It's not always obvious when an announcement from the European Union has real-world implications or is merely wishful thinking.
Case in point: this week's the European Commission's program Shift2Rail, a public-private partnership to invest nearly €1 billion in research.
That's a tripling of Europe-level funding to the rail sector. A small but notable portion of that money will include funding for information technology (IT) innovation in multi-country and multi-modal rail ticketing.
Shift2Rail is one of a few high-level initiatives, including the All Ways Traveling Consortium (that Amadeus is heading up, that sill be presented to the EU in January, and that probably wont be available for general release until February) and another one called IPITA from the World Economic Forum. Each of these initiatives press for the creation of "all-in-one", multi-modal, multi-country rail booking tools.
Will the Shift2Rail initiative license the work of any travel companies, large and small, to provide trip-planning? Or will it at least help to push state-owned companies to release data in a format third parties can use to create multi-modal planning tools?
It's an intriguing question, at least for any company willing to write a long-winded proposal that uses all the right buzzwords that would give it a chance of success.
Until now, the pan-European transport landscape has been fragmented, with many tickets in different formats and different payment means. At every stage of the journey cycle, end-users (consumers) can face difficulties caused by disruption or a lack of access to information.
The relevant part of Shift2Rail to consumer and B2B travel companies and startups is its "Innovation Programme". Tnooz has learned from the press office for Siim Kallas, transport commissioner, that the goal of this programme is:
"to develop, test and validate solutions that respond to customer needs to support anytime, anywhere door-to-door intermodal journeys encompassing distinct modes of transportation, including factors such as travel planning (including information related to the specific needs of persons with reduced mobility and to the environmental impact of user choices), smart, one-stop-shop ticketing and booking transactions, en-route travel companion, real-time re-accommodation, etc.
The whole process would be supported by the necessary traveller data with the aim of ensuring more robust and responsive transport operations.
The technical details of the Shift2Rail Innovation Programme will be defined in the Strategic Master Plan that will be adopted by the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking once it is established. So more details next year.
The European Commission's stated overall objective is, “by 2020, to establish the framework for a European multimodal transport information, management and payment system.” "
One reaction to Shift2Rail came from Jean-Daniel Guyot, CEO of Paris-based Capitaine Train:
Our dream is to connect all Europe by train. So we love the idea between this program. However, we see three major setbacks with this initiative :
1. It might be a Heath-Robinson (or Rube Goldberg) machine.
Millions of euros will be invested in this program and we are not sure it will be very efficient, whereas companies like us would be happy to create a unified layer of train booking.
Europe should only force transport companies to open their distribution (full access to their API with full and comprehensive offer, offline schedules updated regularly). That would cost nothing to Europe.
Transport companies who don't open their systems or don't offer all their products through their APIs are the only issue that refrains distribution companies from offering European-wide solutions.
2. National monopolies will be reinforced.
Discussions will be held between all the national operators and small innovative actors will be left apart. This will give an unfair competitive advantage to the historical operators.
3. 2020 is too far.
We hope to have fixed the train market before then!
Actors like Capitaine Train just need openness and transparency. We would like each operator to partner with us and give us access to their system. We need Europe to help us convincing operators, not forcing them to create a standard. Small innovative startups like us are ready to fix this fragmented market — if you let them do it.
Regarding Shift2Rail, Rod Cuthbert, CEO at Melbourne-based Rome2rio, says:
Government support is very meaningful in fostering journey planning innovation. The more states, provinces, counties and countries that publish their transportation data, the better.
Companies like Rome2rio can use that data to build solutions that make journey planning a reality, such as a recent Rome2Rio success with data from Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Yet another response to Shift2Rail came from UK-based Loco2's co-founder Jamie Andrews:
"This is a welcome initiative and it's great to see that the European Commission is making a serious commitment to making rail as the transport of the future.
If the money is spent in the right ways, Shift2Rail could make a serious contribution to reducing carbon emissions from transport, and encouraging passengers to shift from planes to trains."
Over at Amadeus IT Group, Jean-Marc Garzulino, senior manager of rail and All Ways Traveling project manager, had this to say:
Amadeus has been an interested and active member of Shift2Rail for over a year and fully supports the programme, which is the biggest facilitating programme for multimodal travel of its kind. Shift2Rail's focus is primarily on strengthening the role of rail in the multimodal transport world.
Although they are separate, Shift2Rail will benefit from the work done from All Ways Travelling as an EC initiative – All Ways Travelling will identify what is feasible in terms of multimodality through its study and in a second phase will provide proofs of concept around key features of a multimodal search and booking system.
The Shift2Rail IP4 programme (one of the five innovations programmes that form part of Shift2Rail) can benefit from this and help in demonstrating technologically how greater integration between transport modes can be achieved.'
Jochen Mundinger, CEO at RouteRank, says:
The EU identified the modal shift as a future challenge in the Transport Whitepaper already and has been active in different ways through Parliament Intergroups as well as various Commission initiatives. The Shift2Rail PPP puts in place a new approach.
With its founders predominantly rail industry suppliers, it will also depend on the success with which the initiative manages to involve operators and SMEs that are already innovating in the five key areas.
In the past few years, EC has had tangible effects on how Europe's state-owned monopoly rail companies do business, and its efforts have led to the early stages of the opening of rail company data to third-parties.
The 3rd Railway Package and TAP-TSI are great examples of this, though the effect is often not direct. (The rail companies like to jump first as it becomes clear that they are about to be pushed.)
That said, the EC under transport commissioner Siim Kallas, has not really, pragmatically, and concretely helped the companies that have the technological skill to create multi-modal digital journey planner tools. In Shift2Rail, this problem may once again be evident, given that the consortium appears to be biased towards manufacturers and infrastructure more than operators.
The European Commission must walk a tricky line with Shift2Rail. Initiatives that set out to solve a specific predefined technical or commercial challenge often quickly stagnate due to bureaucracy or incumbent players protecting their interests, plus the fact that really smart people don't tend to wind up delivering European Commission projects.
On the other hand, the EC needs to set up some guidelines and to have a vetted process to make sure its money isn't misused.
A more agile and iterative process of innovation would be ideal, in which assumptions and technologies can be tested in the market outside of the restrictions of a given EU framework. By its nature, a project originating within EC institutions is unlikely to meet these criteria, though.
Much depends on the next stage of Shift2Rail's process on whether travel companies actively participate in the program, or ignore it as a sideshow.
To varying degrees, these companies could be affected Mozio (see Tnooz's profile), Waymate, GoEuro, Wanderio, Routerank.
The multi-modal category faces indirect competitors, too, who are those offering uni-modal planning, like online travel agencies such as eBookers (which already offers UK rail comparison) and metasearch sites like DoHop.com, Fly.com, Kayak, Mobissimo, and Skyscanner.
See earlier:Amadeus leads EC effort to integrate European rail data