Ticket Distribution: the failure of railways to sell themselves

Earlier this week I went to the international ticket office in Antwerp Central station to make some reservations for my trains for my upcoming trip to Poland. When I got to the front of the queue the man working the desk informed me the since the beginning of March they were only able to issue tickets and reservations for neighbouring countriesthe Netherlands, Germany, Luxemburg and France, and no more destinations beyond. The very helpful man did try whether maybe he could still issue the reservations required, but unfortunately the computer said no. This was quite a contrast to when Timothy went to Poland in autumn and was able to make his reservations for trains in Poland at the international ticket office here in Belgium without any issues.

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Over the last years we already saw a steady decline of the offer available at the international ticket office of the Belgian Railways (B-Europe). It all started when they added a reservation fee for all transactions made at the ticket office, even though a lot of products were not available online and could only be bought at the office. When the TGV finally started running from France to Spain they were not able to be booked from a Belgian ticket office, even worse no more Spanish trains could be booked at that time. In 2016 this was followed by the United Kingdom, when the UK uncoupled their reservation system from the German EPA computer network* it wasn’t possible for any continental ticket office to issue tickets and reservations for travel inside the UK.

It’s sad to see how the usefulness of the international railway ticket office has declined so much. Even before the invention of electronic reservation systems, when international tickets were still handwritten, you could buy your international train tickets at an international ticket office of major railway stations. As this was a slightly more complicated system it could take a few days before your tickets and reservations where ready, because they had to mail the station of departure to get the reservations, but you only needed to go to one place to get things arranged.

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Contrary to airlines that where a forerunner in marketing and sales and successfully created Centralised Reservation Systems like SABRE, Galileo and Amadeus in which all airlines put their routes and prices so travel agencies could easily find and sell them, the railways never succeeded in realising a similar scheme.

This is up to today the biggest flaw in international railway ticket sales and marketing, there is no single place where you can find all schedules, compare prices and book tickets. Whenever you travel by train you have to look up everything yourself, using different websites and sources, a very time consuming process. While for comparing flights you can just go to one website,  like Google Flights, where all flight and fare options are listed.

For my previous ‘exotic’ rail trips throughout Europe I could always count on the helpful agents working the international ticket office. I’ve made my fair share of reservations on less obvious routes and trains, causing quite a few agents to break out a sweat before they were able to issue whatever crazy stuff I needed. But as they now can only issue tickets and reservations for neighbouring countries, I will have to look elsewhere to reserve my trips abroad.

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For people travelling on global-priced tickets (ticket including fare and reservation) this should not pose a too big problem as generally you can just book your tickets online on the website of the train operating company you will be travelling on.

While most timetables throughout Europe can be found on the website of Deutsche Bahn (bahn.de) only tickets and reservations in, to and from Germany can be booked there. When buying a ticket and reservation at the same time loco2.com does offer a good booking engine including most western European networks.

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The biggest problem is however for people travelling on railpasses (Interrail, Eurail) and free travel coupons (FIP), since you already have a valid ticket for travel you only need to make seat (or bed) reservations. This used to be very easy at the international ticket office, for a fee of more or less €5 you could get any reservation for trains in the EPA system.

Unfortunately with the ticket offices in Belgian stations only issuing reservations for neighbouring countries making rail trips through far flung countries has become a bigger hurdle to take. Either you have to risk waiting till the last minute and buy your reservations locally, hoping there are still available seats or you have to search an alternative. For travel in, to and from Germany the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) offers the option of only buying your seat reservation online on their website Bahn.de , when travelling in, to and from Czechia the CD (Czech Railways) offers a similar option on their website CD.cz .

 

For anything else you will have to either travel abroad to a German, French, Luxembourgian or Dutch international ticket office (rather time consuming) or use the services of a travel agency specialised in Rail travel like Treinreiswinkel.nl .
For more tips on rail travel you can always check out the website of Seat61.com undoubtable one of the best resources about rail travel on the web.

 

*The EPA (Elektronische PlatzAnweisung) computer network was created by the Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railways) in the 1970’s, to be able to make reservations on their TEE and IC trains. This system was expanded to be used throughout Europe for all trains with reservations and still forms the base of the current system used. Either other European railways have their own system linked to the EPA, or they bought and used it themselves. Only the French railways introduced their own reservation system RESARAIL when they launched their TGV network in the 1980’s, as this would enable them to sell Global priced tickets instead of a separate ticket and reservation. Currently this north-south divide can still be seen as most northern and eastern European railways use a system similar or linked to EPA, while southern European railways tend to use a system based on RESARAIL.

 

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