumer-friendly. Amongst other things, BEUC recommends real-time travel updates, with traffic information on delays and changes shared to keep customers informed throughout their journey.
Guarantees of improved passenger rights for people traveling on combined tickets or transport modes is also critical for building confidence, travellers should know that something goes wrong it can be easily put right or compensated.
It’s time to give everyone in Europe a smooth ride on the train system.